(This article first appeared on the Fonolo blog, here.)
“Hyundai, like Sunday.”
I asked for it. I asked for the correct pronunciation of that internationally-renowned and beloved car brand, and now I’ll never forget it.
And neither will you.
Hyundai: You’ve probably heard of it; the name again on the tip of everyone’s tongues thanks to a memorable, highly-lauded SuperBowl Hyundai Sonata 2020 commercial featuring John Krasinski, Rachel Dratch, and Chris Evans sporting some iconic Boston accents — “Smaht Pahk” — an ad which has so far attracted around 55.2 million views on YouTube. Now that’s some good traffic!
Who better to school me on the ins and outs of pronouncing “Hyundai” than Don Romano, the President and CEO of Hyundai Canada, a person whose job it is to champion the name, and ensure it reaches its greatest potential.
I spoke with Romano at the top of 2020, exciting times for an auto brand zooming forward with its customer service, employee culture, technology, and brand loyalty. And these areas have been top of mind for a while: Only a few years back, Romano penned a compelling case for adjusting customer service strategy to better a brand, even after the initial attempts to do so fail.
“Almost four years ago we decided that our company … needed to change. Our customer service scores were embarrassingly low. For an automotive company, in a rapidly changing and highly competitive environment, poor customer service is the kiss of death,” Romano wrote, with strategic scrutiny. But happily, in 2017 and after much trial and error, Hyundai Canada rose to have the fourth-best customer service standing in the national automotive space. ‘In a rapidly changing and highly competitive environment, poor customer service is the kiss of death’ says Don Romano of @HyundaiCanada #custserv #customercare #cx Click To Tweet
Now, their goal is to be number one.
I wanted to know more about the journey to this destination, and how Romano and Hyundai Canada are forging a strong customer service ecology and employee culture for this brand. Joining in the conversation was Jessica Cryer, VP of Business and Customer Service strategy at Hyundai partner CSPN (Customer Service Professionals Network). As the Q&A unfolded, it became clear that Hyundai Canada’s customer service game has been enhanced by an unconditional investment in people, in product, and in processes, which ultimately succeeds in building an unwavering brand ‘belief system’ and trust in “Hyundai, like Sunday.”
If You Don’t Know Hyundai, Here’s Why You Should
Talking to Don Romano is an education. Within the exchange of a few sentences, I learned that Hyundai is the second-largest seller of pure electric vehicles in Canada, coming in a close second to Tesla. This is quite a feat, as the majority of the major car brands have yet to produce what is slowly realizing itself as the car of the future.
Year after year, the demand for these electric wonders has doubled: In 2018, Hyundai Canada sold 1,200. In 2019: Over 5,000 left the lot, and this notable uptick is expected to continue well into the new decade. Hyundai also has the honour of being the first automotive company in Canada to begin retailing fuel cell vehicles — which are electric but run on hydrogen.
“Our commitment to environmental progress is pretty much unmatched in the industry,” beams Romano. “We are very proud to be one of the leaders in the new technologies that will make the world better. I think that probably ties into listening to customers and feedback and the overall landscape.”
Yes, the customers, the marrow of automotive life. With leadership roles at Toyota, Mazda, and Nissan in his rearview mirror (forgive the occasional car pun), no one knows the value of the customer better than Don Romano, who has lived and breathed the auto industry for a healthy segment of his career.
When I ask him how he ended up journeying down this road, he says with amusement, “Accidentally.”
A Career Takes Flight (or Rather, Takes Off)
Romano cannot say with sincerity that he was ever a car enthusiast, a surprise given that he was born and bred in Southern California, an indefatigable “car country” where driving is on par with breathing and waking and sleeping. “As long as the car could get me to the beach, that was good enough for me,” he laughs.
No, he was interested in another kind of locomotion: flight. While in his final year of university as a marketing student, he had enrolled in a pilot training program with Flying Tiger Airlines, which unfortunately went out of business.
On a drive home from picking up his pink slip, he pulled into Nissan’s headquarters on a whim. “I said I was interested in filling out an application. They laughed at me,” Romano remembers. “They said, “We don’t need pilots. We sell cars!”
After the initial amusement died down, Romano was introduced to a Nissan employee and fellow pilot who — bemused by the fact that a young pilot had come into headquarters on a whim (which had never happened before) — invited Romano in for a conversation.
By the end of it, he’d been offered a job in Nissan’s marketing department, which he accepted and kept while he finished his undergraduate degree. It was there he stayed, in Marketing and Sales Operations for the Nissan and Infiniti brands, for close to 15 years.
From there, he switched lanes and spent six years at Mazda’s North American Operation, navigating several senior roles (including President of Mazda Canada and CMO of Mazda North America) during his 12-year tenure there. After spending two years in the Middle East as a CMO, Managing Director and Chief Brand Officer for Toyota, Romano landed in Canada to take on his latest mission: President and CEO of Hyundai Canada.
