Watching customers flowing into the showroom is every auto dealer's dream.
But what happens when an expanding business no longer can offer customers the folksy, personal service that fueled its success?
Lexus of Omaha confronted that classic small-business dilemma in the late 1990s, when Toyota's luxury division introduced a batch of new products.
"It was becoming harder to put my arms around customers," said Roger Bendet, the dealership's executive vice president.
How could Bendet and his staff in Omaha, Neb., remember the names of new and longtime customers and make them feel welcome?
With the help of one of those customers, Denny Blaine, he found a solution. Blaine is an electronics-savvy entrepreneur whose experience includes 25 years in the computer industry.
"When Roger talked about improving the customer service experience, I asked him to let me research the technology," Blaine recalls.
All the components for a safe customer identification system were available. "The hardware existed," Blaine says. "We needed to do some software."
Blaine hired a professional to write software, brought in a partner and set up a partnership in Omaha called SmartService Systems LLC. They tested the concept successfully last spring, says Blaine, whose investment in the project has "run into six figures."
The system uses radio frequency identification technology - passive identification tags or cards whose information can be transmitted to a separate reader.
"The readers at Lexus of Omaha are about the size of a large pizza box and are attached to the outside of the building near the two service entrance doors," Blaine says. "By the time the door opens for the vehicle, the service customer's name already is in lights over one of the service lanes."
A 4-foot-wide electronic sign over the appropriate service lane reads: "Lexus of Omaha Welcomes (the customer's name)" Another electronic board in the service adviser area posts the customer's service information for use by employees. Staffers can glance at the board, check the vehicle information, then greet the customer by name, Bendet says. The board posts information for as many as eight customers, organized by service lane.
Each customer's tag is about the size of a credit card and is posted on the inside of the windshield. The tag contains a chip with a customer's unique ID number. The reader transmits the ID number to the server for the system, which has customer information from the dealership's database. The server does an immediate search to retrieve that information, which typically consists of the customer's name and the vehicle's make, model, year and color. It also may include the names of internal contacts at the dealership, including the service adviser, service director, the customer's salesperson and the dealer.
By the time the customer sees his or her name in lights, the system has initiated internal communication to dealership employees. The system can send e-mail to staffers and can send a text message to cell phones capable of receiving them. In some instances, it can send voice mail.
Blaine estimates that a system like the one used by Lexus of Omaha typically would cost $65,000 to $75,000.
The 'wow' factor
The SmartService Systems program began tiptoeing down the two service lanes at Lexus of Omaha this summer. Bendet, Blaine and a few customers have cards on their windshields.
Curtis Smith, dealership director of service and parts, has been involved in the final development and launch of SmartService for the past year. He thinks his customers will love it. Smith says he once was greeted by name at the door of a hotel upon his arrival before he had checked in.
"Did I like that? Absolutely," he says. "This adds a 'wow' factor to service."
Bendet says he hopes to outfit all interested customers with SmartService cards within two years. He wants to add SmartService to a second dealership, Lexus of Lincoln, in Lincoln, Neb.
Face to face
SmartService gives the dealership's sales staff a chance to visit with customers whenever the customers bring their vehicles in for service - perhaps two or three times a year.
And that allows the dealership to cultivate its relationship with customers before they decide to buy a new vehicle.
"It shows that the dealership cares about them," says Jeff Bennett, a teacher at Northwood University in Midland, Mich., and a former Toyota dealer. "It should build loyalty."
When a customer continues to bring a vehicle to the dealership after its warranty expires, that implies there's a dealer-customer relationship," says Bennett, who sees a bright future for radio frequency identification technology.
Blaine agrees. He is hoping SmartService Systems will become a tool in every Lexus dealership's customer satisfaction kit. SmartService Systems has applied for a patent on its business process.
Lexus of Omaha is not an owner in SmartService Systems; it is the company's first customer. Blaine expects to launch a nationwide marketing campaign this fall.