Service Minded

Debra Helwig on Marketing & Leadership in Professional Services

Ford vs. Hyundai: A Cautionary Tale for Professional Services Firms

Posted by debrahelwig on April 1, 2009

Are you sick of hearing about the upheaval in the auto industry yet?

I thought I was. In my house, we’d gotten to the point of throwing (soft) objects at the TV anytime someone said “auto bailout.” Enough is enough, right?

But then, I ran across a few stories that really made me think. About the ONE, MOST BASIC thing we all could be doing better – in this economy or otherwise – to generate and keep loyal clients and customers.

The A-Ha Moment

My “a-ha” started with a post by Marelisa Fábrega that had this amazing nugget (edited here for length):

At one time, Ford asked Edward de Bono for advice on clearly differentiating themselves from their many competitors. Ford asked, “How can we make our cars more attractive to consumers?”

Dr. de Bono approached the problem from a completely different angle: “How can we make the whole driving experience better for Ford customers?” Using this perspective, Dr. de Bono came up with an idea: Ford should buy up parking lots in all the major city centers and make them available for Ford cars only. Unfortunately, Dr. de Bono’s innovation was too radical for Ford; they saw themselves as an automobile manufacturer with no interest in the parking lot business.

Lots of irony here.

If Ford HAD done this and other similar loyalty-building exercises, would they have created enough raving fans to avoid the brunt of the current auto meltdown? Hmmmm.

Heading in the Right Direction

Now, let’s look at a competitor of Ford’s called Hyundai.

In my circle, Hyundai hasn’t had the greatest rep – mostly because my good friend drove a serious lemon with their nameplate attached. BUT… then Hyundai released this ad.

WHOA. Take the car back (or, in later iterations, make my payments) if I lose my job? Shocking.

In the space of one commercial, my attitude about Hyundai completely changed. Not because they built a better car. But because their actions shouted – “We hear what our customers need and we’ll break new ground making it happen.”

Were other people as impressed as I was? Well, according to a study by CNW Research:

Surveying consumers shopping for a vehicle…as well as eventual buyers, about the carmaker’s vehicle-return program, CNW found that more than half of “intenders” hadn’t considered Hyundai before hearing about its program, and 53 percent said the program was the key reason for considering the brand.

Reports show Hyundai’s year over year sales were down only 1.5 percent in February, and up 25 percent over January 2009; Ford’s were down 48.4 percent year over year. Coincidence? I think not.

And, additional irony, yesterday Ford launched its own assurance program, with many similar features to Hyundai’s.

Coming Late to the Party

Will Ford’s attempt at an assurance program make a difference? IMHO, not much.

The Hyundai Assurance Plan is working not just because of the plan itself, but because it made Hyundai the first automaker to visibly demonstrate a new way of approaching customer relationships in the current economy. The plan is “proof” that Hyundai is not only interested in building customer relationships, but is dedicated to making the experience of buying a Hyundai better, just like Dr. de Bono suggested to Ford with his parking lot idea years ago.

I’m certain Ford’s also-ran entry into the “assurance plan” business will help them some, at least in selling cars to people inclined to buy Fords anyway. But will it change hearts and minds and create new raving fans for Ford? Likely not.

Hyundai got there first.

Now, About Professional Services

If you work for a professional services firm, it’s quite easy to fall into the mindset Ford had when it approached Dr. de Bono. Think about how often you ask, “How do we make our firm more attractive than our competitors’ firms?”

Ultimately, that line of reasoning will put you in the same position as Ford.

I urge you to flip your thinking. Ask instead, “How can we make the entire experience of consuming our services better for our customers?”

Remember, it’s the HOW, not the WHAT. Creating fans is not just about refining your end product, it’s about surprising and delighting and showing that you listen and you care. It’s about responding in radical ways to your clients’ needs. And being the first in your market space to do it.

For Hyundai, it’s not all about the car. For your firm, it can’t all be about the audit or the tax return or the legal brief or the contract. Change your thinking and you can reach unimaginable heights – and maybe change an entire industry as well.

What are you waiting for?


2 Responses to “Ford vs. Hyundai: A Cautionary Tale for Professional Services Firms”

  1. I found this post to be very interesting. The angle you have taken is a good one. When working in sales the difference between your firm and all the other ones in your market and ultimately the world is you. No one else is you. That means you have the power to sell yourself, your expertise, your personality and at the end of the day a relationship with you.

    Well why does someone want that? Perhaps you are a good listener, you remember client birthdays, you provide honest and meaningful feedback in a way that makes a lot of sense to the prospect. Regardless, focus not only on what you do but how you do it.

    • Exactly, Brian! The “what you do” is the pay to play – if you don’t do your work well, no amount of anything else can save you. But if your work is superior, the attention to the “how you do it” piece of things is the element that can catapult you above every competitor in your market space. Thanks for sharing your insight!

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