And he was excited about it. “Hyundai’s technology was moving in a direction my heart was also moving in,” Romano remembers. “They had a vision of really changing the world, building a sustainable automotive business that produced non-carbon-producing vehicles, and they were very advanced in their technology, autonomous systems, and safety systems. That excited me.”
And the exhilaration continued. Added to this new venture was the addition of a new luxury brand to manage (Genesis). Now, more than six years later, Romano remains at the wheel of Hyundai, one of the fastest-growing car companies in Canada.
The Hyundai Way: (Feed)Back is the Way Forward
Hyundai is deeply invested in improving the product, process, and customer experience. Indeed, multiple systems are in place to ensure that the voice of the customer, and the know-how of the employees, are used to effect change and propel the company forward: A virtuous communication cycle with two key areas.
First, Hyundai Canada’s customer service department is at the forefront of initiating customer input, via proactive surveys and consumer feedback sessions, with a magnifying glass on customer satisfaction and vehicle performance. “We get that feedback, consolidate it, and feed it back to the engineers and designers at the flagship in Korea.
Then, that information is turned into adjustments and product changes in the future,” Romano explains. “We have to understand and promote the product attributes, but we also have to understand the way in which customers make a purchase, how it was handled, and the way our service scene is being conducted. So, there are a number of areas which we constantly keep a pulse on.”
This is in addition to feedback gathered through the warranty departments, which analyze the product itself, where wear and tear are occurring prematurely, and whether a vehicle is performing at its most optimal – all of which is filtered into future decisions by the Research and Development and Engineering departments.
It’s a lot of information. And while most car companies have a similar data-gathering system in place, Hyundai Canada is aiming to do things differently on that front.
“I think the difference with us specifically in Canada is the Voice of Customer reviews we conduct with every Director, so we can understand the challenges and address them,” Romano points out. “We’re dealing with franchise dealers, district managers, and regional managers, so we have to focus on the pain points that customers experience when buying and servicing cars so that we can eliminate that pain.”
The ‘Voice of the Customer’ review is an instructive monthly meeting where internal data is gathered and scrutinized in the interest of bettering company operations and, in turn, customer experience. “It’s an opportunity for us to look at ourselves in the mirrors and ask, “What are we doing well? What are we not doing well? What do we need to change? What do we need to enhance?”
But how does the customer reach the brand directly on the day-to-day? Hyundai Canada has leveraged an omnichannel approach: Customers reach out via social media platforms, phone numbers, and the email channel.
Romano is quick to point out though that, more and more, customers prefer to document their inquiries via the written word. This is an ideal way of gathering pertinent information in a customer service interaction, like VIN (Vehicle Identification Number), year, and the dealership in question.
“We are rapidly adjusting to a very easy format where you can log compliments and complaints. It’s good when a customer can take the time online to email an actual form to us and say, “Here’s something I want you to be aware of.” That way, you know exactly where they’re coming from. The more we get in writing, I think the better we are at handling it. And we want to continue to move in that direction.”
The Customer Feedback Loop-de-Loop
The gathering of these golden nuggets of information is a strong initial step, but the question is: How does a car brand with a significant customer base, and so many moving pieces, make sense of that information?
First, they hone in on the number of customers contacting them.
“The first line of communication is with the actual dealer that you do business with (We don’t sell Hyundais directly; we sell them through franchised dealers). So, if they’re reaching out to us, something has broken down between customer and dealer. And we want to understand: Is that issue more prevalent in one area than another?”
With that information in tow, changes are made that are made to strengthen customer service, sometimes via training and tools that fix the initial issue that the numbers revealed. In the long run, this betters the customer-dealer relationship.
“The stronger the relationship between the dealer and the customer, the better,” he says. “Our dealers are a part of local communities; they’re there to service those customers. [Looking at the numbers] allows us to address issues, and really, that’s what we’re here for: Upgrading our dealer capabilities and, in doing so, and making them more customer-oriented.”
The data from the customer surveys also brings clarity to where the attention should be laid, with a shrewd audit of the buying and service processes, asking questions like: Was it easy to get your car scheduled? Was the car delivered on time? Was the repair explained in advance?
Was the car returned to you in the clear condition that it was dropped off? Answers to these questions help the company to develop and meet fundamental KPIs. “Through the voice of the customer, and through their survey comments — that’s how you can achieve continuous improvement.”
Hyundai Canada: An Award-Winning Culture
Customer service can be a tough gig. For service agents, the occasional pat on the back from the boss won’t cut it. But a good culture will. I asked Romano how the company keeps its people and departments supported and nurtured, and how it is able to covet such a positive culture.
