Lexus checks into the Four Seasons for ideas

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[Los Angeles] Bob Carter realizes that free espresso ain't what it used to be.

The new Lexus Division general manager knows that his dealerships' once-special touches now have plenty of imitators. "A free espresso, an explanatory meeting in the service drive and a detailed car afterward was `wow' back in 1994. But not today," he said.

For Lexus to hang on to the customer-satisfaction crown, it must find new ways to surprise and delight its owners-and Mr. Carter is looking to Four Seasons Hotels, Tiffany & Co. and Nordstrom.

"When you purchase a Lexus, the ownership experience will be better than anywhere in luxury retail," said Mr. Carter.

Lexus has perennially been at or near the top of the J.D. Power & Associates' customer-service and sales-satisfaction surveys. But the brand wants to elevate its emphasis on what it calls "customer engagement."

To help dealerships meet the challenge, Lexus sponsored a series of three-day summits in April. Dealers were given reams of data regarding luxury customers compiled by the Gallup Organization. They also were sent to the training center for Four Seasons Hotel employees to learn the expectations of luxury customers.

"This goes beyond a customer checking the survey box of whether their car was washed after an oil change," said Deborah Meyer, VP-marketing at Lexus.

Lexus dealerships have to pass those lessons along to their employees, too. After all, a dealer principal may live in a Four Seasons world. But his porters, service techs and receptionists do not.

PUTTING ON THE RITZ

One unidentified dealer was shocked, Lexus said, when his employees told him that the pinnacle of customer service was the T.G.I. Friday's restaurant chain. In response, the dealer is making every employee stay a weekend at the nearby Ritz-Carlton hotel-on the dealer's dime.

Another dealer was impressed by the Genius Bar at the Apple Store chain, where employees answer Apple Computer-related questions. The Lexus dealer is considering hiring a technical expert of his own to answer customer queries about their cars.

Mark Rechtin writes for Automotive News.

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