Lexus Is Changing The Way It Sells Cars. Step One: Stop Ignoring Women

Acknowledge the women in a group first. Wait three beats before replying to make sure somebody has finished speaking. Follow up with a call or email when you say you will. These are just a few of the recommendations that make up a new Lexus program designed to turn the daunting dealership into an appealing destination.

Lexus is rolling out the program–called Lexus Difference–in an effort to attract the three demographics whose spending power is accelerating: women, millennials, and multicultural buyers. All three groups are more detail-oriented than traditional customers, and Lexus believes touches like displaying only current magazine issues and offering fresh fruit instead of donuts will draw them in. More important, Lexus is training sales and services departments to be more sensitive in their interactions with customers. For the pilot, Lexus focused on female customers. “We were going to do separate programs for all three audiences, but then we saw there was such a huge overlap,” says Peggy Turner, Lexus’s vice president of customer service.

The initiative started last year as a pilot program at seven dealerships across the country and has recently become available to any of Lexus’s U.S. outlets. The program has some quirky elements, from working with a Japanese perfumery to develop a signature scent modeled after the ones sprayed in the Ritz-Carlton and Four Seasons, partnering with a nationally known designer to make uniforms look more current, and even offering yoga and spa treatments at some dealerships. In the waiting area of Fresno Lexus, customers now find issues of Vogue and Town & Country lying next to the usual Road & Track. “You have a TV in the waiting area. What channel do you have it on?” Turner says. “Our studies show it’s HGTV.” That might sound silly, but it matters. “Everyone’s always afraid to come to a dealership, thinking that they’ll get taken advantage of,” says Caren Myers, general manager at Fresno Lexus, one of the dealerships included in the pilot study. “There are very subtle differences that you can do to let women know you care about them and their experience in the service drive.”

But perhaps more significant is a shift in how salespeople interact with young, female, and minority customers, who have sometimes felt like they’re being ignored or treated disrespectfully at car dealers. With Lexus Difference, associates are now being trained to speak to women first rather than directing their pitch to men, among other techniques. “Women hold 80% of the influence in a purchasing decision,” says Turner. “Whether she’s making the decision or not, she’s definitely going to influence the decision. The man doesn’t really care whom you’re addressing, but women feel left out.”

The program has already had an impact on the sales force at pilot dealerships, according to Turner. One sales associate told her that he hadn’t been aware that his habit of eyeing customers’ outfits could be off-putting until he participated in the training program. Other service consultants struggled with even the most basic interactions, like handshaking. “They said during the training that they weren’t sure if they should do that [with women],” says Myers. “We encouraged them to put their hand out.”

Other automakers have started catering to women and minority shoppers over the past several years, organizing initiatives within their marketing departments and developing regional approaches to attract certain buyers. But Lexus’s program is the most aggressive in rethinking the dealership experience because it tries to fundamentally change how associates interact with customers at the point of sale. That’s a challenge, according to Mark Wakefield, who leads the automotive division of New York-based management consulting firm AlixPartners. “Changing the mentality of that front-line sales force can be difficult,” he says. “You need people who are fundamentally invested in their customers. That’s a tough thing when you have high turnover and a commission-based sales force.”

Lexus Difference isn’t mandatory, but the company expects about 90% of its dealers to sign on. Lexus will cover the training and marketing costs, but dealers will pay for the new uniforms and machines that spray the custom scent. Lexus is hoping this new approach will gradually become standard procedure. “I don’t want it to be a program,” says Turner. “This is going to be a culture.”