Buell Motorcycles turned the motorcycle world upside down thanks to startling innovations like the “naked bike” and a crucial marketing ah-ha.
Buell, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year, is a wholly owned business of Harley Davidson after the completion of a buyout in 2003. Harley, where Buell founder and (now) chief technology officer Erik Buell cut his teeth as an engineer much earlier in his career, originally purchased a minority share in Buell in 1993 and then upped that stake to a majority share five years later.
Buell churned out only a handful of motorcycles each year during the mid- to late 1980s. The bikes were built in Buell’s Wisconsin garage. Today, Buell produces roughly 12,000 bikes per year for customers around the world, and its founder credits the company’s success to a commitment to staying in touch with customer desires.
The connection is primarily enabled through a passionate workforce and a homegrown piece of software the company developed. The application organizes and prioritizes massive amounts of customer information fed into the system from multiple sources, including focus groups, customer responses to demo rides, other marketing research, J.D. Powers (and other) surveys, and analyses from product reviews in motorcycle magazines.
The system makes this information easily accessible, via a Web interface, to all Buell employees. When procurement employees buy parts, they use this customer information to make decisions. The same holds true for the engineers when they design new bikes – but that wasn’t always the case.
After developing the software system “our marketing people originally thought they had to take this information from the customers and then turn it into an engineering specification sheet to hand off to our engineers to execute,” Buell says. “We had to teach them that they didn’t need to do that.”
Why? Because the marketing-produced spec sheets prevented the engineers from bringing to bear their complete design talents on satisfying customer desires. “Rather than having marketing turn our customers’ emotional needs into what marketing thought the solution might be, we asked them to give our engineers more flexibility. Letting more people see the customer need and toss around possible ways of delivering a different solution ultimately delivered a better product and happier customers.”
At first, this approach “kind of sacred the marketing people,” notes Buell. “But when they saw how well it worked, they realized that they could invest more time conducting deeper customer research. At that point, they actually became more integrated members of the team.”
That integrated approach has helped produce a wide range of motorcycle innovations embraced by Buell’s customer base of hardcore purists. Early on, the ideas for innovations came directly from a small dealer network. After the company had produced about 100 bikes over a two-year period in the late 1980s, dealers informed Buell and his team that many married customers wanted to take their spouses riding with them. “But they didn’t want to sit on skinny little perches like the girlfriend of an 18-year-old kid,” Buell recalls. “So, we came up with this inventive flip-up backrest feature.”
Another, earlier innovation occurred when dealers told Buell that customers loved his team’s craftsmanship on the chassis and wanted to see more of it but couldn’t – because much of the engine was covered by an outer shell. So, Buell stripped away the coverings and produced the extremely popular “naked bike” style.
Today, Buell Motorcycles has grown to 190 employees who serve customers in dozens of different countries. Yet, the company’s approach to assessing and enhancing customer experience has remained stripped down thanks to homegrown software technology and a flexible partnership between marketing and engineering.