Send in the Paratroopers

Customer service? Who cares!

The former Art Deco style Mann Egerton Austin Rover dealership in Morden, South London. theminiforum via Merton Council.

Perennial kicking-post, Austin Rover. Years after their slow-motion demise – still fresh in many motorists minds, an incorrigibly persistent bad taste joke. And the material just keeps on rolling; we all know how the story ends but remain enthralled as there’s often a fresh nail awaiting the coffin’s hammer.

But it’s not all bad. Austin Rover attempted a turnaround, a stoic final stand against the enemy by dropping in the parachute regiment. A cynic might have called this project Operation Market Garden, as in the rather doomed Allied attempt at hastening the end of the Second World War by capturing bridges at Arnhem and Nijmegen. Praise the wag who chose to keep the parachuting theme but with a modern twist – that of the (at the time) clandestine 22nd Special Air Service. Who Cares Wins, the fight to keep the customer happy. Step up to the green light and jump.

Selling, servicing and repairing the motor car is a problem with dimensions as large and as old as the industry it is there to support. Countless the tales of disgruntled customers never darkening that particular dealership’s door again, bursting to tell anyone within earshot of the horror show that awaits the next poor sap. Woe betide the casual bar visitor saddled with a grumpy grease monkey on a Friday afternoon. Same problems, different perspective.

Austin Rover didn’t cure this disease (has anyone, satisfactorily?), but attempted a remedy using the medium of four videos, all around forty five minutes in length, which date from the late 1980s. Intended to be shown at dealer premises, one’s imagination runs riot to the thoughts of their viewers; initial salvos consisting of acrid cigarette smoke blended with colourful language. The budget for such a strategic operation probably the next topic of conversation. Not just anyone got the chance to drolly re-educate the workforce of their roles – bring in the big guns. 

Possibly better known to you as DI Regan, Chief Inspector Morse or even Peter Mayle[1], but pulling no punches is the late John Thaw, the video’s commander in chief. His script underlines the woeful state that Austin Rover customer care was in. Thaw argues that the product is just as good as the opposition, research revealing many customers merely walk away after an awful experience bij de dealer.[2]

Maestro handbook. Image: oxfam

Casually dressed, purposefully bestriding the set, he makes participation a key part of the endeavour with exercises at key stages. What vitriol Thaw’s ears never heard probably didn’t hurt him. But to Thaw the Austin Rover employee must adhere, right until the remaining protagonists venture on set.

The whole point of the operation being to assist the customer in whatever situation finds them at the dealership. The customer in question is Mr Howard – none other than Private Pike from equally perennial repeats of sitcom, Dad’s Army, played by Ian Lavender. Thin, gaunt and presumably just what the director was seeking – a customer appearing mild mannered yet capable of turning the tables to that obstreperous, anecdotal enemy. Best get the first aid kits ready, casualties maybe high.

Personal attitude, teamwork, communication, job craft, procedures, learning from experience – that’s real customer care!” states Mr. Thaw as a dozen or more actors play out fictitious, yet wholly realistic scenarios. Episode one, we see Mr. Howard having his first free service on his Montego whilst having a tow bar fitted – with several story twists. Please trust your author in believing these programmes are far more entertaining than much of today’s transmitted tosh.

As a step back in time, we see not only Austin Rover products placed in period. Factor in posters, uniforms and customs of the average dealership; cigarettes, power dressing, sparse computers but lots of paperwork. Of their time indeed but over thirty years on, quite the revelation to watch. One feels almost rooting for several of the characters.

The scriptwriter, Geoffrey Parsons must have been told in no uncertain terms just how hostile these environments could be; maybe he was on the receiving end when taking his Metro in? Your author is a little too young to fully recollect, yet memories of visiting the local Austin Rover garage with my parents seemed fraught with danger. Suited men attempting to extract money from my father – never a good thing.

Our visit – a Marina that my mother liked the colour of – navy blue from memory. We didn’t buy it, thank goodness – the gold Vauxhall Viva from another garage seldom bothered the reliability league tables, either – my father remarked that the scene was something of a charade. Maybe we’d been watching another 1980s British TV hit, Give Us A Clue? Actors acting out actions.

Ordinary folk in a dealership, acting? Not everyone can be the belligerent, burly detective or the hapless, loveable youngster – roles defined for the accountant, parts boss, cleaner. The reason – to get those points across. CTV productions of London produced Who Cares Wins, but did anyone take notice? Oh for an ex-Austin Rover employee to divulge their (possible) misgivings. Having to endure several hours of this, presumably in your own time but still on premises must have had many searching for the rip cord and a way out. 

Parts two, three and four deal with in depth such issues as “fag ends in the flowers,” Supercare – AR’s take on aftercare – proof positive of their standards, getting the right signage, a more austere and difficult customer arrives in Simpson Brothers, new car sales generating a free road atlas, alongside the catchiest of jingles to wriggle into your ears, just as the balloon goes up. 

