23 November 2016

Above & Beyond: An unattainable ambition

Above & Beyond is Land Rover’s current advertising tag line, trading on its heritage as a designer and manufacturer of vehicles to take on the worst that the countryside has to offer in luxury and comfort.

Unfortunately nobody has thought to tell the Customer Relations department, where such lofty ambitions are uncomfortably out of reach.

As a long-standing Land Rover customer who, unlike many of its customers, uses the vehicles as intended, it comes as something of a shock when, instead of a positive attitude to tackling difficulties, the Customer Relations department crumbles and refuses to deliver a straight answer; relying on excuses and demonstrably untrue explanations.

It’s not unlike finding a well-heeled and respected member of the family slumped incontinently drunk in the gutter: it’s unseemly and embarrassing.

Land Rovers of old were unapologetically utilitarian, and even loyal fans will admit that build quality and reliability could be somewhat wayward. But this is 2016; Land Rover has become a premium brand with premium price tags stuck on premium products. Their competitors are the big German marques like Audi and BMW, where poor build quality and reliability just won’t do.

There’s no doubting Land Rover’s pedigree, and the current range of vehicles from the Discovery Sport through to the Range Rover are all supremely capable, but this means nothing when the dealers you buy them from and the after-sales support from the manufacturer are still stuck in a 1970s British Leyland mentality of "that'll do".

The majority of their dealers are run by the big dealer groups: Marshalls, Jardine or Sytner, with only a token number of independents still gamely clinging on to their franchises. The plan to bring both Land Rover and Jaguar brands in to the same showroom means that where a different dealer represents each brand, one of them must give-way and hand the showroom’s key to their competitor. In this high-stakes game it’s the depth of pocket that counts, and family-run independents just cannot compete with the big boys.

You might wonder why this matters to the end customer. The vehicles are the same, the manufacturer specifies how the showrooms look and feel, but whereas the personal touch and quality of service matters to independent dealers, for the national chains it’s purely a numbers game: How many units can we shift this week? Quantity, not quality, is king.

Unlike the German manufacturers, Jaguar Land Rover doesn’t own any dealerships itself and consequently there is no incentive for the other to compete to raise standards to those of the manufacturer. And JLR can do quality: just visit the Land Rover Experience centres at its factories to see how it knows it should treat customers.

Of the four Land Rovers I’ve bought from franchise dealers, one has been from an independently owned one and the others have been from three of the big chains. The difference in service was immeasurable: the independent dealer refused to give my car back to me until it had resolved a fault to its satisfaction, meaning I had loan car for almost five weeks. I was recognised and welcomed by name on each visit, and nothing was too much trouble – they even returned the vehicle to me at home, a two hour drive from the dealership, at their suggestion so as not to cause me any inconvenience.

How sad I was to receive a letter from them to say they were becoming part of a dealer network, and to demonstrate how valued I am as a customer my calls to book a service are now directed to a call centre where I am just a number on a screen and call-back reminder in their CRM system.

A similar fault on a brand new car from the chain dealership has seen my car back and forth like a fiddler’s elbow, and each time the fault has persisted. Five visits now, and still no closer to a solution; in fact I’ve given up and decided to return the car.

In an effort to get matters resolved I thought I would contact Land Rover’s Customer Relations team. I spoke to a Land Rover representative at the Land Rover show in Peterborough who, although not a member of the CR team, promised to pass on my details and get someone to call me about it – it didn’t happen.

So I contacted the CR team again, and explained the difficulties I was experiencing in the hope that they could make arrangements to get the car repaired, provide additional support and guidance to the dealer and tell them to ‘pull their socks up’ to get Mr Brown’s car fixed.

But no. Whilst there is additional support available for the dealer to call upon once CR are involved, my dealer hasn’t availed itself of that service. Can the Customer Relations agent offer any sort of expedited service to jump the (invariably month-long) waiting list to get the vehicle booked in? No. Can they offer any sort of goodwill recompense for the inconvenience? No. Do they add value to a dissatisfied customer’s attempts to get satisfaction? No.

It seems that Customer Relations, once they’re involved, is an added complication with them invariably relaying an almost identical message to me several hours after the dealer has contacted me directly.

Alternatively it could be to put an end to as many customer relationships as possible. In a previous case, it took from September to February to get a response from the Customer Relations team despite numerous phone calls, letters and e-mails, and then it was a flow of excuses and demonstrably incorrect information before they finally admitted the real reason for their stance: JLR policy. If they had said that at the start it would have been more acceptable than being repeatedly covered in spat feathers.

You may wonder why I keep returning to a brand that so frequently disappoints. The truth is, as with any abusive relationship, love is blind.

There are few other vehicles that have the abilities of Land Rover products in terms of off road ability and towing capacity, whilst still being civilised on the road. They're designed and built in the UK too with great features and practical touches - it's just a shame that all that great engineering is spoilt by poor build quality and a disinterested dealership network.

For all the gloss applied by the marketing department in promoting their vehicles, a little spit-and-polish on the rest of the customer experience wouldn't go amiss.

Now if you'll excuse me, I've an inebriated relative to look after. And Land Rover has a mountain to climb.

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