Motoring: Gavin Green's column

Car bosses have about as much understanding of typical car buyers as the Queen has with life in middle England

IF YOU wonder why the motor industry is bad at customer service, then take a quick look at the car-buying practices of most top executives.

None of them buy their own cars, or can even boast of purchasing one for at least a decade. Indeed, the boss of one of the world's biggest car companies recently admitted that he had never bought one.

They don't run cars, either. Petrol and servicing are paid for and when a car is six to 12 months old it is often replaced.

Basically, car company bosses have about as much understanding of car buyers as John Prescott has of public transport commuters, or as the Queen has of life in middle England.

Bosses rarely visit dealers, and never observe real-life customers going through real-life haggling, buying, servicing and complaining.

Few meet customers, except by accident or at corporate junkets for large fleet buyers. In fact, few company bosses, no matter what the industry, go out and buy their own goods. As with car bosses, most get them for free. But at least many bosses have first-hand experience of how their own customers behave.

Marks & Spencer, an exemplar at connecting with its customers, encourages its executives to shop at its stores. Airline executives fly their own carriers, restaurant owners eat at their own restaurants, and the heads of small companies meet customers because if they didn't no one else would.

But not car company chiefs. They sit in their ivory towers, protected by over-zealous secretaries and fawning middle management, who are charged with relaying "what the customer thinks" through research that is often as verbose as it is out of date.

It isn't just the car bosses who fail to meet, or relate to, their customers. It's most of the car workforce. All middle managers get company cars, which are frequently changed and serviced by the car company's in-house garage. In other words, they rarely - if ever - go to dealerships.

Customer interaction is instead left to the dealers, most of which are independently owned and trained to "sell, sell, sell" rather than "help, help, help".

Little wonder that an outside firm such as Daewoo can come into Britain and quickly grab a sizeable chunk of the market, purely because it seems to understand what customers want - which is no commission-hungry salesmen, courtesy vehicles provided when cars are being serviced and a no-hassle warranty. It certainly hasn't succeeded on the quality of its cars.

The Daewoo system has no dealers. The one benefit with their idea of direct selling, is that someone from the firm has to meet the customer.

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