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Drive Customer Loyalty

It's a Jeep thing you wouldn't understand." Question the behavior of a loyal Jeep owner, and you're very likely to hear these words. Because, if there's one thing that dyed-in-the-wool Jeep drivers believe, it's that they are fundamentally different from the slew of yuppie SUV owners currently crowding the roads. Take, for example, the outward appearance of a Jeep Cherokee. The prospect of being randomly smacked by a roving shopping cart in a parking lot is the sort of thing that leads Lexus SUV owners to park a half mile from the next closest car, but for the hard-core Jeep owner, scratches, dings, gashes and the occasional burn mark are worn like medals of honor. Maybe it's the long history of the Jeep vehicle, the fact that it was the original 4X4 or that the brand has always been synonymous with a spirit of adventure. Whatever the reasons, Jeep drivers are truly passionate about their wheels.

One of the greatest challenges for DaimlerChrysler AG, Jeep Division's parent company based in Auburn Hills, Michigan, and Stuttgart, Germany, is keeping up with the changing needs and habits of its diverse customer base. Forty years ago, Jeep made the only all-terrain vehicles and they were found mainly cruising Army bases, negotiating remote trails or venturing out on exotic safaris. These days they are more likely to be spotted shuttling kids to Montessori school and stockbrokers to the Hamptons. In fact, with so many other car companies trying to capitalize on the growing popularity of SUVs, Jeep executives realize it's no longer enough to simply convene focus groups and compile market surveys to learn about their owners. Rather, they need to crank up their efforts a notch by focusing on individual consumers and creating a relationship between the Jeep brand and the buyer. "You can't just shout in the forest anymore," points out Bud Place, a Jeep field marketing specialist. "You have to whisper in their ear." For more than 40 years, the Jeep Division has been sponsoring events for their owners across the country, offering them the chance to navigate off-road courses and engage in other outdoor activities that are part of the so-called Jeep lifestyle. Jeep marketers have found that these events provide a great forum in which to learn more about their customers and the relationships they have with their vehicles.

In 1952, Mark Smith, an off-road enthusiast, and a small group of his Rotarian friends decided to host a Jeep vehicle trek across the Rubicon Trail-22 miles of rocky terrain winding through California's Sierra Nevada from Georgetown to South Lake Tahoe. The next year, 155 people tackled the Rubicon. In 1954, Willys Motors , then the manufacturer of Jeep vehicles, began to sponsor the event. That was the birth of what is now known as the Jeep Jamboree, a challenging three-day, off-road trek that is currently held in 35 locations across the United States.

Over the years, Jeep has expanded the events to accommodate different off-roading skill levels. Camp Jeep, an annual three-day festival first offered in 1995, brings together families to participate in activities like off-road driving (something that 65 per cent of Jeep drivers have never done), fly-fishing, hiking and mountain-biking. In 1997, Camp Jeep spun off its "Introduction to Off-Road Driving" course into a series of separate Jeep 101 weekend events that are free to Jeep owners. Jeep 101 provides owners with the opportunity to test their driving skills on an off-road course and to try their hand at other challenges, such as balancing a Jeep Wrangler on a teeter-totter and negotiating a slalom course in a reverse-steering Cherokee. Hosting these activities is expensive for Jeep, but the company believes the opportunity to be face-to-face with thousands of customers makes it more than worthwhile.

Jeep first sent ethnographic researchers out to study the attendees at a Jamboree in Ouray, Colo., in 1996. They were tasked with building a better understanding of Jeep owners' relationships with their vehicles, a surprisingly touchy-feely initiative for a four-wheelin', ditch-crawlin' outfit like Jeep.

So they immersed themselves in the event's activities as undercover Jeep enthusiasts -- allowing them to experience the Jamboree as ordinary attendees would.

