It’s true you never get a second chance to make a first impression. If more businesses took that advice to heart, there would be a dramatic reduction in customer experience nightmares.

That’s why manufacturers that still measure their dealers’ CSI scores are committing the most fundamental error when it comes to customer acquisition and retention. See, they fail to understand that customer experience — not customer satisfaction — is the new battleground.

I recently ran into a former college acquaintance who shared his frustrations with his attempted purchase experience at a luxury dealership. “From the minute I contacted them online to the time I wasted waiting for people to help me, that place totally sucked. So I went on Facebook and a few other social media sites to warn my friends to stay away from this dealership.”

Perceived Slights
Simply stated, “customer experience” refers to your customers’ perceptions of how you treat them when they interact with you in any forum. And those perceptions impact the way they behave, establishing a reservoir of impressions, memories, and feelings that influence their brand loyalty. 

Folks, this isn’t rocket science. If customers like you, they’re going to continue to do business with you. However, it is incumbent upon your organization to create and deliver personalized experiences that will merit their loyalty. Unfortunately, most dealers continue to opt for quick and easy sales and marketing gimmicks that make them look foolish in the eyes of an increasingly discriminating market.

Where to begin? Start by listening. According to a recent Gartner Inc. study, successfully implementing customer experience initiatives starts with focusing on the ways you collect and analyze customer feedback. Comment cards, CSI surveys, and follow-up telephone calls may not be the best methods. And who pays attention or does anything with that data anyway?

In a market comprised of multigenerational consumers interacting across multiple channels (including online, offline, social media and events), here’s a statistic from the Aberdeen Group that demands a dealership’s undivided attention: Companies maintaining the strongest omnichannel customer engagement strategies retain an average of 89% of their customers; those with weak omnichannel strategies only keep 33% in the fold.

The Silo Mentality
The automotive industry is crippled by a silo mentality. Individual departments often compete, rather than collaborate, within the organization. That can be a crushing liability. Consumers demand consistency in communication and experience. Analysts with Accenture recently discovered 89% of customers get frustrated when they need to repeat their concerns to several representatives in a service organization. Eighty-seven percent feel businesses need to invest additional effort into creating a consistent customer experience.

With all that in mind, here are five recommendations:

1. Hire smarter: Recruit, select, hire, and train people who have the ability to create meaningful relationships with customers of every age and background.

2. Demand consistency: Be certain your processes and policies are consistent among all departments. In other words, don’t let your sales team make promises your F&I and service departments can’t deliver.

3. Get technical: Make certain your CRM system has the capability for creating complete customer profiles that help you understand and measure their behaviors at every meaningful touchpoint.

4. Form a team: Empower a cross-functional “continuous improvement” team to leverage CRM data to create consistent, pleasant and professional customer interactions.

5. Offer a flawless website experience: Zendesk reports that 83% of customers go to a company’s website for information — and 56% will leave or go to a competitor if it has issues.

Remember that friend of mine and his “attempted” purchase? He eventually bought his dream car from another dealer 300 miles away from his home. He described his single point of contact as a young man who treated him like his “best and only customer.” Isn’t that what a purchase or service experience should feel like at your dealership?

Tom McQueen is’s automotive industry expert, and has consulted with more than 400 dealerships on performance improvement and employee engagement. Email him at [email protected].