Hyundai Bucks Automaker Trend by Listening to Customers


They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. If that's true, then Hyundai should be flattered by Ford and GM's decisions last week to follow in its footsteps to help with car payments if a new owner loses his or her job within a year of buying a new car. Hyundai's Assurance program is just one example of its commitment to meeting customer needs, says Eileen Mahdi, Hyundai Motor America's manager of market insights and product strategy. She says that the company philosophy has always been about adapting to what customers want, which in this economy is helping the carmaker stave off some of the woes seen by other automakers.

"If you get too far away and out of touch, customers say that 'you're not providing me what I need anymore' and won't buy your product," Mahdi says. "It is a dangerous proposition to get too distant from your customer."

To make its connections with customers stronger, Hyundai recently debuted Think Tank, the company's online customer community. Launched in November with social media firm Passenger, the online community is a gathering place for car owners and interested prospects where they can discuss their cars, the Hyundai brand, its programs, and other issues. "We had an on-and-off link through ad-hoc surveys, but we didn't have an ongoing platform for listening to our customers, and that's what this provides," Mahdi says.

Hyundai sent email invitations to encourage both its existing owners and interested prospects to join the Think Tank. The site now boasts more than 1,700 members; two thirds are Hyundai customers and one third is non-customers who are interested in the brand. Their incentives to participate are the gratefulness of Hyundai employees and the opportunity to help the car company evolve. So far the site has generated 13,000 interactions within the first three months.

The community features discussion boards, polls, and a member newsletter. Once a month the site hosts live chat sessions with executives and product managers. Most recently, the Sonata product manager conducted a live chat with about 30 community members to discuss Hyundai's plans for the car, as well as to get customer input and learn about what improvements they would like to see in future models. And President John Krafcik recently hosted a live chat during which members could ask him any question they wanted. "We like to make the community feel like they're participating in the decision-making and that they're privy to information that only they get to hear," Mahdi says.

Mahdi says the company continually gets valuable insight from the community participants. Two weeks ago Hyundai asked community members to suggest a new name for one of its shades of gray. Within a week, the winning name was submitted and announced back to the community - Carbon Gray Mist.

Currently there is an activity posted on the site for participants to tell Hyundai what vehicle features they would be willing to sacrifice to increase fuel economy: spare tire, sunroof, air conditioning, etc. This information will go back to the development team as they work on new models.

There is also discussion around how to improve the company's financing programs. On the discussion board one participant suggested adding a rebate option, while another suggested a customer loyalty program for those who trade in an old Hyundai for a new one. Some of these suggestions will make it to senior management and product developers, and some may even go to the company's global headquarters in Korea, as insight about customers' opinions on ethanol 85 fuel recently did.

Mahdi says that Hyundai's position as a smaller player in the U.S. auto market allows for flexibility to make changes quickly based on customer needs, which is its overarching customer strategy. The Assurance program, for example, went from concept to implementation in one month. "We're just constantly looking to improve," she says. "We listen and make decisions based specifically on customer input. We've always been that way. The hope is to listen even closer and respond even quicker."

She adds that it's critical to thank participants for their insight, and let them know when their suggestions are being acted on. "They're putting in the time and putting thought into their responses," Mahdi says. "They want to know they're being heard. It's critical to thank them and communicate back as often as possible. The community won't work without it."