Can an Old Dog Learn New Tricks?


Bewley Allen Cadillac learned how to put their CSI on steroids, and it's really paying off.

In 1938 Mr. Bewley Allen and his son opened their Cadillac store in Alhambra, California just nine miles east of Los Angeles (see first photo). In the '60s and '70s the store was a gold mine. John Allen, Mr. Allen's son was running the store, and the Cadillac El Dorado was their bread and butter. Bewley Allen Cadillac was doing over 1,000 new cars a year and life was great. Today, Mr. Bewley Allen's grandson, Scott Allen, is partial owner of the store, and as far as the "life is great" atmosphere, well, in 2009 due to the bankruptcy of GM, only 220 new units were sold.

Does this sound familiar? A family store, owned for three generations, selling Cadillac, America's luxury brand. At one time this was enough. There were no imports to compete with, the Internet did not exist, and it was our duty to buy American.

Now times have changed, Toyota has become one of the Big 3, fast paced dealerships are filled with savvy Internet professionals and Business Development Centers standing by to capitalize on every opportunity the Internet can provide. How can a smaller, family run store, compete? What if the Internet is still a little intimidating and your staff was fresh out of college in the '70s? Is it too late? Are you doomed to suffer the fate of so many stores with a similar story?

The answer is NO.

In 1991 Ted Hwang became the GM of Bewley Allen Cadillac (see second photo, left to right: Ted Hwang-General Manager, Bill Beazley-Cadillac Western Regional Manager, Scott Allen-President, John Allen-Owner). He had come to the United States when he was 24 and after earning his B.A. in Business Administration and Broadcasting & TV he began selling cars at Bewley Allen Cadillac. Ted, like lots of us, fell into the automotive industry; his brother was selling cars at a dealership across the street. He entered the industry with no knowledge of the stigma associated with selling cars, and vowed from the first day to always treat his customers and colleagues with kindness and respect.

Bewley Allen is located far away from local freeways and they do not have a car lot. Their building is reminiscent of an era gone by with darker showroom windows and furniture that's seen better days. Up until a year ago they did not offer Wi-Fi services and they do not have a cappuccino maker. What they give their customers is good old-fashioned customer service.

Bewley Allen Cadillac was #1 in the nation for CSI for Cadillac in 2007, an extremely rare honor for a major metro dealership, one that would usually go to a smaller dealership in the Midwest. In 2008 they were #1 in CSI for the Western Region and were awarded the same title again in 2009. 70% of their business comes from repeat and referral customers and up until April of 2010 the only way to find out about this fantastic customer service experience was to purchase a car from Bewley Allen, or know someone who did.

In April 2010, Bewley Allen Cadillac decided to initiate an online ratings and reviews strategy. The dealership was no stranger to asking customers for feedback on their experience. For years they have sent a house plant to customers as a thank you for purchasing a vehicle with them. The gift includes a self-addressed, stamped postcard with two questions: 1) Did you get your plant? 2) How was your experience at Bewley Allen Cadillac? Their customers gladly complete these cards and mail them back to the dealership. Most customers also include their e-mail addresses and a personal thank you to the salesperson they worked with at the dealership. At the monthly sales meetings, Ted reads the comments out loud and distributes the cards to the appropriate sales person. A friend of Ted's was attending the March meeting and inquired if they were asking these customers to share their comments online. When Ted said no, he realized that he might be missing something.

So five months ago Ted and the sales team of Bewley Allen Cadillac began asking their customers to share their comments online. He explains, "In the beginning it was tough; our sales people were automatically rejecting the idea because they thought it was embarrassing. They didn't want their customers to go out of their way, and they didn't think their customers would do it."

But after three months of persistence Ted's efforts started to pay off, with different members of the sales team reaching out to customers and asking them to write reviews.

What they learned was surprising. We know that people ages 12-44 make up the majority of online users, but what Bewley Allen Cadillac discovered first hand is that a more mature audience, over age 55, is one of the fastest growing segments in 2010. According to Comscore, between June 2009 and August 2010 Internet users between the ages of 55-64 spiked 19% and users age 65+ spiked almost 34%!

One of their top salespeople reached out to a customer and asked her to write a review. The customer said she was happy to, and did-she was over 70 years old. In fact, Bewley Allen customers are so ecstatic about their experience that they are calling their sales people back asking them to walk them through the step-by-step process of posting a review, asking if there are additional sites they would like them to comment on, and even setting up Gmail accounts so that they can write a review for the store. If you ask the sales team at Bewley Allen Cadillac who is more likely to write a review this is what they'll tell you.

"Young people are less apt to write reviews, more mature people are happy to take the time. They appreciate your efforts and it makes them feel happy to return the favor, they see the value, because they understand what reviews can do for their own businesses."

Truly great customer service has become so rare in our daily lives that customers are hungry for it, and when they receive it they want to shout from the mountain tops about the people they worked with and the experience they had. Although Bewley Allen Cadillac has proven that a more mature audience is happy to write reviews, customers of all ages are benefitting and contributing to their reviews. Over 50% of their service customers are writing reviews when asked, and even more sales customers are writing reviews.

According to the sales team customers consistently tell them, "We came here, because we read your reviews online." Or, in the service bay new customer say things like, "Oh, I came here, because I checked your reviews online and your customers were so happy!"

According to Ted the customers aren't the only ones that are happy, "It's rejuvenating! Our customers are so willing to do it, our sales team knows that all of their hard work pays off." Their customers are happy, and open to the car buying experience because they have read the reviews online and expect the same experience. One member of the sales team said, "As a salesperson, even if I'm having a bad day it makes me want to give more to make the reviews better. Everyone here works together our salespeople work together, we're a team."

As a team, they chose to uphold an elite standard of service excellence. As a team, they chose to embark on a new way of doing what they've always done. And as a team, they are succeeding. Five months since they adopted this new approach customers continue to comment on a daily basis what they've read online about the store. New business is flowing in from their own backyard and miles beyond. They could have hired a service to get reviews for them, or even hired an outside company to write reviews, but they didn't. Their reviews are 100% authentic, written by their customers on their behalf. Instead of being purchased, they were earned.

"When I got into this position I decided I was going to make a difference. If it's not legal, or not ethical, I won't do it, and the same rule applies to my sales team. I sleep very well at night, and so does my sales team," says Ted, "A General Manger once said to me, 'You know the best way to get customers to write a nice review about your store is to do a good job in the first place.'"

It's important to remember a good review starts from the moment the customer first touches your store. From your receptionist to an oil change, when you give great customer service your customers will be happy to return the good will. The Bewley Allen Cadillac sales and service teams stepped outside their comfort zone to learn a new way to help customers express their appreciation.

Now in 2010, with a strategy in place that utilizes online ratings and reviews to help emphasize the best part of their business, Bewley Allen Cadillac is set up for success. The legacy built by Mr. Bewley Allen of kindness and generosity lives on through the dedicated efforts of his grandson Scott Allen, General Manager Ted Hwang and all of the sales and service employees of Bewley Allen Cadillac.

Maryann Young

Maryann Young, Director, Dealer Initiatives
DealerInsight@edmunds.com

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