DETROIT -- Lincoln programs its vehicles to embrace approaching drivers by pleasantly brightening the headlights, projecting a "welcome mat" by each door and making the handles glow in a color that complements the exterior paint. Upon entry, the center stack lights up in a meticulously designed progression and the start button pulses invitingly.
Lincoln brass is smiling again
Focus on customer experiences begins to turn heads
"We went through exactly what the sequence is, how long does it take?" Kumar Galhotra, the president of Lincoln, said in an interview last week. "It's a smile from the car. It's a very warm experience as you're approaching, how the car comes to life. A lot of thought went into each one of the steps in that sequence."
Lincoln's effort to claw its way back onto customers' shopping lists is as much about customers' experiences with their vehicles as the vehicles themselves. That focus has a brand once given up for dead -- "You might as well sprinkle holy water. It's over," former General Motors CEO Dan Akerson declared of Lincoln in 2011 -- on the upswing again.
From 1998, Lincoln's sole year as the top-selling U.S. luxury brand, through 2013, it gained share among luxury buyers just once, according to the Automotive News Data Center. Now Lincoln is on pace for its second market-share gain in three years, with sales up 8.7 percent this year through September, vs. a 0.5 percent decline for luxury brands overall.
The turnabout has Galhotra and other Lincoln executives smiling as wide as the new Continental sedan, of which Lincoln tallied 775 sales last month.
"Traditionally the focus has been product, product, product -- and only product," said Galhotra, who has led the brand since mid-2014.
Product is a huge part of the resurgence, but customer experience is where Lincoln, which currently ranks eighth in sales out of 13 luxury brands (including Hyundai's newborn Genesis), aims to differentiate itself. In June, it introduced the industry's only free pickup and delivery service, allowing customers to have their vehicle serviced without leaving home or work.
Already, Lincoln's nationwide network of drivers, which includes employees of a third-party valet provider called RedCap, has logged 10,000 trips, Galhotra said.
"It is expensive," he said, "but it helps us build the brand."
The service aims to build on big improvements that Lincoln has made in customer loyalty. Data from the research firm IHS Markit show that Lincoln has gone from below-average loyalty rates in 2013, when just 42.5 percent of customers who bought a new vehicle elected to stick with Lincoln, to above average this year, at 55.1 percent. The figures account for sales from January through July of each year.
"To make that type of a move up within the luxury market, that's impressive," said Tom Libby, IHS Markit's manager of loyalty solutions and industry analysis. "Everything else being equal, why would a BMW or a Mercedes owner consider another brand? So you need to offer something over and above."
Lincoln hopes owners are so thrilled by the pickup service that they talk up the brand to family and friends. It's also experimenting with ways to show off its improved product lineup and engage customers outside the dealership setting.
More than 15,000 people have stepped into the first Lincoln Experience Center, an outpost that opened in July at the high-end Fashion Island shopping center in Newport Beach, Calif. Galhotra said surveys show that visitors left with greatly improved opinions of the brand, in some cases returning several more times to browse, have some coffee or just relax.
Lincoln plans to open a second experience center outside Dallas in the spring.
"Obviously, not every visit leads to a sale, and it can't, but every visit does build a relationship," Galhotra said. "It's about building a relationship with customers over time, so when they are in the marketplace to purchase a car the odds of them considering Lincoln would be substantially higher."
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