AutoNation Executive Marc Cannon Fixates on Customer Experience

Dealership chain AutoNation lost some customers because of its policy that people wear protective health masks at its stores.

Its COVID-19-related mask rule “kicked in hard in April,” and not everyone liked it, says Marc Cannon, an executive at the country’s largest dealership group that runs 236 stores in several states.

“We’ve had customers push back on wearing masks,” he says. “We got dinged, and lost some customers.” But many more customers thought it was a good preventative practice. “The majority of customers respected us for it.”

What customers think is constantly on the mind of Cannon in his role as executive vice president/chief customer experience officer.

“Don’t underestimate the customer experience,” he says during a J.D. Power online auto industry conference.

Years ago, buying a car often was a negative experience with some dealers taking advantage of customers, he notes.

That’s changed dramatically over the years and especially in recent times, Cannon says. “Customers want to feel good about a vehicle transaction. And (dealers) want them to feel good, too, so they’ll come back.”

He adds of today’s car consumers: “When they come into the store, they expect an amazing and safe experience and a clean place where everyone is wearing masks.”

COVID changed the way many dealers do business. AutoNation is among them.

“We learned a lot from COVID,” Cannon says. “We all looked in the mirror and asked, ‘How do we change?’”

In AutoNation’s case, it meant, among other things, pushing the gas pedal on its already ambitious online retailing initiative.

“We rolled it out faster than expected,” Cannon says, noting many virus-conscious consumers want to avoid lengthy dealership visits. “We needed the tools for customers to shop online anywhere at any time.”

Offering door-to-door home delivery of vehicles “was something we had talked about,” he says. “In 2020, we did it, fast.”

But not perfectly, Cannon acknowledges. “Home delivery is not going away. It’s been a learning experience for us and our customers. We had some bumps in the road. But we learn from it as we move along. Training is the key.”

He points to an end-result difference between online and in-person training. To him, the latter is more effective. “I have complete faith that once we get off online training and do it in person, we’ll do a better job.”

Cannon’s job biography says he “is responsible for creating and developing a seamless experience for customers throughout their entire ownership journey.”

Part of that means using surveys and such to “drill down and see how a store is perceived,” he says. “How was the service? Was it different than the last time?”

AutoNation also “is big on mystery shopping,” which includes covertly checking out how competitors are doing.

As important as customer experience now is to auto retailing, “it will get more important,” Cannon says.

AutoNation is No.1 on the 2020 WardsAuto Megadealer 100 with 2019 total revenue of $21.3 billion.

H. Wayne Huizenga, who made his initial fortune in the trash-hauling business, founded AutoNation (originally called Republic) in 1996.

When the company began a dealership buying spree, it unsettled some automakers, conjuring up fears that a large dealership group would become too powerful and start trying to dictate terms to them.

There was even wild speculation at one point early on that AutoNation would start its own vehicle line. (It didn’t.)

Automaker anxiety abated when Huizenga named Mike Maroone (a scion of a dealership family) as president and Mike Jackson (a former dealer who went on to head Mercedes-Benz USA) as CEO.

Debunking the idea that AutoNation was a potential threat to automakers, Jackson once declared at a Detroit press event: “All I want to do is sell cars.”

Source: AutoNation Exec Fixates on CX