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April 23, 2021

Carmakers Should Preach Service Not Toys

Whether it is because they are an EV pioneer, or because there is some mythos surrounding its CEO, Elon Musk, Tesla has garnered an almost cult-like following. This almost blind loyalty to Tesla has generated a term, Tesla Stan. It is the automotive equivalent of the internet’s favorite meme, Florida Man, or closer to home, it is Joeven Yacub and his love for anything Honda.

But for all of Tesla Stan’s prophetic gospel about Auto Pilot (it’s not even fully self-drive), having Netflix built into the infotainment screen, or how his Tesla is faster than a BMW M or Mercedes-AMG, there is one thing the Silicon Valley upstart has realized: the automotive industry is more than just having good products.

Gaining favorable publicity through word-of-mouth is one thing, but there is more to making great cars than attaching the newest new-fangled tech. Carmakers have to deal with long-term ownership as well.

Unlike consumer electronics, which are designed to be replaceable (some aren’t even repairable), cars have a much longer lifespan, and this is where some of the problems start.

Tesla Stan might be in love with his car, flaws and all. But as a car brand grows, it will inevitably bring first-timers into the brand. These are the people who will not see the world with rose-tinted glasses (they may even be a bit cynical), but expect a close to perfect ownership experience.

Building up from their strong sales in the Western Hemisphere, Tesla turned their attention to the east, specifically China, the largest car market in the world. Despite Chinese EV makers sprouting up like mushrooms, Tesla is doing very well over there fueled largely by its “Apple-like” hype.

This has led to Tesla’s very first public problem at the Auto Shanghai, one of the world’s premiere motor shows.

An angry protester climbed on top of one Tesla’s display vehicles shouting that her car's brakes had lost control. Aside from being live streamed, it was captured by scores of onlookers, and even the press who then uploaded the footage to the internet, helping it go viral.

The woman was later identified as a Tesla owner from Henan, and has repeatedly protested against Tesla’s brake issue.

This public protest is the icing on the cake as Tesla now faces increasing pressure from Chinese regulators about its treatment of customers.

The trouble started when China’s state-run Xinhua news agency released an article saying that the quality of Tesla’s vehicles must meet market expectations in order to win consumers’ trust. It said that they should address consumer hesitation over purchasing its cars after issues ranging from malfunctioning brakes to fires during vehicles’ charging.

After the unwanted publicity and the unsavory report, Tesla had to issue an apology for not addressing the customer’s complaint in a timely manner, and promised it would conduct a self-inspection of its service and operations in China.

Whether long-term damage was done to Tesla’s reputation in China remains to be seen, but this experience serves as a stern warning for other automakers, both upstarts and traditional not to belittle customer complaints.

Be it as something simple as a buggy infotainment system or severe as a malfunctioning transmission, or publicly acknowledging and announcing a service campaign, automakers have to look at customer service as their first line of both offense and defense.

Endorsers, influencers, brand preachers, and your very own Tesla Stan may help to a degree, but keeping customers satisfied is even more important, especially in the long haul. How important? In a survey done by U.S.-based Cox Automotive, half of respondents said their aftersales experience will “greatly influence” their likelihood of buying another vehicle from the same make, while 36 percent said they were “somewhat influenced.”

Bottom line: make sure your customers are happy when they leave the shop.

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