Asked to compete against Lexus with a weak Infiniti lineup, he created a model of customer service that other brands emulate today
Earliest Nissan involvement: 1982
Role: General manager, Infiniti Division
Key influence: Launched Nissan's luxury arm despite lack of product and support from Japan
Bill Bruce, Infiniti's low-key general manager, was unfazed.
Satisfy the customers, he said, and sales will come. Bruce shaped a retail network that set the standard for customer service.
Bruce joined Nissan in 1982 after 13 years at Ford Motor Co. After spending some time in Nissan's regions, Bruce was part of the Horizon Project that created Infiniti.
But Japan's economic bubble burst, and Infiniti's product development budget was gutted. For Infiniti, the company reskinned Japanese domestic market cars.
“Nissan Motor Tokyo vastly underestimated the requirement for product that it would take beyond the original Q45 and J30,” Bruce said in a recent interview. “There wasn't much vision beyond those two products to support the division.”
Nissan also didn't understand the U.S. luxury market. The Q45 seats were expensive pieces of engineering. But the leather was stretched taut, which looked cheap compared with the plush, wrinkly Lexus seats.
“That alone cost us thousands of sales a year,” Bruce said in April. Now 65, he is confined to a wheelchair by Lou Gehrig's Disease.
Infiniti lacked product to match Lexus. It trailed Toyota's luxury brand out of the gate — and has never caught up.
As a counterpunch, Bruce coached dealers to pamper their customers. Practices expected today were created on Bruce's watch two decades ago.
Showroom haggling was discouraged in favor of fair-market pricing. Dealers required salespeople to stay in touch with owners well after the sale. If there was a problem in the service bay, the original salesperson was expected to help out, too.
“It was in his blood,” Nissan product planner Jack Collins said. “Bill was a real gentleman and a complete advocate. This was how he thought people should be treated.”
The result in 1991 was Infiniti being ranked No. 1 in customer satisfaction in its first crack at the J.D. Power survey — although there was a disputed tie with Lexus that still rankles Bruce.
But sales were a continuing headache. It didn't help that Infiniti was launched with the “Rocks and Trees” advertising campaign, which showed no cars in commercials.
“We wanted the customer to see that we were a different kind of car company, that it was stress-free car ownership,” Bruce said. “But it was risky to show a beautiful ocean, because it raised the car beyond the usual expectations.”
In 1994, Bruce's Japanese bosses were out of patience and replaced him with hard-charging sales boss Thomas Eastwood.
Bruce was sent to the strategic planning department, then to port distribution operations. He retired in 1999.
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