During the Jamboree, the ethnographers encountered a concept that they termed peak experience. "It's a feeling that comes when [people] push themselves, learn new things, acquire new skills," says Jim McAlexander, a partner with the Corvalis, Oregon-based Ethos Market Research and one of the researchers at Ouray. The adrenaline and excitement caused by the off-road experience seemed to have a transforming effect on the attendees and evoked very positive feelings about the vehicle and the company. Jeep 101 is geared more to newbie off-roaders than Camp Jeep or the Jamboree are, and it aims to give owners a taste of that peak experience. It seems to be working. According to Jeep sales research, Jeep owners who attend an event are twice as likely to purchase another Jeep as owners who don't attend one. Not only do these events boost sales, they also build the kind of long-term loyalty that most car companies yearn for. "The Jeep becomes a key component of [owners'] lifestyles," says McAlexander, "which we feel is a stronger form of loyalty than just owning something because it's bitchin' or cool to have." Jeep engineers have several different ways of getting customer feedback at its events. Casual conversations among attendees are carefully noted by Jeep staffers and an impressive 90 per cent of attendees fill out feedback cards.

But perhaps the most useful means of mining the customer experience is roundtables with customers and Jeep engineers.

The engineers who attend Jeep events are looking for tangible benefits from their customer encounters, namely, product ideas. By meeting with customers in a roundtable format, engineers can get feedback not only about recent changes in specific models but on ideas under consideration for future models. One material change that came out of several roundtables was the placement of the spare tire in the Grand Cherokee. For years, the spare tire was against a side wall in the rear storage area, but customers consistently complained that it restricted storage space. Engineers suggested that perhaps the tire could be stored under the rear of the car, but that idea proved unpopular with customers because it would reduce ground clearance. The owners suggested that there must be some way to house the tire in the floor of the storage area. The engineers took the feedback and designed a sunken well in the rear storage area that could hold the tire without compromising storage space or ground clearance. It became standard on the 1999 Grand Cherokee.

Jeep event feedback has also led to other product changes, albeit a little less structurally dramatic. For example, the headlamps on the Wrangler went from square to round and the vehicle's off-road capabilities were improved. At a recent Jeep 101 event, a gentleman complained that he was too short to pull down the rear door of his Grand Cherokee when it was raised and had to resort to carting around a step stool. He suggested that Jeep add a pull-down strap to the interior of the rear door. The engineers took his idea quite seriously and may implement it in future models.

Occasionally, customers at roundtables have adverse reactions to proposed changes in vehicles, and the company notes those as well. For example, many SUV manufacturers have put electronic controls on their transfer case that allow a driver to shift into four-wheel drive by flipping a switch on the instrument panel instead of pulling a lever. Jeep engineers were considering following the industry trend, but when they asked owners about it at the roundtable, the response was negative. Jeep owners felt that the shift should remain manual, that the driver would want to feel the gears shifting rather than flip a switch. The idea was tabled.

Attending the customer roundtables is a pleasure for the Jeep engineers rather than a chore, points out Mike Gabriel, manager of vehicle development for the Jeep platform. "When our engineers see the kind of excitement that the owners have, it drives excitement into the product at the designer's end." Many customers are understandably wary when they arrive at a Jeep event for the first time. They may have been lured there by the prospect of trying some off-road driving, but experience has taught them that they are probably going to get pressured to buy. Harvey Siverson, an MIS director who lives in Danville, Calif., recently attended a Jeep 101 event in the San Francisco area.

He and his wife have owned a 1990 and 1995 Cherokee and wanted to see how the 1999 Cherokee fared in an off-road situation. Siverson was surprised by the lack of sales pressure. "I do appreciate that this is a nonsales event, and I think they'll sell more vehicles that way than if they had a stable of salespeople standing around." Many customers who attend Jeep 101 events say these kinds of events show that Jeep cares about its customers more than other car companies do. Tanya Sheely, a 28-year-old physician recruiter assistant, drives a 1998 Jeep Cherokee and was encouraged to attend the San Francisco Jeep 101 event by her husband, who does a lot of off-road driving. She found the off-road course to be a bit nerve-racking but liked the company's attitude toward its owners. "At most places, you buy a car and you're done, but here it's different; they do things together, and there's a club that goes with it."

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