Despite Messrs Thaw, Lavender, et al’s attempts to jolly up the operation, the outcome was inevitable. Due to superior forces (rival products) along with ill-at-ease planning (the hopeless situation of the dealers these videos tried to iron out), the paratroopers were out-manoeuvred, out-gunned, then sent home until their next assignment.

And so the battle continues to this day – different players, same story.

The four videos are from the ROVR YouTube channel.

[1] From TV flop, “A Year In Provence.”

[2] Dutch for ‘in the dealer’.

Author: Andrew Miles

Beyond hope there lie dreams; after those, custard creams?

8 thoughts on “Send in the Paratroopers”

  1. Good morning Andrew. Thank you for unearthing this gem! I’ve watched the first few minutes of it, but will save it for this evening’s viewing on the TV. I’m sure it will be far more entertaining than the usual Saturday night nonsense, only suitable for the lobotomised. Referring back to a theme discussed earlier this week, perhaps the video could usefully be distributed to Alfa Romeo deslerships?

    You ask the rhetorical question, has anyone satisfactorily cured the disease of poor customer care at dealerships? I think the general level of service has improved enormously and, in my experience, fails are more the exception than the rule these days. Of course, huge improvements in the build quality and reliability of the vehicles has made the dealerships’ job so much easier these days.

    That said, I far prefer the interaction I now have with my independent Porsche specialist than I had with the typically pleasant but slightly aloof ‘service advisor’ at the Porsche dealership when the car was under warranty. I’ll happily forego the fresh coffee and pastries for the opportunity to speak directly to the guy doing the work on the car.

    1. It was the Japanese manufacturers that in the Eighties changed the meaning of customer service. It was Toyota first, Nissan second who seriously stepped on their dealers’ toes when their service was not to customers’ satisfaction. Toyota later raised the bar again when they introduced Lexus which was known for providing exemplary service quality.
      A real landslide in the service area came when the German three discovered the corporate leasing market in the Nineties. Leasing contracts including full service arrangements and warranties covering the full time of the leasing contract put dealers under pressure to deliver service with standards to satisfy professional counterparts instead of inexperienced private customers. A fleet manager threatening to cancel a leasing contract for five hundred cars because he’s not satisfied with the service puts a different pressure on the affected dealer than a single dissatisfied customer.
      When I have my Audi serviced it starts with somebody actually picking up the phone to arrange the date (at Alfa I always had to personally get there because nobody ever went on the phone), I get a courtesy car without having to ask, the work is actually done at the agreed pick-up time and I never had to get there a second time because they couldn’t be bothered with doing things properly the first time round (at Alfa I invariably needed a second, third, fourth… visit to get the job done properly).
      I only experienced one breakdown with my Audis and it happened because I drover over a dog chew bone in a motorway exit which was thrown up, landed on top of the gearbox and jammed the gearshift linkage. The rescue truck came within a quarter of an hour and I was on the road again with a no-cost loaner a couple of minutes later. In theory this fault wouldn’t have been covered by the ‘mobility warranty’ but the dealer arranged it so that Audi payed the bill – something unthinkable at Alfa.

  2. There have been BMW’s in my family for about 40 years. The buying and service experience was always great and still is. They did step up there game in the waiting areas to be honest. Of course there’s one exception to the rule, but this garage had it dealership cancelled by the importer somewhere in the late eighties.

    Unlike Dave we don’t have good experiences with Audi and Volkswagens dealers and our Alfa dealer was great when my mum had her Alfa 33 for about 4 years.

  3. I think each of us can tell full-length stories, based on decades of experience with different (car) dealers.

    What Dave describes, however, is not without truth. I don’t know how it was in other countries, but in Germany the whole restructuring after the takeover of Alfa Romeo by Fiat didn’t help. There were certainly some dedicated dealers who put their heart and soul into Alfa Romeo products. But the head office of Fiat Germany has been an unholy melange of unkindness and arrogance over the years.
    Unkind and arrogant towards the dealers – and thus the end customer. The internet is full of stories of disappointed customers, and yet, at least at AR, they were either unwilling to look and learn – or incapable of doing so.

