Principles of Awesomeness

Creating a Transparent and Friendly Customer Experience
A Case Study

Walla Walla Valley Honda Focuses on the Customer Experience


One-point-five percent of shoppers expect to have a satisfying car buying experience. That’s it. Even in an area as friendly and down-to-earth as Walla Walla Valley, the findings from DrivingSales’ landmark Consumer Experience Study ring true: Virtually everyone expects a hassle, and 50% will even walk away if a test drive is required before providing a price.

Why? Clearly, it’s the past reality of car sales coming back to haunt today’s dealerships. The battle over control, the waiting, the negotiating…it has historically been an ugly, hard-scrabble process that turns off customers, hurts dealerships over the long term, and ruins relationships.

Recasting the Customer Experience

Word travels quickly when a customer suffers through a bad experience. Whether it’s a dirty showroom, a rude associate or high-pressure sales tactics, people like it when their needs are put first and foremost, and notice when they aren’t. According to a study by AutoTrader, 73 percent of consumers surveyed would be willing to drive farther just to find a great car salesperson. And consider that has already compiled over 1 million dealer sales and service reviews – assessments that thousands of consumers use to determine where they’ll purchase their next vehicle.

That’s not what was happening at Walla Walla Honda. Previous management prioritized net profit over a longer term approach that assured customer satisfaction and return business. As a result, sales dried up and the business came to an end. They followed an old and rejected script: start at the retail price, then try to negotiate…at all times. In doing so, the former owners took advantage of their customers and drove the business into the ground.

Recasting the dealership’s reputation into one based on a positive and comfortable experience has been job #1 for Blake Underriner and his team since day #1. Underriner, the dealership’s General Manager, wants customers to feel like they’re not just buying another car, or getting service done. “We’re actually trying to create a relationship with customers, so that they understand that we, from our bottom of our hearts, really care about the experience,” said Underriner. “That’s the experience we want. We want a family experience, so you feel welcomed into our home when you walk into the dealership, and you feel taken care of. Most of all, so you know that you’re not going to be taken advantage of here at Walla Walla Honda.”

Transparency and the Art of Awesome

At the core of great customer service lies principles of fairness, honesty, discipline and transparency. “Our overall process is centered on taking care of the customer,” said Underriner. “Our entire goal and mission is to provide a good experience so often that our guests recommend us all the time and return again and again for everything automotive. In order to turn Walla Walla Honda around, we had to really build up from that, so that it’s ingrained into everybody from service to sales. We want everyone to know that we can be their one stop automotive shop.”

The approach is based on the Five Principles of Awesome:

  1. Upfront Pricing, No Negotiation Needed
  2. No Buyer’s Remorse Money-Back Guarantee
  3. Non-Commissioned Sales Staff—Buy the Car That’s Right for YOU
  4. Trade-In Guarantee – We Buy Even If You Don’t
  5. True 24/7 Availability (Call, Text, Email, and Facebook)

Truth is, everything at Walla Walla Honda is driven by these five core standards. And for good reason: They build a positive customer experience that’s based on the store’s mission and brand promise. It all comes down to how customers are treated, and how they feel when they leave the dealership. “We need to be able to deliver on our promise and the mission statement, every day and in every transaction,” said Underriner. Starting with training and into our day-to-day routines, we follow through, we handle situations and we stay in close contact until the customer is completely satisfied.”

And while it starts at training, this dedication to the customer experience is carried into work expectations and even pay. Specialists don’t get paid a commission; spiffs and bonuses are based on 100% survey results and happy customer reviews. “We want our team to show people the ease of buying a car,” said Underriner. “Customers come in with their wall up, and our job is to get them to like the experience, and be comfortable.”

Today, the experience looks like this: show the customer the invoice price of the car, explain the current market price the rationale behind the price tag. In other words, be open and transparent, so that the customer knows that the deal is fair and that the dealership is making a profit. “We’re upfront. We’re honest. We’re not hiding anything, and I think customers feel relieved that we’re honest and yes, we need to make money – we are a business,” said Underriner. “So if we’re more honest and transparent with our customers, I believe the more money we’re going to make. It takes being straight forward. It takes transparency and trust.”

The same goes for the service side of the automotive business, especially when faced with the challenge of reopening the dealership and rebuilding the faith. The fundamental logic behind the Five Principles of Awesome is that the more you provide a great experience the more customers trust you, and when that happens they’re going to come back again and again. “They had no place to go for service,” said Underriner. “So we told them, through our words and actions, that we were going to take care of them. It’s really, really helped in bringing the customers back into the service department.”

Words and actions can have a real impact. For Walla Walla Honda, it’s the example of the service tech who is willing to drive 40 minutes back and forth in order to pick up a car and get it fixed for a customer. It’s the dedication that each and every service member has to show the value of their work through the promises they keep to customers. From Underriner’s perspective, it’s what he considers to be an Apple Store model, where product specialist and service experts are able to answer any question and fix virtually any problem that a customer may have.

Transparency Makes Everyone Happy – and Profitable

Some people would call the customer experience at Walla Walla Honda a classic example of going the extra mile. It’s true, and the results show just how effective that mile has been for the sales and service teams: In the past 18 months, Walla Walla Honda has gone from 0 sales and a closed drive to an average of 50-60 sales per month. They’ve been honored by Honda as a visionary dealership and have accelerated overall gross to the point where it is now in the top 10 percent for Honda dealerships in the nation.

For the first time in years, people are coming back. They’re coming in for maintenance, and they’re becoming loyal Honda customers. Whether they’re considering an Accord or a Pilot, the sales experience at Walla Walla Honda – transparent, friendly and knowledgeable – is now creating a new perspective on the dealership, one that’s reflected in CSI scores and dealer reviews.

After all, word travels quickly when a customer has a great experience. Walla Walla Honda is a perfect example of how powerful those words can be.

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