The auto companies spend millions to attract female consumers. But is it working? Automotive Marketer Editor Kathy Jackson sat down with a panel of five women and discussed their views and impressions of the industry's image.
All five women have established careers and purchase their own vehicles on a regular basis. None is committed to any specific brand, and all have the resources to buy almost any mass-produced vehicle sold at any U.S. dealership.
What follows is an edited transcript of the discussion.
How do you generally get acquainted with a vehicle?
B.J.: For me it was word of mouth.
Elaine: I sort of look for what's on the street. If it looks good, then I do some reading. I don't think it is so much the advertising.
Francine: I read first, usually Consumer Reports and a variety of publications. I don't typically test drive them. I find buying a car a horrendous experience, so I minimize my contact with auto dealers.
Eunice: I read Consumer Reports. I like to see which cars have the best performance. But then I talk to other people.
Lorraine: I have been in the automotive business for over 20 years, so I purchased my car from clients. This particular purchase was done kind of spontaneously. I was driving a Mercedes-Benz 190, but I was looking for something larger. When I walked into that Chrysler dealership and saw this Intrepid, my heart just went berserk. I loved the styling.
Are you contacted by mail or phone to buy a new vehicle?
Lorraine: I get mail once in a while, especially when the new cars come out. But my husband is contacted much more than I am.
Francine: I have said to my current salesperson, in addition to my previous salespeople, that I work for an employer who makes me purchase a new car every two years. I have a sales force of 100-plus people who also have to buy new cars every two years. I'm letting them know there's an opportunity for me to send lots of business your way. Not one of them has ever followed up.
Any of you ever hear from the factory, or is it mostly dealer contact?
Francine: I get surveys from the manufacturer, and I indicate any negative experiences, and I rate them as low as possible. But I have never been contacted to say, 'What can we do to turn that around?' or 'Has that changed?' It goes into that great bottomless pit. My attitude about those surveys is they don't care.
Elaine: I haven't had any service problems, so this car has been a dream. But on the past car, the Monte Carlo, I'd get these questionnaires asking if the serviceman smiled. I'd write, 'Don't ask me if the serviceman smiled, because I don't care that he smiled. He had my car for two weeks and it still wasn't fixed.'
Eunice: I remember taking my previous car, a Chrysler, in for repeated service issues. They were always very pleasant. They always sent me a survey after I was in there. But my issues were never resolved. I felt like all they wanted to do was to fulfill the responsibility to the carmaker to send out this form. Did this person smile at you? All these questions I'd answer in detail. But nobody follows up.
Is that part of marketing, Elaine? Back-and-forth communication with the customer and solving the customers' needs?
Elaine: Absolutely. I hate to say this because I've been a GM employee, essentially, but my experience with Camry is a whole different deal. They are in contact all the time. They send me notes. I don't get surveys. I get what needs to be handled quickly and efficiently.
Are automakers spending ad money the wrong way?
B.J.: I think the automakers' advertising is selling bells and whistles. I don't think that's why people buy a car. They buy it because of how they feel about it, what it represents - if it's a status thing for them or their ego. Kodak does a really good job. They don't sell film. They sell what that film does. What that product represents. I think that's what I'm looking for from advertising.
Lorraine: I think what would be important is if they talked more about the service. That is the most important part for most of us.
If somebody advertised that service, do you think it would be a big draw?
Eunice: When the dealership where I bought my car advised me that they would have a car available to me as long as I give them 24-hours notice, that was a big selling point.
Francine: If I never have to go in for service, we've got a perfect relationship. I don't expect to have to replace transmissions. I bought a Ford twice and went through two transmissions. We're not going to have a relationship anymore.
Are the auto companies listening to the consumer?
B.J.: I believe a lot of this is that they have not developed basic discovery skills. With Infiniti, I've gotten little things in the mail. It's been a great experience. It's been a marvelous car. No service problems. But nobody asking: What do you do for a living? How do you use your car? Do you have children? Is the weight of the car OK? I don't think anybody from either my past experience or Infiniti really has an understanding of what sold me.
Do you think this is the role of the manufacturer or the dealer? Or should it be a joint effort?
B.J.: I think it's a joint role. Bottom line, I have an image of the dealership, and I have an image of the manufacturer. The image of the manufacturer is directly from the dealership. I have no interface with the manufacturer. If they want to risk the image that the consumer has of their products, then they'd better be well aligned with the dealership.
Will the Internet be the best way to communicate with the companies and dealers?
Elaine: I think it's an interesting phenomenon, but I'm not interested in going home to educate myself in my spare time about an automobile.
Every automaker will read this. What are you telling them?
Eunice: When I go into a dealership, I feel I'm going into an establishment 20 years ago. There are predominantly men there. You very seldom see women. I don't feel like I'm being approached as if I'm a woman. They think of me as a man, except for the fact that I don't know nearly as much as a man so they are going to try to use me.
Francine: What differentiates any of these manufacturers is the service. When I first walk in, everybody should treat me like I'm queen for the day. I'm not buying a roll of tape. I'm getting ready to spend $20,000-plus. You'll make it back many times over if I'm a repeat customer and I tell others.