Honda is encouraging its British dealer network to drop the hard sell and become more charming, writes David Robertson. The company wants to build its European profile and is developing strategies to improve its image.

Honda has invested GBP1.3 billion in its factory in Swindon, England, and is already producing about 185,000 vehicles a year there but it believes that it needs a better reputation with consumers to sell more.

It is working with dealers, particularly dealer management, on creating an enjoyable consumer experience. It has linked the financial incentives paid to dealers to customer satisfaction surveys and is training salesmen on how they can improve their pitch.
Dealer procedures are also being changed to focus on “customer enjoyment” rather than just sales.

Speaking exclusively at the London Motor Show last week, Honda UK managing director Ken Kier said: “The reality is you cannot improve your manufacturing base unless the demand is there. A number of our competitors have an image that is better than ours and it is up to us to be recognised as credible and we can do that by offering a genuinely good buying experience.

“We are going through a significant process of ensuring management of dealerships understand the experience we want to create. This is not an industry that enjoys the greatest reputation and the only people who can change that is us. It’s not just about charm, it’s about creating a genuine experience for customers.”

Another part of this strategy has been to change the company’s advertising. Its award-winning television commercials, like the internet-favourite “Impossible Dream”, are designed to tell consumers what Honda stands for rather than promote particular products.

Kier said: “When we decided to change advertising agency we wanted to tell people about what Honda stood for and what we are trying to project rather than concentrating on products. As a result these ads have had a profound impact.”

Kier, who is also the Japanese company’s number two executive in Europe, said the UK would be the base for a substantial push onto the Continent.

Honda is forecast to sell 310,000 vehicles in Europe this year, up 8 per cent from 2005, and it is understood to want to hit the half million mark and emulate the sort of success it has had in the North American market.

Kier said: “To get to half a million we have got to tune into individual markets where the opportunity is greatest. We are looking at countries like Russia, Central and Eastern Europe and parts of Scandinavia where there is less competition from a strong domestic car industry.”
Kier insisted that Honda would not dodge markets like France, Germany and Italy, where there are established automakers, but it made more sense for the company to target other countries first.

The Swindon factory builds the CR-V and the five-door Civic. Honda unveiled a three-door Civic, the Type S, at the London Motor Show and this will also be built in the UK.

In the first six months of this year, Honda has built 49,000 CR-Vs and 50,000 Civics in the UK.

David Robertson

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