The world’s automakers are showing off their sleek new 2015 models and concept cars at the New York International Auto Show, which opens to the public today. The most radical innovation in the car industry might not be obvious on the show floor, but instead in the showroom of a BMW dealership near you.
Like many of the world’s most admired car brands, BMW AG is taking the wraps off its newest models at the NY Auto Show. The German automaker unveiled its new M4 convertible and an X3 crossover SUV. It also showed off the 4-Series Gran Coupe. If that’s not confusing enough for the average car buyer, BMW also introduced the X4 model, which will be offered in the U.S. as the xDrive28i and the xDrive35i. BMW offers more than 40 different models, in addition to countless configurations. How can the average salesperson at a BMW dealership be expected to educate shoppers on an increasingly complex number of choices and facilitate sales transactions all day long? They can’t, and that’s why BMW is radically rethinking the entire customer experience.
“The dealership experience is as old as the car industry, roughly one hundred years old. While cars have changed, the retail experience is much the same as it was one hundred years ago,” says Dr. Ian Robertson who oversees global sales and marketing for BMW and is a member of the company’s board. In a recent interview from his office in Munich, Robertson told me that about four years ago BMW’s leaders realized that the retail experience was changing dramatically and that the luxury car maker would have to evolve its dealership experience to remain relevant. “The old model of dealerships are, in my opinion, under extreme risk for the future if we don’t change,” says Robertson.
BMW leaders studied brands outside of the car industry to create BMW’s “future retail strategy.” According to Robertson it led to “a complete redevelopment of BMW’s digital world, the physical experience at the dealership, and how our people interact with customers in the sales process.”
Meet the geniuses. With an obvious nod to the Apple AAPL +1.14% Store, BMW decided to create a new role in its dealerships—the product genius. The BMW product genius is a non-commissioned expert who will spend as long as it takes to educate car shoppers about their choices. According to Robertson, “We have a sophisticated product and it’s complicated to explain. For example, we have a 3-series, 5-series, 7-series, and Roadsters. Then we added a range of X-products, 6-series, etc. The product genius is not a salesperson. The product genius is there to explain the products and to help the customer understand the product in more detail.”
“Dr. Robertson, are you saying that if I leave a BMW dealership without having purchased a car, the product genius won’t chase after me to make a sale?” I asked.
“The product genius is not encumbered by the sale process and is not motivated to sell a car,” Robertson responded. “His motivation is customer satisfaction.”
BMW has already recruited about 900 people [≈ population of Jamestown, capital city of Saint Helena, Ascension, and Tristan da Cunha] for its product genius positions and will hire a total of 2,000 over the next 12 months. In another sign that BMW is radically rethinking the entire car buying experience, the automaker is searching outside its industry for the best candidates. New hires for the role of product genius include people from the hotel industry, electronics, technology, and other service sectors. “We’re looking for a person with emotional empathy, great communication skills, and motivated to excel in a service environment,” adds Robertson.
Overcoming inertia. Robertson acknowledges that during the piloting phase of the program some dealers were skeptical. Dealerships with three or four salespeople were being asked to add a person to the payroll who wasn’t in a sales role. “It wasn’t an easy sell,” says Robertson. “But in our pilots, dealerships started seeing the benefit. Now some are saying, ‘I have five salespeople and one genius; maybe I should have three salespeople and twogeniuses or maybe three geniuses.” In the pilot dealerships customer satisfaction scores went up because customers didn’t feel pressured into a sale and the salespeople could spend more time on what they did best – facilitating trade-ins, financing, and completing the transaction.
Building customer loyalty. The product genius role is just one way BMW isrethinking the dealership experience. The physical space is also being reconsidered. “We want the space to be more inviting and engaging,” says Robertson. “What you’ll see are open floor plans, traditional desks replaced with tables where people sit next to each other, and large screens to help customers visualize cars with different colors and characteristics.” The dealerships will also offer a seamless multi-channel transition from the digital store to the physical one. For example, a customer can begin researching and configuring a car online and, once they enter a store, the product genius can call up the product and extend the relationship that began in the digital space. The genius will also be in charge of the delivery of the car and will encourage the customer to visit the store for follow-up questions or instruction, creating even more brand loyalty.
Near the end of our conversation Robertson made an observation that applies to most business ventures in today’s digital economy: “What we have done in the past is definitely, definitely, definitely, not good enough for the future.” BMW isn’t satisfied with the status quo. Its leaders realize that today’s customers experience products very differently than they did even five yearsago.
Carmine Gallo is a popular keynote speaker and bestselling author of “The Apple Experience” and “Talk Like TED: The 9 Public-Speaking Secrets of the World’s Top Minds.”