Building Brand Allegiance: Christopher Buxton, Managing Director, Lexus UAE
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There is an email that is sent out every day in the Lexus UAE offices, which contains what is essentially a summary of all the calls made to its customer service center on that date, touching upon the issues and problems that caused each call to happen in the first place. Of course, there is a dedicated team at Lexus that is responsible for looking through this list, and ensuring that each concern there is responded to effectively- but I admit to have been a little taken aback when Lexus UAE Managing Director Christopher Buxton told me that he made it a point to carefully peruse this list every day as well. It’s a level of involvement that I would have expected from the founder of a startup, sure, but given that this statement came from an executive as high up on the ranks as Buxton, at a company the size and stature of Lexus- well, it came as a bit of a surprise. Buxton noticed my astonishment though, and he quickly downplayed the significance of what he did (“It sounds fantastic, like I’m an angel, but I’m not!”), adding that Lexus didn’t receive a lot of complaints anyway- but this particular activity and his enthusiasm for it (“I love doing it!”) is indicative of how he goes about his role at his company: for Buxton, ensuring his customers have great experiences, throughout their transaction cycles, is key to furthering his business’ growth.
But more about customer service later- first, Buxton. Having previously worked with automobile brands like Bentley, BMW, Ford, and Mercedes Benz, Buxton –who says he’s “been in the car industry all his life”- had been with Lexus UAE for two years before he became its Managing Director in 2015. As a signature luxury brand under the Toyota marquee, Lexus has had a pretty good run in the UAE, where it is exclusively distributed by Al-Futtaim Motors, with Buxton saying that Lexus owns the second place in the country’s luxury market. (For those of you in the UAE, this shouldn’t come as a surprise, considering the sheer number of Lexus LX cars that one sees on the road here!) “So far this year, we’ve been growing market share,” says Buxton. “The market’s down -the whole market is down- the luxury market is down about 8%. We’re only down 2%. And last month [June], we had a record month- we sold more cars than we’ve ever sold. So we’re okay.” In terms of customers, Buxton says that Lexus has been lucky in being able to secure a strong Emirati clientele. “I think if I break down my customer base at the moment, we have a very loyal local following,” he says. “Probably 50-60% of my buyers are Emiratis.” While Lexus does also enjoy a fairly healthy level of interest from the expat population here, Buxton says that it is something that the company is keen on improving. After all, there are potential customers out there who simply aren’t familiar with the Lexus name- the brand is relatively young, having been launched only in 1989, whereas its major competitors have been around for more than a hundred years.
With that being the case, getting the Lexus brand more out there in the mainstream consciousness seems to be the reasoning behind its recent move into the lifestyle sector with its Intersect By Lexus concept. Described as “a place where creative minds meet and share ideas,” Intersect By Lexus was first launched in Tokyo in 2013, followed by an installment in Dubai in 2015, and a third location has now been announced for New York City in 2017. If one goes by its location in Dubai at Dubai International Financial Center’s Gate Village, then Intersect By Lexus –which features a dining area, a fairly well-stocked library, and a “garage” downstairs that is more of a lounge-cum-gallery- is, in essence, a brand experience space, although it does not (to its credit, really) hit you in the face with a load of Lexus-themed marketing collateral. As Buxton points out, the branding in the space is more subliminal- there are hints thrown about in the Masamichi Katayama-designed interiors that nod to the Lexus brand dynamic. For instance, its bamboo façade, featuring spindle grille motifs, is a nod to the spindle grille that is today a key characteristic of cars made under the Lexus banner- but hey, if visitors to Intersect By Lexus don’t see that reference, Buxton is okay with that. “Ideally, what we are hoping for, if I’m really honest, is someone coming in who hasn’t really touched Lexus before, sit down [here], and enjoy it. We’ve got very high levels of service and food- it’s not fine, fine dining; it’s not stuffy, it’s casual. We expect people to treat this as their own home… It’s a very calm and relaxed place. So it’s a way they can come in, and slowly but surely, they may say, what’s the Lexus connection, and then, yeah, we are happy to talk to them about it. But it is specifically somewhere to actually enjoy the Lexus brand and lifestyle- but not the car.”
