A good friend in the trade sells Hyundai, and has done for a good few years. He once quite recently said to me that, ‘wild horses wouldn’t drag the franchise off him,’ owing to one very simple fact: his customer base. The showroom, which is based in a fairly affluent part of Bedfordshire, is nicknamed ‘Jurassic Park’.
By now, I’m sure you will have clicked on to the fact that most of the chimney pots his dealer serves are home to the more mature driver if you like. Before his foray into the world of Pacific Rim cars, he worked alongside me selling the Longboat, where once again, our customers tended to be one or two decades older than the norm.
I’m telling you this, as one of my current work colleagues asked me how MG Rover managed to stumble on as long as it did with ever-falling sales, year on year, until the wheels fell off in 2005. Of course, things like the cost-cutting Project Drive and the selling of assets helped the fight for survival. But if its market had been more mainstream, MG Rover would have died much sooner.
There were always two trains of thought within dealer and manufacturer level. One group insisted on chasing a more youthful buyer, with catchy car that appealed to the spirited owner. And the others, who were quite happy with the Trilby hat and tartan rug brigade, which admired the burr walnut and glove-box with ample space for Sanatogen or tinned travel sweets.
In the showroom, there is a certain eight letter word that sends shivers of fear into the most hardened sales manager: ‘discount’. The clever plan of introducing the Zed range back in 2001 answered many of the problems that Rover had in relation with this everlasting problem of its identity crisis. But it did encourage more switched-on buyers to haggle.
The zesty punter could fly the flag in a ZR, ZS and ZT, while the more senior customers could feel secure in the olde chrome and leather worlde of a 25, 45 or 75. My own take on the Rover customer was simple: long may they Womble though the doors. During another conversation recently I was asked: ‘who in their right minds would have ever paid full list of a Rover?’ You would be surprised!
In most cases, older buyers would have been embarrassed to even think of asking for money off a new car, let alone shop around or haggle for freebies. Selling a Rover to a mature owner was, like what one salesman quipped to me, as easy as ‘lifting pennies off a dead man’s eyes’.
So long as they were made to feel special and the part exchange valuation was half reasonable, very little went wrong when it came to turning the order form round on the desk and offering the use of your pen. I kid you not when I tell you that I once witnessed a KV6-powered Rover 75 Connie SE, with a few optional extras, sell to a mature customer who went from being a walk-in browser to signed customer inside one hour. Incredible it may sound, but not uncommon.
Sell a decent specification Rover at near or full list, and there was a hell of a lot of profit across the bonnet. But this was not reflected with the MG variants – it’s all in the customer base you see? Now… before some of you say we were taking advantage of older people, I’ll stop you right there, as this certainly wasn’t the case. Your ‘trad’ Rover buyer may have been older – but they certainly weren’t stupid, all they wanted was to be treated with respect and courtesy.
Towards the end of the soap opera that was MGR, many of the bigger dealer groups terminated their franchises as Rovers product range contracted. The BMW-era policy of slashing back the number of smaller ‘retail’ outlets from 1994 onwards was to eventually come back and bite MGR some years later. These sleepy villages and towns with their tiny showrooms were prime areas for MGR penetration but by post-2000 the Koreans et al had hoovered up the customer base.
Whatever your views are on the MGR range post-2000 may be, the company tried to recruit dealers run by family companies or SME (Small Medium Enterprise) groups, this saw the return of fair trading and customer care. Just like those quaint Skoda dealers of old or aforementioned Hyundai outlets, the people who worked there or owned them had so much more to loose than the huge corporate Gin palaces – they sold a piece of their integrity with every car.
Later MG and Rover cars may have been culled in terms of both quantity and quality, but customer care and service from the smaller dealers who remained in the network went some way to make up for this. From a sales point of view, so long as you are seen to be going the extra mile, your customer tends to respect that and in most cases stays with you. There was also an incredible brand loyalty that went against the brickbats and general consensus of opinions of the press.
But sadly, even a loyal customer base couldn’t save MG Rover. The Koreans and Japanese gave Mr Mature everything he wanted and more – quality, reliability and paramount customer service. And yet if MGR had climbed into bed with a foreign collaborator I truly believe they could have made it – albeit on a smaller scale… their days of mass production market share and fleet penetration were long gone before the Phoenix even smelled something was burning underfoot!
So I find myself back where I started with my conversation with Richard the Hyundai man… his customer base is similar to our days with MG Rover – well, those who are still with us anyway. He tells me his working week is very much the same as it was all those years ago – the same faces, the same cards at Christmas and so on.
So I posed him a question as to if a re-born Rover brand would ever have any viability in the current environment… he just laughed down the ‘phone at me.