I’d like to report on something that, on the surface might seem trivial and not particularly relevant to you, but if you’ll allow me to elaborate for a moment, I think it might be.
It came to my attention a few weeks back that the little Kensington-based Jaguar dealer, RA Creamer and Son, was going to relinquish its franchise because of the challenges involved in meeting Jaguar’s new corporate strategy.
Now, Creamer’s is a special dealership for several reasons. It opened its doors back in 1927, and later on became Jaguar’s first official dealer. Today, its hard-wired connection to the very heart of the marque is palpable: the managing director, Michael Quinn, is the grandson of Jaguar’s founder, Sir William Lyons, and if that’s not pedigree enough, it’s also the place where the Queen and Prince Charles collect their Jags from, so it's effectively by Royal Appointment, too.
Bearing in mind Jaguar’s pride over its heritage, I was a little surprised that it was content to let such a big slice of it disappear so easily, so I rang Mr Quinn to find out what the deal was. I fully expected him to be spitting feathers about his treatment, but he bears no grudge; he was at pains to resist any bashing of Jaguar Land Rover’s management, and took a rather more sanguine approach.
You see, Creamer’s is unique among the Jaguar franchise network for more than its origins, bloodline and Royal patronage. Rather than conducting its business from a generic, glass-walled, retail palace like so many dealers these days, Creamer’s exists as a web of small mews buildings, within a stone’s throw of Kensington Palace.
It’s quaint without being contrived, and possesses a charm all of its own. But the limitations of its sprawling, yet confined, layout, mean it’s been outgrown by JLR’s recent expansion. In fact, due to a lack of showroom space and the ever-burgeoning range, the company already decided to stop selling new cars in late 2014. Instead, it concentrates on its after-sales business, which, along with the Windsors, includes a deeply loyal, local clientele.
So why should this matter to you? You’re probably thinking, “It’s simply progress, and unless you want to end up like King Canute trying to push back the tide, you’d better get used to it, Howell”. You’d be right of course, but I think there’s more to the loss of independent dealerships like Creamer’s, and it’s something that affects all us car-buying folk.
I used to work for a Jaguar dealer whose family ownership went back to 1919, although it wasn’t representing Jaguar back then, of course. It has also succumbed to the pressures of modern business, and now exists as part of a vast, corporate group.
Like the guys at Creamer’s, I knew most of my customers by their first names, and when they’d pop by for a chat, as often they did, the welcome would be a cuppa and my time, whether or not they were buying. If they had a problem, I was happy to help; I wanted to look after them, and my boss – who was the owner - encouraged this. And if the issue was beyond me to solve, they could speak directly to him for a resolution.
It was a happy place to work, and because we were happy, I think we made the customers happier, too.
I’ve worked for the big groups as well, and while I can’t speak for every dealership in the land, from my experience at least, they don’t serve their employees or their customers in quite the same familial way.
That’s not to imply the service you get won’t be effective, but their approach to dealing with customers can be so procedural as to make robots out of the staff, and turn customers into commodities. On the surface phrases such as: “Welcome to Conglomerates of Croydon, my name is Tracey and how may I direct your call today?” might seem polite, but where’s the warmth, the sincerity?
I bet you could phone Conglomerates of Croydon every day for a week and get the same scripted patter, but never once have someone recognise your voice and say: “Oh, hello John. How are you, and how’s that car of yours going?” To me that’s a shame and a symptom of change rather than progress, and why it’s sad for us all that businesses such as Creamer’s are down to a dwindling few.
But in the process of writing this a solution has formulated in my brain. It could save Creamer’s and that exemplary service, allow Jaguar to preserve its heritage, keep Her Majesty happy, and more pertinently you, too.
JLR, why don’t you buy the business? You’d retain the experienced staff - some of whom have been there for over 40 years - and could operate it as a brand-enhancing boutique dealership. More importantly, how about setting it up as a training centre for your entire dealer network?
Think about it: dealership staff around the country could flock to learn the art of proper customer service, The Queen could still pop round the corner to get her motor serviced, and throughout Her Kingdom, anyone looking to buy a Jaguar – or any car for that matter, as other manufacturers would be forced to compete - would also be treated like royalty when they walked through their dealer’s doors. How nice would that be? And if Jaguar didn’t sell a few more cars as a result, I’d be surprised.
Yes, this is all pipe dreams and rose tinting, but as we seem to be heading further towards the lowest common denominator for service, we should stop for a moment to think about what we are losing.
I am an optimist though; so if you have a fantastic dealer that does go the extra mile, why not let us and everyone else know? And assuming my grand plan doesn’t come to fruition, I’d like to wish Mr Quinn, and all the boys and girls at RA Creamer and Son, every success in the future.