saturn_logoIt was a sad day when GM announced last week that it was finally pulling the plug on Saturn. When the brand was launched, the company was carefully planned and its marketing orchestrated to create something dramatically different – and it worked (back in the early 90s, at least). What did Saturn do? And is there any way to apply those lessons to b-to-b companies? Here are 4 key steps Saturn took:

1. Find out what your customers don’t like about doing business with you – and change it. Saturn’s research showed people hated shopping for cars because they had to deal with sleazy car dealers and smoke-and-mirrors pricing. So Saturn posted all the prices on the windshield – no haggling allowed – and left you alone while you browsed the lot.

What do people hate about transacting with you? Is it a hard-to-use website? A sales team that doesn’t have the answers they need? Confusing product literature? Find out – ask your customers. And then spend the resources necessary to fix the problems you identify. Rebuild the website; train the sales force; rewrite the brochures. If it’s not easy to buy from you, they’ll probably buy from someone else instead.

2. Make the transaction experience enjoyable. Wading through a sea of car salespeople, sales managers and finance managers is no fun. So Saturn limited the number of people you had to talk with to complete your transaction, and then threw a party whenever you got the keys to your new car. Balloons, popcorn, music, singing, the whole works.

True, buying a car is complicated and expensive, but so is buying 100 network routers, or a 150hp AC motor, or shipping 14 palettes of light bulbs to Albuquerque. What can you do to make parting with thousands of dollars less painful for your customers?

3. Change the way your product is made. For decades cars had been made of steel, with the odd Corvette or DeLorean exception. But steel has a funny habit of denting. Hit it with a door? Dent. Bang it with a bicycle? Dent. Run into it with another car? Dent again. So Saturn decided to build their cars with a composite plastic material that bounced, not dented. And suddenly rogue shopping carts or careless door-openers were less of a threat to your beautifully kept car.

Is there something that you can change about your product or service that answers a customer complaint, but no one else is doing? Maybe it makes it easier for your customers to interact with your hardware. Or provides new efficiencies, which helps them save money. Get creative and think outside the box (or the motor, or the faucet).

4. Create a sense of community for your customers. Before Saturn, the average Joe had a vague idea that cars were made in plants somewhere near Detroit, but would have been hard-pressed to name a specific city. But everyone knew about Spring Hill, Tennessee. That’s where Saturns were made. And that’s where everyone came for reunions, of all things. To see the plant. To meet the “associates.” To hang out with other Saturn owners. Saturn worked hard to foster a real sense of belonging.

How can you create a family for your customers? Is it a special web portal that gives them access to their salesperson and ongoing specials? A polo shirt or ball cap? A customers-only event at a trade show? Maybe even a reunion at the plant?

I’ve owned 5 different Saturns; I’ve experienced the ups and downs as I watched as the brand became more and more a part of the Old GM. I’ve watched these differentiating efforts diminish and in some cases disappear entirely. (I once had to shout at the finance manager to get him to accept my “no” on the super-duper extended warranty he was pushing at me, and Saturn doesn’t even MAKE cars at the Spring Hill plant anymore.) But when Saturn was a young brand, it worked hard to be a “different kind of company, a different kind of car.” Now it’s your turn.

97 Saturn SL2, 00 Saturn LS2, 03 Saturn L200, 07 Saturn Sky, 08 Saturn Aura

97 Saturn SL2, 00 Saturn LS2, 03 Saturn L200, 07 Saturn Sky, 08 Saturn Aura

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