A few years back, I spent a lot of time on affinity programs, which tie the customer more firmly to a brand. If done correctly, they assure customer loyalty. Amazon Prime and airline mileage programs are examples. IT vendor customer affinity efforts often bring the customer on-campus to become more intimately knowledgeable about the vendor. Unfortunately, many of these efforts have lost their way over time, losing effectiveness. I recently discovered that a similar affinity effort, the Mercedes-Benz European Delivery Program, is a case in point, and I’d like to think vendors can learn from my experiences.
The Key to Affinity Programs
The key to all affinity programs, at least in the current age, is instrumenting the customer so that the firm understands what works and assures that the goal of fostering loyalty and advocacy is achieved. However, a lot of these programs have been around for so long that the people running them no longer seem to remember why they exist. Thus, their benefits have declined over the years. IT vendor events, instead of being fun and memorable, are more often tedious and painful. Customers, instead of looking forward to them, look forward to when they are over.
The Mercedes-Benz European Delivery Program is a case in point. I entered the program excited about going to where my family originated, excited about seeing the Mercedes-Benz factory, and excited about my new car. By the end of the program, I never wanted to go to Germany again; thought the Mercedes-Benz factory was poorly run, unsafe, and error prone; and would have given the car back if I could have, even though its issues were largely due to the fact that it was built for the U.S. and not the German roads I was driving on.
My Customer Experience
The trip to collect my new Mercedes-Benz was one massive disappointment, from putting nearly all of the responsibility for assuring the trip on the travelers, to turning off without disclosure key car systems necessary for successful navigation, to disconnected help numbers and a wealth of Mercedes people who were sure our problems weren’t theirs, to a process that seemed more interested in speed than quality, to a factory tour that was unsafe and reflected poorly on the company.
You can see how the European Delivery Program is marketed online, but if there was truth in advertising, this is what the trip would sound like:
Come with us to beautiful Germany, where a good chunk of the folks aren’t particularly fond of Americans. To help you on your way, we’ll let you figure out what you need to bring and how you need to prepare by sending you a pile of documents with clever hints hidden throughout. Once you arrive, we’ll take you on a walking tour of our factory, where we have thoughtfully left pools of clear oil next to heavy equipment and on smooth concrete, giving you a chance to experience the German hospitals or make your heirs ecstatically happy when they get their inheritance or life insurance payout from you early. You can uncomfortably laugh as you watch assembly personnel struggle with antiquated technology, trying to figure out which parts go in which car.
When you pick up your car, we’ll test your skills by giving you the minimum of training, generously providing you a manual (what, did you expect a tablet?) that is heavy in features you don’t have or couldn’t order and leaves out critical information like how to use the navigation system correctly. Oh, and for chuckles, you’ll be driving on roads that list speed limits at kilometers per hour with a speedometer that only shows miles per hour. What makes this particularly funny for us is that you likely have had cars with both most of your adult life, but didn’t need that feature. Now when you actually could use it, we don’t give it to you! Here at Mercedes-Benz, we apparently love irony. Oh, and speaking of irony, even though we call the trip a rally, you are the only folks on it.
To increase the challenge, we’ll disconnect your satellite systems, allowing your new car to experience firsthand the fun of discovering that a large number of critical roads are closed at this time. This will allow you to work on your dead reckoning skills as you attempt, mostly through trial and error, to navigate to your hotel. Look for surprises like not having a reservation when you arrive. Learn to drive on the Autobahn with nearly unlimited speed limits in a car that can’t drive those speeds while you are breaking it in. Discover the free meals from famous chefs that compare unfavorably to McDonald’s and perks that we’ll largely tell you about after it is too late to use them.
Finally, when you turn in the car, we’ll make sure you have to take it through a car wash with brushes so the paint is nicely marked. When you leave, you can visit the Audi dealer next door so they can laughingly point out that they not only treat their customers better; they have the car you should have bought. Why wait for buyer’s remorse to kick in; we build it right into the trip! Finally, to keep you from worrying about money or driving at home, we require you to pay for the car one month before you take the trip even though you won’t actually get the car until around three months after. Just to rub this in, we will send you a questionnaire on how well the dealer delivered your car. Next time, you might want to actually get the car from a dealer, not the Mercedes-Benz factory. We really have better things to do.
