What's the purpose of an auto show?
That may seem like a stupid question, but let me explain.
Last fall I attended the Frankfurt auto show. A VW Starion caught my attention. The Starion is an attractive minivan about the size of a Mercury Villager that VW should have sold here.
I was sitting in the Starion, looking at the navigation system when a woman approached and asked if I had any questions. She represented VW.
I had several questions, and over the next six or seven minutes, she provided lots of information about the Starion and the navigation system. I tossed in a few tough questions to see if I could stump her (I knew the answers), but she breezed through with flying colors. I was impressed with her product knowledge, which translated into a positive feeling about VW. And I'm sure others who spoke with her came away with a similar impression.
Who was she? A product specialist. Since 1994, VW has used product specialists at shows in Europe and in Detroit, Chicago, Los Angeles and about 35 other locations in the United States.
According to Clark Campbell, VW's top product specialist, each person undergoes three days of intense training that covers VW's models, standard and optional equipment, engines, transmissions and even competitors' products. In addition, many specialists drive VW's models to get a feel for the products.
After all that, each specialist carries a three-inch-thick binder filled with information about every VW vehicle. The specialists refer to the binders if they are unable to answer questions.
In February I attended the Chicago auto show, about three days after the show opened to the public. By that time, well over 200,000 people had sat in the new cars, picked up brochures and asked questions of the staff working the exhibits. Although I didn't check each exhibit, I did discover that Kia and Oldsmobile also had knowledgeable product specialists. But some automakers did not - and it showed.
At two exhibits, the staff working the floor, answering questions and representing the company, came from the automakers' assembly plants and local dealerships. I asked questions, and although the staffers were polite and tried to be helpful, their product knowledge lacked the expertise and, in some cases, their response lacked the enthusiasm of the specialists at Oldsmobile, Kia and VW.
For example, I was curious about the sticker price (which was absent) of one vehicle. I learned from a person assigned to the exhibit, who worked at an assembly plant, that the sticker was pasted to the driver's window, which was lowered. The employee did not know the price, and admitted she was tired of telling people that she did not know the price or the vehicle's optional equipment.
In fact, she added, and the frustration was clear in her voice, she had tried since the show opened to the public to have the exhibit's management raise the power window so the sticker could be displayed. But her plea had fallen on deaf ears.
Another example: At one Big 3 display I asked for information about the redesigned 1999 pickup that was featured near the center of the exhibit. The person I asked did not know the answer, so she spoke to another, and that person spoke to another. I figured that since more than 200,000 people had already gone through McCormick Place that I could not possibly be the first person to look at that vehicle and ask for information.
Finally, I was told that literature on the new pickup was not available - not even a photo, of this, the automaker's top-volume model! And then, no one asked for my name and address so I could receive a brochure later.
It's the little things that make an impression, finalize a sale, or just turn people off. It amazes me that an automaker spends millions of dollars to create an auto show exhibit, but ignores the importance of one-on-one contact. I heard that one Big 3 exhibit this year cost $4 million!
Some automakers apparently still believe that a pretty face hyping a vehicle on a revolving turntable, and a brochure that you might grab from a stand near a display, are all that's needed to excite the public about a brand these days.
Sorry, folks, those days are gone. A multimillion-dollar exhibit isn't worth two cents if it isn't supported by a well-trained staff - people who desire to make a good impression for the product and the automaker.
It's the little things that can make or break you.