Carl Sewell Jr., 57, didn't just grow up in the automobile business; his family has been a part of the industry's growth since Henry Ford first cranked up his assembly line.
In 1911, 14-year-old Carl Sewell Sr. worked at a family hardware store that included a livery stable, movie theater and car dealership. The dealership assembled Model T's from boxes of parts and taught owners to drive.
For more than 55 years, Carl Sewell Sr. sold cars in Dallas, Arlington, Denton, Crane and Odessa, Texas. He taught Carl Jr. his mantra: 'Treat people like you would like to be treated.'
When Carl Jr. became the dealer in 1972, the family name was a well-established brand in the Dallas area. The Sewells, father and son, have spent 90 years building and branding their car dealerships based on customer service.
In the past three decades, Carl Jr. has expanded the family business from one store to 10 by setting new standards for customer service in his market and by pioneering Saturday service, loaner cars, late-evening hours and other innovations.
'Sewell's customer satisfaction scores are the auto-industry equivalent of a 3-minute, 30-second mile,' says Tom Peters, author of the foreword to Sewell's 1990 book, Customers for Life, and numerous best-selling management books of his own, including In Search of Excellence. 'Carl Sewell (Jr.) doesn't merely top the charts, he keeps redefining `best.' '
1 word: 'Innovation'
The younger Sewell concluded early on that constant innovation aimed at easing the customer experience was key to maintaining a strong brand.
'We feel it's the responsibility of the manufacturer to promote their brand, so we use our marketing efforts to promote our brand,' says Chip Besio, Sewell marketing director. 'With new-car sales, you are basically selling the same thing as others, and that's where identity in the marketplace is critical.'
Sewell's goal, as his book title explains, is not just to sell a customer one car but to sell a customer and his family every car they ever buy.
Some competitors say Sewell wastes money on extensive customer service, but some Sewell dealerships have customers whose families have bought Sewell cars for four generations.
'The smiles, the politeness and being willing to go the extra mile are just the icing,' Sewell says. 'The real cake is the systems that enable you to do a good job.'
Borrow from others
That's the core of the Sewell formula for success. When Carl Jr. took over the company, he visited other top dealers to learn what made them excel. He has borrowed ideas from companies such as Marriott, American Airlines and Neiman Marcus.
He developed in-house, inventory management software at a time when most dealers were installing personal computers. As a result, customers don't wait for parts, and cars are retrieved from lots within minutes. His book, which has sold more than 800,000 copies, has an entire chapter devoted to restrooms and four more chapters on determining the customer's wants.
In the 1980s, Sewell hired market-research company J.D. Power and Associates, which rated Sewell's customer service at 84 percent, 31.5 percentage points higher than the national average. Power also found the number of 'very satisfied' Sewell customers was 25 percent higher than the national average.
'Our cars are no different from anyone else's,' Sewell says. 'Our customers thought more of the car because of the way we treated them before and after the sale.'
Sewell also conducted his own study on how customers associate their car with the dealership.
'The customer's relationship with the dealer and the car is important,' Besio says. 'We stay in touch after the sale, after vehicle service. It's easier to keep a customer than find new ones.' If the customer isn't satisfied, the dealership attempts to solve the problem in two hours.
All in a name
Sewell launched his Web site in 1995 and developed an interactive site in 1998, when he hired an e-commerce director.
'We made the Internet more useful for customers,' Besio says. 'We list pre-owned cars, and customers can schedule service reservations. The Internet is a useful tool, but it won't ever replace the showroom.'
Sewell tells a story about his introduction to brand awareness.
'I actually didn't learn about the concept of brand until this past decade, when I first met (General Motors North America President) Ron Zarrella,' Sewell reflects. 'I had not appreciated the importance or value of a brand until I met him and got to know him.
'As I began to understand that brand encompasses your reputation and the impression that you've created in the customer's mind, I realized that we had been working diligently to accomplish that for many years without knowing what to call it.'