We’re Mercedes-Benz, but our motto is, if you wanted a great experience, you should have bought a Tesla.
Fixing the Program
To be fair, Mercedes-Benz was appalled at our experience and has promised to fix the program, but I’m not absolutely sure they get what the problem is. Part of the reason this program didn’t work for us was that we don’t like driving vacations. Our idea of a great vacation is going someplace expensive, being waited on extensively, and having someone else deal with any related issues. So this program should start with understanding the customer and at least asking what they like to do, then offering a program that was better matched to them.
It actually doesn’t make a lot of sense to pick up a U.S. car in Europe because many of the newer systems you’ll need don’t seem to work there. Taking a trip like this during a break-in period is ill-advised, and it massively delays when you actually get the car while forcing you to turn in your trade-in and pay for the car early. It would not only be cheaper, but better, to rent a car that was designed to run on local roads if you like driving trips. It would also allow them to schedule groups, turning the trip into an actual rally where you could share the cost of a guide who could better assure a great experience. Right now, the timing of the trip is predicated on when your car is finished and few of us time our vacations based on car build times (and were it done in the winter, they were really clear you’d be screwed due to snow tire requirements).
The factory tour, instead of focusing on fast and cheap, would be designed to turn you into an advocate. It would focus on how your car was built, the Mercedes-Benz efforts to make it uniquely safe and capable, and perhaps allow you to talk with some of the folks who were building or had built your car. Ideally, it would dovetail with a marketing campaign in your country to help it resonate. Along with people paying for the trip would be Mercedes-Benz customers who got the trip for free as a result of being great customers over a long period (membership has privileges) and powerful brand advocates (possibly active on social media with a focus on cars) so that passion would spread to the newer owners.
At the end, the owners would receive a unique gift that they could show their friends tied to the car, resulting in brand fostering conversation, and they’d be asked to give extensive feedback on the trip to a Mercedes-Benz employee with a friendly personality. That information would then be used to improve the trip over time.
Wrapping Up: Remember the Customer
At the core of the problem with Mercedes-Benz was a lack of focus on building customer advocacy and institutional forgetfulness with regard to why this program existed in the first place. I see this in a lot of companies that have IT and customer events but seem to think they are about overwhelming the customer with information that they mostly don’t care about, instead of building a deeper relationship with them.
In the early days of computing, a focus on customer loyalty and advocacy was more common, but with budget constraints and falling margins, the focus has moved from creating experiences and advocacy to event cost containment, and much of the true value was and is lost. Mercedes-Benz can be somewhat excused for not using analytics to get a better handle on its customers and designing a more customer-advocacy focused program. IT vendors sell analytics and aren’t doing a particularly good job of using this tool themselves.
Everything we do in the event and customer visit space should somehow be connected back to something that will turn customers and stakeholders into advocates. Unfortunately, like Mercedes-Benz, the technology industry has a long way to go. One exception has been EMC, which has set the pace with regard to both instrumenting customers and using analytics to assure customer advocacy. Now, combined with Dell, this could well result in a far more powerful outcome than most currently realize.
Maybe Mercedes-Benz should give them a call.
Rob Enderle is President and Principal Analyst of the Enderle Group, a forward-looking emerging technology advisory firm. With over 30 years’ experience in emerging technologies, he has provided regional and global companies with guidance in how to better target customer needs; create new business opportunities; anticipate technology changes; select vendors and products; and present their products in the best possible light. Rob covers the technology industry broadly. Before founding the Enderle Group, Rob was the Senior Research Fellow for Forrester Research and the Giga Information Group, and held senior positions at IBM and ROLM. Follow Rob on Twitter @enderle, on Facebook and on Google+