Greatness Is Where You Least Expected It

By Tom Peters

Car buying is seldom a pleasant experience. Car ownership is often onerous, too. A minor breakdown, a broken turn signal—and the first thing one thinks about is the inevitable struggle, the hours to be lost fighting with a surly, overcrowded, unresponsive dealership service department. One accepts it, though, because “That’s the way things are.”

This need not be, however. I recently spent some time at Sewell Village Cadillac in Dallas, Texas, located near Love Field. What an operation! Recent statistics show that it’s the United States’ number three Cadillac dealership in new car revenue, number one in service revenue, and at the top in customer satisfaction.

Why this phenomenal success? Sewell Village Cadillac is not just another car dealership. When you walk into the dealership, you have the feeling that you’re entering the board room of a Fortune 100 company that just happens to have a few Cadillacs parked where the board room table normally sits. The lighting is sedate, all coming from antique floor lamps rather than the typical overhead neon glare. In the center of the showroom floor is a most extraordinary display of flowers (in a cut glass bowl two and a half feet in diameter)—fresh flowers, of course, changed daily. These decorations seem a little less surprising when you learn that dealer Carl Sewell has a consultant with whom he meets at least once a month: Stanley Marcus, Chairman Emeritus of the extraordinary Neiman-Marcus department stores. And then you learn, too, that Sewell Village Cadillac’s interior designer also did the spectacular Loew’s-Anatole Hotel in Dallas for Trammel Crow Company, the real estate concern.

But this is only the beginning; on to the service bay. Other companies such as Mars, Inc., talk about the fact that you “can eat off the factory floor.” Terrific, to be sure, but hopefully not that unusual for a food company. At Sewell Village Cadillac, you can eat off the service bay floors. The service department at Sewell Village is a required part of a prospective customer’s visit. It’s not the typically filthy space to be hidden at all costs from the customer’s view. The reason for the cleanliness? Simple: Every day the floor is washed and then waxed!

Another door off the showroom floor leads to the “preview room.” Every prospective customer is invited into a tastefully, almost lavishly, decorated room. Customers sit on a plush couch and view an audio-video presentation on Sewell Village. Surprisingly, just 15 percent of the presentation is devoted to the Cadillac product. The other 85 percent is devoted to what it’s like for the customer to become a member of the “Sewell Village Cadillac Family.” Service philosophy and policies—the availability of “loaners” (cars to be loaned to those having cars serviced), the offer that someone will come to your home to pick the car up for appointment service, and the like—are described. Pictures of Sewell Village people at work emphasize the fact that the customer is joining a group whose business is to take care of him or her.

I was at Sewell Village for my first high-ticket speech to the car dealership. I arrived at about 6:15 a.m. All 225 Sewell Village employees were assembled in a service bay area that had been converted to a temporary auditorium for the morning.

On the ceiling of the makeshift auditorium were big nets holding several thousand balloons, in the manner of political conventions. At the end of the last speech, the band began to play again, and the balloons were released from the ceiling to a loud cheer. With coffee and doughnuts provided by Sewell Village in hand, it was off to work by 7:45 a.m.

In a familiar refrain from our excellent company work, the Sewell Village magic is about turning traditional minuses into pluses. The entire experience of shopping for a car, having the car serviced, and being a member of the Sewell village family is total antithesis of what customers normally come to associate with car ownership and car maintenance. Finally, of course, exceptional revenue growth and a high level or profitability follow in the wake of superior service ratings.

Once again, the mundane, the commodity, the “price only” business
principles are set an their ear. Sewell Village is one more
winner in an area where winning is virtually impossible — or,
rather, in an area where few have tried.