And Buxton is right- while there are car elements thrown all about the interiors at Intersect By Lexus (my favorite of these is in the garage, where a wall has been entirely covered by hundreds of toy cars), none of this really screams Lexus at you- and according to Buxton, this aspect serves this particular space better. “I’m perfectly happy for someone to come in, enjoy a nice meal, good service, walk away, and not even have seen Lexus,” he says. “Because if we have given them good service and good food, they’ll come back. And if then, on the fourth or fifth trip, they think, oh, this is Lexus- the one thing they will get from that is Lexus gives good service. So if they do it here, why shouldn’t they be able to do it in a car scenario?” The aim, therefore, with Intersect By Lexus seems to be to try and instill the germ of a feeling about Lexus in its patrons (most of whom, Buxton notes, currently don’t drive a Lexus), which will, hopefully, get them to include the brand in their mind when they do get around to buying a vehicle in the future. The company is thus playing the long game here, which also affords Buxton and his team at Intersect By Lexus the time to experiment, try out new things, and build it up as they go along. The approach is thus rather entrepreneurial in its nature, with Buxton saying he and his team are continuing to debate and figure out how much they want to “plug” the Lexus brand at Intersect By Lexus. “We’re kind of learning as we go along, as to how much we can push it,” he explains. “Yes, the ultimate objective of Al-Futtaim [and] Lexus is to sell cars, to look after people. With Intersect By Lexus, it’s not the same objective. Intersect By Lexus is about opening up the brand to people, at a very subliminal level, [with] no commitment at all. Who knows where that will go to in the future- but I think it is something we are learning from.”
It’s clear from Buxton’s strategy for Intersect By Lexus that this executive places a lot of importance on customer service in bringing in (and retaining) clientele, and this is a principle he extends to his business of selling cars as well- as evidenced by his aforementioned ritual of going through customer complaints every day. “The Lexus brand is built on customer service,” he reiterates. “As I said, we’ve never been racing in terms of global spheres. So, we have to really give fantastic customer service on the sales and after-sales background.” This is, in effect, the modus operandi with which Buxton hopes to lure in new customers to Lexus. “What I want to do is not just sell the car –and I know this sounds a bit cliché- I actually want to give very good customer service. I want to be able to sell cars on the back of customers thinking, ‘That [the service] was fantastic.’ If I’m really honest, customer service levels here, compared to elsewhere in the world, are not where they should be, whether it be automotive, banking, whatever it is. And our constant push is to lift that [level of customer service]. I want people talking about Lexus in dinner parties, in majlises, about the service they got. The cars, I am absolutely committed to; they are probably some of the best you can buy. But I want the service to be something that would make them go, ‘You know what- I had a problem, and it just went away.’” According to Buxton, training staff is key to delivering such levels of customer service, and the importance of actually listening to clients cannot be understated. Buxton says he doesn’t want to simply satisfy customers; he wants to “delight” them.
Intersect by Lexus in Dubai
Launched in December 2015, with internationally renowned DJ and music producer Mark Ronson in attendance, Intersect By Lexus in Dubai has been described as “a unique luxury space where people can experience what is truly quintessential of Lexus, without getting behind a steering wheel.” Japanese designer Masamichi Katayama, founder of interior design firm Wonderwalls, developed the Dubai concept, which is based off his design of the first Intersect By Lexus location in Tokyo. “This project is not just about creating a restaurant, but rather an environment,” Katayama said. “As an incubation platform generating new innovative ideas and concepts, it has been designed to capture the feeling of a lounge, allowing people with shared values to come together and interact in a relaxed yet inspiring atmosphere.”