“You nailed it: It’s all about the culture.”
As much as brand strength is buoyed by how customers perceive a company from the outside world, Romano notes that employee perception is equally important. Hyundai Canada has been hyper-aware of this, and the awards and accolades it has reaped is a testament to that fact:
For the third year in a row, it was selected as one of the greatest places to work in Canada. For the past two years, they’ve made the top 50, and expect to do so again. It’s also been rated as one of the top businesses for women to work.
This is not by accident, but rather due to a strategic investment in diversifying workplace culture and remembering that employees are living, breathing, thinking human beings with diverse needs. “I attribute that to a human resources department that doesn’t just do payroll: They really care about how people feel about coming to work,” Romano points out. “They put in place many policies that recognize that we all have different challenges in life (whether it’s having children, raising kids, medical issues, and more) and that we need to become a more flexible organization on a cultural level.”
And what happens when culture is top of mind for an organization? In the case of Hyundai Canada, it results in almost no turnover, and in some cases, boomerang employees. An added bonus? It improves customer relationships: “If we take care of our employees, they’re going to take better care of customers. And it works.”
In 2019, Hyundai’s Canada was recognized as the top-performing subsidiary of Hyundai globally and awarded the company’s Platinum Award of Excellence for this incredible achievement — something not often achieved by North American subsidiaries.
“It’s not just about selling cars. It has to do with the culture of the organization,” Romano says, gratefully. “I’ve been so fortunate to work with really, really good people who care about the culture and the employees. And it’s produced some pretty good results.”
Hyundai and CSPN: On the Road to Changing the Auto Industry
We know now that the company has been on a mission to make a change but it hasn’t done so in isolation. They’ve worked closely with organizations that have helped make significant changes to Hyundai’s cultural clockwork.
CSPN is one such organization.
The change Hyundai resolved to make is part of a larger systemic problem that Romano, CSPN, and Hyundai Canada are actively working to fix through thoughtful shifts in company culture and recruitment: “For over one hundred years, the industry has been overwhelmingly male-driven,” he says. “Yet, over 80 percent of the purchase decisions belong to females. If that doesn’t show a real problem, then nothing does.”
And therein lies Hyundai’s opportunity to differentiate from competitors that still sport a male-dominated work culture.
“I think that, especially in our great country of Canada, you have to have a diverse workforce. And you definitely have to have a roadmap to get your female talent to the top. We have to actively change that fact. To think that we’re strong enough to change it on our own isn’t good enough. We need training. We need seminars. We need help to get there. And the need for that is really how the relationship with CSPN was forged.”
Jessica Cryer, CSPN’s VP of Business and Customer Service strategy, explains that to effect change at Hyundai Canada, they took a multifaceted approach with training seminars and workshops, as well as a high-
level customer journey mapping session.
“It was really insightful to help with Hyundai’s service improvement opportunities, not only for their people but from a process perspective as well,” she says.
And CSPN recognizes Hyundai’s good work, too: Nadia Elliott, recently promoted to Senior Manager of Customer Experience for the Genesis brand, and a key player in making change at Hyundai, won the annual Customer Engagement Leader Award at CSPN’s Women in Leadership Awards in the fall of 2019.
Another award. Yes, Hyundai Canada has won awards. It’s been deemed a top Canadia
n workplace. It’s been recognized by the flagship brand. It’s an improved culture. Isn’t that enough? Not for Don Romano, who is on a mission to continually grow, especially from a customer service angle.
“We want to be number one, but we’re not number one yet,” he says. “But our customer service improvement journey is well on its way. We want to be the best service you can possibly get in the automotive industry, and with the help of resources like CSPN, we’ll get there.”
There, in that statement, is the drive that will propel Hyundai Canada into the new decade, and beyond. At the core of it is an unflinching dedication to making customer service the best in the automotive business, from the inside out.
“We are a service business. It’s our responsibility to take care of our customers and constantly get better. You want to make customers say: “The car is great, but the service is even better.”
“That’s my vision,” Romano says, smiling.
About Hyundai Auto Canada Corp.
Hyundai Auto Canada Corp. is headquartered in Markham, Ontario, and is a subsidiary of Hyundai Motor Company of Korea. Hyundai markets a full line-up of award-winning vehicles from subcompact to sport utility to luxury and is committed to providing world-class vehicles that over-deliver on quality, safety and design. Hyundai entered the Canadian market in 1983 and has grown into one of the best selling foreign manufacturers in Canada. Hyundai’s success can be contributed to the Company’s commitment to quality, safety and design which is reflected in the numerous awards won by our vehicles.
CSPN is a leading provider of employee-centric and CX training programs, consulting services, and networking opportunities, designed to empower organizations and harness the competitive advantage of delivering an exceptional customer experience.
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