Customers

Want the Upper Hand? Think Like a Hotel.

You need to make the customer feel important, valued and part of the company's family.
Want the Upper Hand? Think Like a Hotel.
Image credit: Benedetto Cristofani
Magazine Contributor
4 min read
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This story appears in the November 2017 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

Tom Maoli bought his first Lexus dealership in 2011. It wasn’t easy. Lexus usually doesn’t allow people with no experience in the car business to buy in. But he convinced them he could not only learn it fast but do it better. 

As Maoli stood inside his new shop, he immediately noticed an opportunity to demonstrate what he was talking about. “The first thing that set me off was the way customers were greeted coming in the front door,” Maoli says. “They were greeted and then left alone to wander.” And if a salesperson was busy and didn’t get to a customer quickly enough, that person would just turn around and walk back out.

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So Maoli did what he’d done many times before. He deployed his secret weapon: a hotel-industry expert. 

At first, it seems illogical. What does hotel experience have to do with selling cars? But Maoli is a big believer that hospitality -- that deep, honed, customer-first attitude that the greatest hotels excel at -- can work for any business.

He first made this discovery in 1994, in a very different field. Back then, he was running a logistics company called Flash Global, and he got a call from America Online. This was during the early days of the internet, when AOL frequently needed to get parts to its engineers, but its logistics vendor was falling down on the job. As Maoli listened to AOL execs talk, he realized that to succeed at this job, he’d need to win over their beleaguered field engineer -- the guys waiting for a part at 2 a.m. in the middle of nowhere.

Maoli knew logistics, but he needed extra help forming those personal connections, so he called an old friend -- Gary Gabriele, a hospitality prodigy who had worked his way up from dishwasher to general manager of a local hotel franchise by the age of 21 -- and asked him to run Flash’s customer service. Gabriele got to know the technicians and their needs. Compliments made their way up to corporate, and the job helped establish Flash Global as a logistics powerhouse in 90 countries.

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When Maoli left logistics for luxury car sales, he brought Gabriele with him and took over his first dealership, Lexus of Route 10 in Whippany, N.J. And that’s when they discovered that the rarefied world of luxury autos also had a lot to learn from the hotel business.

Take the greeter problem. Instead of leaving it to the customer to find a salesperson who wasn’t occupied, Maoli and Gabriele split the dealership’s greeting and selling duties into separate jobs, posting “concierge” staff at the front desk to walk new arrivals around and talk to them about the cars until a salesperson was free.

Next, they looked for a way to deal with upset customers. Most dealerships just pass angry calls to busy sales or service employees. This wastes the salesperson’s time and doesn’t necessarily ensure a good outcome for the customer. Gabriele noticed that Brad Vaill, a service manager, had a talent for defusing situations, so he made him the dealership’s dedicated complaints manager, which let sales and service people focus on what they do best. “The amount of business you can lose if one of your key sales managers is tied up on the phone for 45 minutes is remarkable,” Vaill says. 

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The approach has paid off. In 2011, the dealership sold more than 1,800 cars. In 2017, it’s on track to sell 5,100, and they’ve since added six more dealerships. One customer even recently wrote to say he could’ve saved $1,200 at another dealership but bought from Maoli because of his dealership’s “extreme courtesy and kindness.”

“Most Lexus dealers believe, I have a great product; people have to come buy it,” Maoli says. “No. It’s about making the customer feel important and valuable and part of your family.”

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