I don't know about you, but the only time I hear from the company that built our family car is when it sends us recall notices. Although car companies often brag about how “customer-driven” they are, they never really talk to their customers.

Oh yes, they do buy a lot of data. They conduct all kinds of clinics. And large staffs of sales and marketing people perform all kinds of analyses. But they never pick up the phone and call each and every person who just spent a precious amount of income to buy their products.

The car companies essentially sell us a car, wave goodbye, and hope that most of us will come back in another four or five years to buy another one. Then they wonder why most of us never show up again. I suppose it's because we treat them like friends who never call.

The factories have pretty much left it to the dealers to contact customers. But dealers spend all their efforts trying to lure you back to the dealership with offers of discount oil changes and low-cost brake jobs. Or they invite you back once a year to come in and see the new models. That's very nice, but all they're trying to do is sell me something. And when someone is trying to sell me something all the time, I tend to tune them out.

Yet, you can effectively cement lasting relationships with customers by showing them you really care about them. It's like calling your mom to see how she's doing. She loves you for it.

Of course, who would want a car company calling to see how we're doing? We'd see right through that kind of shallow ruse. On the other hand, it could be awfully effective if the call went something like this:

“Hello Mr. Smith, we just called to remind you of your free roadside service.”


“That's right, you'll see a little sticker on the driver side window of your car with a toll-free phone number on it. Anytime you run out of gas, get a flat or break down, just give us a call, and we'll run out to help you.”

“Did you say free?”

“That's right, call anytime. And have a nice day.”

Many automakers offer free roadside service, yet the vast majority of their customers never knew they had it, or they forgot. A simple reminder, especially after they've owned the vehicle a couple of years, would start to convince more of your customers that you truly have their interests at heart.

But it's got to go beyond that. Customers should come to believe that the more business they do with you, the better it is for them. Think of the frequent-flier miles the airlines hand out. Fly with them enough and you qualify for a free trip. Fly with them a whole bunch and they'll let you skip the long lines, check in at the First Class counter, and give you automatic upgrades. In fact, you may often fly with one of these airlines, even if you don't think it's the best, just to maintain your frequent-flyer perks.

Let's apply that kind of thinking to owning an automobile. Imagine if the company that made your car signed a long-term contract with a major gasoline retailer, and gave you a credit card guaranteeing that you would never pay more than $1 per gallon as long as you owned the car. Wouldn't you tell your friends about it? Wouldn't they want to buy a car from that kind of company?

It would probably cost an automaker about $1,200 over the life of a loan to offer that kind of perk to a customer. That's a whole lot cheaper than the $2,000 in incentives needed to move most cars off the lot today.

In fact, I can think of a zillion ways to spend that $2,000 to make customers love to buy cars from me. Wow, what a budget! Every year I'd send them a $400 gift on their birthday, or let them designate whom they'd want the gift to go to. Or maybe I'd send them a smaller gift every month. I'd print catalogues of gifts that they could choose from, with different types of catalogues aimed at different lifestyles and a variety of interests. And I'd drive the Internet-savvy ones to my website so they could make their choices online.

Talk about data mining. I would have customers gleefully giving me all kinds of information about their needs and interests, their tastes and desires. And I could use that information to start designing new kinds of vehicles that they would want to buy from me the next time they're in the market for a new set of wheels. And I'd know when they need a new car, because they'd tell me.

And they would love me for it. They would buy new cars from me, even if my cars weren't any better than the competition's, because the ownership experience would be simply irresistible.

Besides, it would be easy. The only thing my competition would be sending them would be recall notices.

John McElroy is editorial director of Blue Sky Productions and producer of “Autoline Detroit” and “American Driver” for WTVS-Channel 56, Detroit.