This time, I shall invest this space to share my views beyond the world of two-wheelers, for I had the opportunity to sit through the presentations and discussions at the SIAM Annual Conclave on the 5th of September in New Delhi. As the apex body for the Indian automobile industry, all that is being declared and deliberated by the thought leaders and policy makers will have an immediate and indelible impact on all segments of the industry, including two-wheelers.
The theme was “Moving into a new era of auto industry”. Interesting, especially in the current scenario of a bloodbath on the motorway. Tanking sales, job losses, closure of units, manufacturing holidays and ever-increasing anxiety in the ecosystem. And in all this mayhem, the industry was going to discuss moving into a new era. It always pays to be positive and take a current downturn as an aberration rather than an abominable obstacle. Pretty courageous of SIAM to maintain optimism and look ahead. “Keep calm and carry on!”
The narrative, therefore, should have been so, through every speech, presentation and discussion. Lo and behold, it was not. In fact, it was a curious mix of anxious speeches and discussions on the emergency- like situation, juxtaposed with presentations and thought-sharing that was oblivious of the general mood. Also, with so many people crammed in one room wearing dark suits, the environs were a bit sombre and sedate, to be polite. (Never understood why corporate India insists upon dark suits in a warm and sunny country!)
The anxious speeches and discussions seemed more interesting to hear and analyse. So there were industry leaders pleading with the policy makers for immediate help while the latter were happy playing God and promising emancipation [as always]. Speakers talked of a lot of possible solutions and interventions, from making money cheaper to vehicles cheaper and all in between. In a panel discussion when three prominent leaders were asked on what key steps the industry should take to ride [or crawl] out of the current situation, they suggested solutions from reducing GST rates to cheaper finance. Basically the focus was purely on “sales”.
And this is my basic grudge with the industry as a whole. The manic obsession with just pushing the metal out of the plants and the showrooms. I had expected one person, just one person, to take up the subject of better nurturing of existing customers and higher training of the frontline in better conversions. While we are seeing a drop in footfalls and interest in purchase, has the industry introspected on the effectiveness of converting the prospects (albeit reduced) into customers?
Even when thought leaders and industry stalwarts discussed “new eras” of the auto industry at the annual conclave, it was only to do with vehicle technology and manufacturing innovation. There was no mention of customer service, relationship management or brand equity. To discuss about something like “brand” is simply out of the question as it seems too esoteric for a community obsessed with just sales numbers.
A study of industries and countries going through economic downturns and recessions that have successfully come out with least collateral damage will show you that there was renewed focus on managing existing customers better and telling the brand story more effectively in bad times. Successful brands and resilient industries focused on the “intangibles” and invested hugely in initiatives on customer loyalty, manpower training and brand story-telling. The logic is simple – when the mind is sceptical and downcast, you must address aspects of the mind and not the pocket. Hard-selling and product promotions have never worked and never will. The bigger aspects of getting the nation back on track and overhauling customer sentiment matters more. Dealer outlets should not be allowed to close down and jobs should not be allowed to go. That is the business call a successful and sustainable brand takes. Network pruning needs to happen 365 days x 24 hours and not only when times are bad. Marketing and promotional spends need to be kept on a tight leash, not thoughtlessly hacked down in a downturn.
This is the time for the automakers to invest heavily on retention, both of customers as well as employees [including network]. This is the time for training programmes, upgrading skills, reconnecting with customers, better loyalty programmes and higher brand advocacy.
I saw and heard none of all this at this annual meeting of minds and movers into the so-called new era of the auto industry, as if they do not matter at all in creating the entire vehicle ownership and mobility ecosystem. Hopefully in their own individual realms, they do not dare turn a Nelson!