Geniuses smart move for dealers, BMW says

BMW's Geniuses -- many of them recent college graduates -- talk with potential customers about the brand's vehicles and their features, often using an iPad to explain how different technology functions.
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BMW brand dealers in Europe are seeing a financial boost from the automaker's Genius Everywhere program.

The tech-savvy employees' no-pressure explanation of the features available in BMW vehicles has boosted the purchase of high-margin options 10 to 15 percent, the company said.

The Geniuses are part of a comprehensive retail program called Future Retail that BMW began rolling out at its 3,250 dealerships worldwide this year.

The number of Geniuses globally will rise to 2,000 in early 2015 from about 1,000 now, Ian Robertson, BMW board member for sales and marketing, told Automotive News in March at the Geneva auto show.

Dealers who were early adopters of Geniuses have seen such an increase in revenue and margin that they plan to change how they staff their showrooms, Robertson said.

Initially, he said, European dealers were concerned by what they saw as an added cost. "But when they understand it and see what results are possible, it's a minor cost," he said. "We were originally thinking of having one product Genius per dealer, but some dealers now have four or five."

He added: "One big dealer group recently told me that they want to completely rebalance their sales force. From the current four sales guys and one Genius, they are planning to move to three Geniuses and two sales guys."

"We were originally thinking of having one product Genius per dealer, but some dealers now have four or five."
Ian Robertson
BMW board member for sales and marketing

BMW has about 20,000 salespeople worldwide. Even if BMW reaches 2,000 Geniuses, the salespeople will still outnumber the Geniuses by a 10-to-1 ratio. But that is expected to change over time. "It is difficult to generalize between different countries and size of dealers," Robertson said, "but I'm confident that once this process rolls, we're going to see those ratios mix up a bit."

BMW's Geniuses provide a function similar to that offered at Apple's Genius Bars, where Apple customers can get help using their products or technical support when they have a problem without pressure to make a new purchase.

At BMW, specially trained employees -- many of them recent college graduates -- talk with potential customers about the vehicles and their features, often using an iPad to explain how the different technology functions. The Geniuses, who are paid a fixed salary, do not sell cars. Buyers who want to make a purchase are handed over to a salesperson.

BMW's Genius Everywhere program started as a pilot in 2012 at select dealerships in the United Kingdom, France, the Netherlands and China. BMW's U.S. dealerships started adding Geniuses late last year, with a full rollout to be completed by next year. Cadillac and Lexus have similar programs in their U.S. dealerships.

Robertson said customer satisfaction is higher at dealerships with Geniuses. "The customers feel that they've understood the product better, they've been able to make their decision according to their requirements and on their time frame," he said.

Dealers decide how to compensate their Geniuses beyond regular salaries. Robertson said having bonuses based on customer satisfaction would best fit the program's original concept.

The average age of BMW's Geniuses in Europe is 23 and their backgrounds are mixed. "A lot of them are graduates coming out of university but some came from airlines, from the service industry," Robertson said. "This works because what we're looking for is that customer empathy, as well as the ability to use the digital tools that we have."

Diana T. Kurylko contributed to this report.

You can reach Luca Ciferri at lciferri@crain.com.


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