In these difficult economic times, customer loyalty is critical. How can you provide your users with delight and make them loyal to your brand?

My friend’s car problem

My friend called me this morning, “Hi, you won’t believe what is happening with my car.” He then went on to tell me his tale:

“Our SUV (borrowed from his in-laws) has the key in the middle of the car. So my wife gets in the car, drops her bag on the key, and breaks off the big honking plastic thing holding the metal part. Now the car won’t start, even with the key part.”

“We call the dealer. Can you believe that they put security in the key so that it turns off if it breaks! What to do? Go get a new key from the dealer? NO! The dealer needs the car to make a new key—it has to reprogram the key to the car—but the car won’t go so… tow it in. But if it is under warranty the dealer will cover the cost of towing… but the car won’t start so we can’t tell if the car is under warranty because we can’t see the miles—so now we’re fighting with the towing service… ”

After hearing this, I open my postal mail. I own a BMW, which has sent me yet again a glossy magazine with lots of car pictures and car accessories and tales of car experiences. This is a significant publication that clearly was expensive to create and mail. I take it and throw it away wondering if it could be recycled.

Customer satisfaction surveys

I open my email. BMW has sent me a survey to find out if I’m happy with their customer service from the last time I went in with a problem. After I bought the car, BMW called to ask me to do a satisfaction survey (The sales guys said that if I didn’t give them top ratings it affects their pay. “I’ll do anything for you, you like us right?” Now what do I say on the survey?)

  • After the first time I took the car in for a problem, BMW called to see if I liked their service? My response? “Why are you asking me about service when the problem is the car?”
  • After the second time I took the car in for a problem, BMW called again. So I told them, “Your service guys are fine; your problem is the car.”
  • A BMW rep called and left two messages. When they got through I told them to stop calling me.

Now they send me a survey. BMW wants to assess customer satisfaction. In 1.5 years I have taken the car in for service four times—only one of which was for a normal check-up, and on that trip I also had problems.

Just this week Hertz sent me an email survey “As a valued customer, we would appreciate your taking a moment…” Is everyone now doing this?

What are these companies thinking? Why are they asking about “service?” Why are they sending me fancy magazines? Some companies create clubs on their websites. If I buy a car have I entered a club? If they ask me if I’m satisfied with their service every time do they think I think they are a better company? Or am I a part of their employee evaluation process?

I drove Toyotas for years. I loved them, I told other people about them and I bought them over and over and over with no surveys, or clubs, or magazines. But with my BMW, even though the drive is great; even though I love the stick shift; even though my car has one of my favorite features (one button to lower all windows at once); even though I can raise and lower the seat so that it fits a short person; and even though the dealer has nice facilities and people—I probably won’t buy from BMW again.

The water drop torture begins

What creates brand loyalty? I bought this car and I was excited, I love the ride and handling, it is beautiful. A new product is like a dating relationship—especially if you are a brand buyer (See Diary of a Brand Switcher). It’s like going out on a date to see if you want to commit to the brand. The test drive is the first date but buying does not mean that you signed up for life. That first purchase is the time of real relationship exploration and building. Through that first relationship you decide: “Do I want to be a BMW person?”

So the relationship starts. The sales folks showed me some cool things—you could put the key in and turn it this way to lower the hood and that way to raise it. So first day out I put in my key and turned it this way and that way and the hood got all confused and locked up half way. So I had to manually open the door and start the car to fix it. Rebooting we call it in computers.

The key fob is also a magical computer key with many, many functions and hidden information. The lock is in the center exactly where you put your thumb. I hold the key to start the car—and it locks the doors. The locks jump up and down. I change my grip and finally the car starts. I accidentally lock the car when I want to open it all the time.


  • Opening the car from afar doesn’t work unless you are within two feet
  • Opening the trunk with the key requires lots of pressure and multiple tries
  • So I looked into getting a different key fob—nope
  • I even told service about it; they replaced it—no change.
  • So I live with it every day

I bought the car in August—how fantastic driving it around through the Fall. But I live in New England. It snows here. It gets cold. Did you know that 37 degrees is a special number? Apparently at 37 degrees water might freeze. Any time my car hits 37 degrees it beeps. Every time it beeps it startles me—even a year later—every time it startles me I get a bit disoriented—I think something bad is happening—I look around—my heart beats faster—nothing is happening—Oh, it is 37 degrees.

I have a garage. Every time I back out of the garage—you guessed it—it beeps. I get annoyed every day as I back out of the garage. This annoyed me so much I asked service if they could turn it off. NO they said—we have had that complaint for years but they won’t change it. NOW I’m ANGRY— that is blatant disregard of customer needs.

OK maybe these are little things—

  • Like the fact that my favorite feature (all windows up and down) gets confused so often that I’ve given up getting it fixed. Or…
  • That there is no way to unlock all the doors—if one lock is already unlocked you must lock them before you unlock them Or…
  • That the trunk sticks and won’t lock intermittently and when I took it in they couldn’t fix it, Or…
  • That if I make a sharp turn it beeps and startles you when you are already startled from being off kilter, Or…
  • That someone decided to help me with parallel parking (who does much of that?) by having the right mirror automatically turn down to see the curb (what if you are parking on the left?). But it doesn’t return to position (fixed twice now) so that you can’t see out of the mirror when driving. But service did tell me of a work around: just leave it in the right mirror position so it locks, Or…
  • What is the story of having no Off button for the heater! I almost got in several accidents trying to press the fan button over and over and over to lower the fan in order to turn the heat off.

In the winter of the first year of ownership I considered trading in the car and getting a Toyota. But financially this was insane.

Maybe the most annoying offense was that the gas cap monitor decided it wasn’t tight enough and I tightened it twice but it didn’t “take” so then I got a “service now” light and went to the dealer. The gas cap triggered the service light to go on – nothing was wrong or due for check-up. Reboot.

All this irritation was the background music when I went to the gas pump. The car calls for 93 octane which then became $65 to fill up, at 20 miles a gallon. Is it even ethical from an environmental point of view to drive this car…?

What kind of relationship is this?

So this is my first time relationship with BMW. When I go into the shop they wash the car—that is nice. But they can’t fix the electronics. They can’t turn off the beep. They can’t fix the mirror. They can’t redesign the car so it works for people. No matter how nice they are—they can’t improve customer satisfaction because the car is irritating and startling and annoying me every day.

As far as I can tell BMW doesn’t really care. Surveys and booklets and calling after servicing aren’t going to make me feel warm and fuzzy. My relationship with BMW is mediated by the way the product fits my needs and my life.

The US car companies are getting slammed these days for not making products that meet customer needs. Figuring out what people want isn’t just about figuring out the big buying requirements—the handling, the luxury, the stick-shift. Good design knows how to support what matters to the daily relationship with the product. Successful requirements gathering means understanding the essential elements of that relationship.

We had started working with one of those troubled car companies; I hope they figure themselves out. The guys we are working with really want to make the right thing. The data we collected together reveals real needs and issues that when addressed could actually cement a positive relationship between the driver and the car. Even though no one is going to buy the car because of the navigator or communication features alone, how designers address these kinds of details are at the core of the relationship between the person and the product. This daily relationship is the center of brand loyalty.

BMW stop sending the magazine—start listening to the lives of your customers.[/fusion_builder_column][/fusion_builder_row][/fusion_builder_container]