    There is another way.
    I remember a story from the early 80s that my boss at the time, owner of the print shop where I worked, told me.
    He had been a Mercedes-Benz customer for many years (decades) – like all his business colleagues in his circle of friends and acquaintances.
    He always drove the latest S-Class model with the biggest engine. Whenever he collected his new car from the dealer, he immediately placed the order for the next new car – there were astronomical waiting times for MB vehicles back then.
    Due to an accident (through no fault of his own), his current car was no longer usable and he went to his dealer to get a replacement. As usual, he wanted “white, air conditioning, leather”. The MB dealer replied, “Get in line, we can deliver in 14 months”. He was very angry.
    On his way home, he passed a Jaguar dealer. He thought about it for a moment and pulled into their car park. He was greeted in a friendly manner and when he asked, “White, air conditioning, leather. When could I have it?” he got the answer “Black leather in 3 days, other colours in about 3 weeks.”
    Three days later, a decades-long Mercedes driver became a Jaguar owner.
    A few weeks later, the first inspection was due. So he called the dealer to make an appointment when he could bring the car by. The dealer’s response, “You don’t have to bring the vehicle by, we’ll pick it up and give you a replacement car for your wait.” Something he had not experienced in all his decades with Mercedes.
    With the next car he changed brands `again´and bought a Daimler – a Daimler from Coventry.

    Another story.
    In our village there was a petrol station with a Simca dealer where my father filled up our VW Beetle on the way to work or on the way home. One day, my father was doing the necessary work on the Beetle himself, he needed a lifting platform. He drove to this Simca dealer and asked if he could use the lifting platform in his workshop. The answer was “Of course, why do you ask?”. It was like in “Casablanca”, the beginning of a wonderful friendship.
    Months later, the Beetle was exchanged for a Simca 1301 in green.
    This green gem was not in our family for long, as my mother put the car on the roof during a winter holiday in the Alps.
    After a phone call to the dealer in our village, he came two days later to our holiday resort with a new car on the trailer and took the scrap car with him.
    Until my father’s employer made him “an offer he could not refuse” (or not allowed to), my parents drove Simca/Peugeot/Talbot cars.

    Dealers can move a lot, but they need the backing of the importer/manufacturer.

    1. During the Seventies and early Eighties our Alfas came from a dealer who went racing with two GTA Juniors and used a Giulia Colli estate as a tow car for the trailer. They are now selling Hondas because their contract was cancelled somewhere in the Nineties.
      There were two distinct cuts in Alfa’s German service organisation.
      The firstwas when they moved Alfa’s HQ from the traditional premises in Frankfurt to Fiat in Heilbronn when Alfa lost its identity as a standalone manufacturer and became part of the AlfaLancia experiment. At this point many traditional Alfa dealers had their contracts cancelled and their spare parts were collected and destroyed. Alfa Club members made offers for those NOS parts to secure supply for older Alfas but Fiat wouldn’t listen. Thus spare parts for 105 and 116 series cars for hundreds of thousands of Euros were scrapped and lost forever. At this time newla appointed dealers were forced to create separate showrooms for Alfa with red carpet and wooden floors. These dealers didn’t know anything about their Alfa customer base nor did they care. They treated an Alfa customer exactly like they’d treat somebody with a rusty old Panda and they worked on Alfas as if they were old Pandas.
      Then the FCA HQ moved from Heilbronn to Frankfurt in new purpose built premises where financial, trechnical and service managers sat together for the first time. Alfa again lost its standalone position and showrooms were shared between Alfa and Jeep. Since then it’s simply hopeless.
      For decades when you approached Frankfurt from West on the motorway leading to the commercial fair ground you passed a column with a large Alfa logo marking Frankfurt’s city boundary. That logo had a diameter of two or three metres and was illuminated at night and gave you the impression that both sides were proud of each other. This logo disappeared maybe ten years ago.

  4. Thanks for highlighting this topic, Andrew. The YouTube channel, ‘ROVR’, is excellent – well worth exploring.

    Here’s a short video about how to sell Austin Maestros. Lots of these films had famous actors in them, and it’s interesting to do a bit of celebrity spotting. Unfortunately, my view is that things are really no better than they used to be – probably worse in some ways, as large dealer groups displace family-owned garages.

  5. Sorry for the delay; I was at the service department having my ash tray vacuumed…

    Only joking.

    Quite some stories there. Thank you for sharing your experiences. I remember test driving an older Lexus at at a Main dealer and being impressed by the set up. I didn’t buy the car but could see why people return once drawn in. Everyone was pleasant and friendly. I was neither pushed around or ignored.

    Same really with the local Volvo set up. The facility is brand new, squeaky clean but not soulless. Like Daniel, I’d prefer a natter with the spanner wielder (or more likely, lap top operator) than seeing your car through a window with any access barred. The staff are again pleasant and do appear to care; probably only to my face but what can one expect from a large franchise, itself part of a huge chain of dealers , suppliers, etc? I have to admit preferably avoiding these places in general as they only cost me extra, be that a service or buying something else. But I’m far more happy with Volvo today than I would be in the Austin Rover days.

    Hilarious watching, mind

  6. Hello Andrew. Thanks for the journey back in time which was really enjoyable.
    I agree with Daniel and also enjoy my visits to my chosen Mercedes Independent when the car needs attention. Chocolate hobnobs and tea /coffee plus the ability to watch the work in progress if you wish. There always seems to be some exotic Mercedes around to have a gander at too.

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