ASADENA, CA — Toyota Motor Corp.'s Lexus luxury division has been renowned for premium customer service since its inception in 1989.

But Lexus-style deluxe perks are beginning to show up at competitors' dealerships. Freebies such as cappuccino and car washes are offered to keep buyers happy and, more importantly, keep them coming back.

But trying to keep the luxury brand's storied level of customer service ahead of the pact is an ongoing challenge, acknowledges Bob Carter, Lexus group vice president and general manager.

U.S. Lexus owners numbered in the thousands in the early 1990s. Today, they are in the millions, making it difficult to satisfy each individual customer that purchases a Lexus, he says.

“From day one, Lexus has been about more than just a car,” Carter tells Ward's here at a preview for the '06 Lexus IS. “It's been about an ownership experience and customer satisfaction,” he says.

“How do we, as an organization that's continuing to grow and has been successful over the last 15-16 years, evolve at retail to maintain that level of service and meet customers' expectations? In 1989, a free car wash was a ‘wow.’ In 2006, it's not a ‘wow.’”

Carter says the key to taking the Lexus customer experience to the “next level” is tapping dealers, who often have novel ideas. Another avenue is to look outside the auto industry to learn what other businesses are doing for their customers.

One idea from a Midwest dealer was for dealership employees to experience the same level of customer service as Lexus owners. The dealer asked workers what company in their opinion provided the highest level of service in town. The consensus was TGI Friday's (restaurant).

To provide his employees the opportunity to experience a higher level of service, the dealer reserved rooms at the local Ritz Carlton hotel for every Saturday night to the end of the year.

“Every Saturday night, one associate and (his or her) spouse checks in at the Ritz Carlton,” Carter says. The only stipulation being they must order room service and report back to their co-workers about their experience.

The dealer's point was, “‘how can I expect my associates to increase the level of service when they've never experienced that level of service themselves?’” Carter says.

Another idea, co-opted by a dealer after visiting a Santa Monica, CA, Apple computer store, was the creation of a “genius bar,” wherein customers with questions about their vehicle could visit a dealership and find a dedicated staff equipped with answers.

“If you have an Apple (product and) you have any questions or problems, whether it's with a laptop or your iPod, you go back (to the store) and somebody helps you with it,” says Carter. “And that's their fulltime job, to answer questions from customers and help solve problems.”

He says this idea is especially helpful for Lexus customers due to the level of technology in their cars.

“We have great navigation systems, but our delivery can typically take 90 minutes to two hours for the sales consultant to show you every feature,” says Carter. “It's a lot of technology to absorb in one 2-hour delivery.”

It is important for dealers to tailor their efforts to suit their local markets, he says. Lexus' sponsorship of Paul McCartney's upcoming 37-city U.S. tour, for example, will provide dealers across the U.S. an opportunity to take their most valued customers to a McCartney concert.

Carter admits not every Lexus owner will have the opportunity to see McCartney. But “if you've been doing business with a dealership, and out of the blue the dealer calls and says, ‘I have a pair of tickets to attend the sold-out concert Saturday night,’ that's a pretty big ‘wow.’”