Jon Munzel looks to the auto industry’s future with Apple, Inc. in his eye — not for the the next generation of driving apps or even the company’s plans for a self-driving car, but for the way the ubiquitous tech developer cultivates customers.
Apple’s move years ago to buck the prevailing tech market trend toward telephone and online shopping and open retail showrooms — Apple Stores — proved to be both a bottom-line and popular success, says Munzel. He spent more than eight years managing prototype vehicle development programs for Toyota and another five years as an automotive product marketing manager at Siebel Systems before founding the Thought Leadership Summits, which since 2005 has produced the customer-focused Automotive CX Summit, designed to attract senior-level global executives.
This year’s Automotive CX Summit takes place June 20-21 at the Ritz-Carlton in Marina Del Rey, Calif.
“People liked going into the Apple Store, they liked to go somewhere to talk to a person face-to-face for support or to explain something. this is complex technology, it strikes me that’s the analogy the [automotive] industry should look at and say, “Ah-ha,” Munzel told AutoInformed during a phone interview.
According to a recent post at Mac360.com, an Apple and Mac product news site, Apple claims ~1.1-billion active customers, of which about 100-million are Mac users. The rest use iPhones and iPads.
Brick-and-mortar car dealerships and Internet-based purchasing platforms “can co-exist and do so successfully,” Munzel said. “I think that the industry has done a really good job of improving the online experience, they’ve done a really good job improving the in-store dealership experience, and now they need to knit those together so the transition from one to the other is seamless and the experience – as you transition – is consistent with whatever the brand has decided to offer as their experience.
“I do think that, given how strong dealerships are that they aren’t going to be eliminated by shopping and buying a car online, like we’re seeing with more straightforward retail,” he said.
Munzel believes automotive marketing will eventually lean strongly toward the Apple model, “where you have plenty of people who are buying online and never set foot in a dealership and you have plenty of people who do both — they research, buy online and go to the dealerships for other reasons or they go to the dealership only. Like, my mom is never going to go online.”
The dealerships able to excel in the new paradigm, he added, “are going to be the ones who do the best job of knitting those experiences together and facilitating a transaction as easily as possible, regardless of how that customer wants to transact.”
That emerging duality of traditional and online marketing approaches will be the focus of this year’s Automotive CX Summit, the only such strategic networking event of its kind devoted to helping the automotive industry establish and maintain better relationships with customers, claims Munzel. Since the last summit, he reworked the two-day CX agenda to combine the topics covered by TLS Automotive Customer Centricity Summit, which previously had been staged on the first day of the weekend event, and the second day’s TLS Automotive Social Media Summit.
Munzel explained the revised CX Summit — including a keynote presentation by Brian Benstock, general manager and vice president of Paragon Honda and Paragon Acura in Queens, New York, who saw his operations break sales records in 2016 and recently told WardsAuto he is looking to double his production in 24 months He is following a plan inspired by online retail giant Amazon that will explore topics currently impacting the customer experience and provide an improved, comprehensive perspective on all things customer.
“CX is the evolution of CRM [customer relationship management] and customer centricity and since the customer experience is a very broad topic it makes sense to include social media, along with critical topics such as brand engagement, loyalty, retention, culture, and analytics,” Munzel said. “The Summit attracts executives with diverse responsibilities so it’s easier to communicate the unique characteristics of the Summit without the complexity of two sister events.”
A rundown of the Summit’s topics, schedule of sessions and tapped speakers, as well to register for the event, is available online at www.tlsummits.com.
The Summit grew from the time Munzel spent in automotive and automotive software marketing, when he, along with many of his colleagues, concluded existing industry events offered limited value because they didn’t attract senior decision-makers. “The content really wasn’t that good and surveys suggested upwards of 80% of event attendees were vendor and sponsor representatives… which made it difficult to have high quality interactions with true peers,” he said. “That’s when a light bulb went on.”
Munzel ultimately launched his own event brand that he envisioned from the start as a program that “needs to be exclusive, needs to really focus on delivering high quality and valuable content, to strictly limit the sponsor and the vendor involvement so it’s not vendor dominated… those characteristics create value for everyone involved… absent the sales shark tank.”
And nearly 13 years later, Munzel — who nixes any video or audio recordings of his gatherings and has avoided expanding the Summit schedule or using event material for anything else besides the annual CX get-together — says participation and interest in the Auto CX Summit has steadily grown. “We’ve built this great little community of people who know and appreciate the exclusivity and the great experience they’re going to have.”
That said, the CX Summit has been “able to attract that sweet spot, in terms of executives who are involved in creating strategies for their companies and executing it… by limiting the sponsor and vendor involvement, it gets people’s attention,” he said. “It’s easier to recruit the right people to be on the agenda.”
One of those “right” people is 2017 Summit presenter Erich K. Gail, CEO of the Cardinale Group of Companies, which is currently ranked second in “Highest Sales Volume e-Dealer Group in North America,” according to the 2016 WardsAuto e-Dealer 100 survey. He said in a press release that he was so impressed by the CX Summit when he spoke there last year, he sought a return appearance.
“I called them,” said Gail, further explaining that every year he attends “many industry events and leadership gatherings and believe that TLS provides the optimal learning opportunity for proactive leaders at the Automotive CX Summit — this is primarily due to the quality and diversity of the executives involved, as well as the ease of interacting with them.”
Munzel asserts the idea of developing and maintaining customer relationships has evolved substantially from the early 2000s, when members of the auto industry still seemed to take customers at least “a little bit for granted.”
Today, however, CRM strategies are front-and-center in marketing efforts throughout the industry, he said, because “now OEMs and dealers recognize they should value every interaction they have with a customer, regardless of where it happens or how it happens, because, aside from the initial contact during the sales process, customer contact is relatively limited “during the ownership life cycle,” particularly for dealers.
A main challenge going forward “for both OEMs and dealers is partnering to provide a unique and consistent customer experience across these different channels, he said.
“I think that’s where we are now and what we will be discussing in the years to come is how to partner these two independent but symbiotic companies, the OEM and dealer, to manage this complex customer life cycle with your a joint customer, especially with the explosion of channels due to social media… and people’s ever-increasing requirements for the experience.”
Said Munzel: “That’s only going to continue.”
Erik Derr is a freelance business and industry journalist whose reporting credits include WardsAuto, Road & Track, Popular Mechanics, The Seattle Times, AsianWeek, San Fernando Valley Business Journal, Pacifica Radio Network News and National Public Radio, among others. You can reach him at email@example.com