the ceo magazine, customer service,
Chip R. Bell

Walk into Sewell Lexus in Dallas, Texas.  A huge overhead light shaped like an upside-down diamond…bathes the bone-colored tile of the showroom in a soft glow. Offices are done in rich mahogany paneling. Large plants are everywhere, plus colorful fresh flowers. The sitting area has overstuffed leather couches centered on a rich oriental rug.  If this were a home it would be in Architectural Digest! You realize you are in a classy place when you are warmly greeted by everyone like you are guest in their home, not like easy prey for salespeople in search of a kill.  

There is no pressure and no hassle.  The focus is on you, not on the vehicle.  Sales professionals build relationships grounded in trust, not hype; they are clearly on a quest for a thrilled customer, not just a higher number on the “number of cars sold” chart.  Conversations about the vehicle tell you in an instant you are dealing with expertise.  Not an arrogant, smarty-pants, “let me show you how brilliant I am,” but a quiet, understated style that leaves you feeling very confident.  Sales people show the kind of bubbly pride in what they sell that convinces you they have “fallen in love” with the brand. 

Now, walk into Sewell Cadillac, Sewell Infiniti, Sewell Hummer, Sewell Buick-Pontiac-GMC, or any one of the seventeen Sewell auto dealerships that sell almost forty thousand vehicles a year and you will get the exact same quality experience.  Talk with the U.S. headquarters of all of these brands and Sewell will be at the very top of their “best of the best” dealerships.  Many dealerships around the country dream of being #2 behind Sewell.   It is a brand that puts customers first, and customers have rewarded Sewell with their long-term devotion.

Customer service “Sewell-style” was heralded in owner Carl Sewell’s best-selling book, Customers for Life.  It is chock full of stories and sermons. Like the customer who broke his key off in the door trying to leave the airport and called Sewell for help.  Help came instantly…no charge.  Like inviting customers to call if they need help…24/7. However, Sewell’s bold strategy required imaginative leadership that reflected five features—Trumpet, Exhibit, Energize, Harmonize and Sponsor.

Cult-Like Brand Leaders Trumpet

When Sewell Village Cadillac introduced new model cars, Carl took a page from the Neiman Marcus Christmas catalog—some extravagant items are always included to help set the tone for the catalog.  Carl held an annual “coming out” party complete with champagne, roast beef, and fancy desserts.  He hired a band, dressed his sales people in tuxedos, and made a big deal to show off the new cars.  He even invited devoted customer and celebrity Larry Hagman of the T.V. show Dallas to help with the festivities.  Over 5,000 people attended.  At first Sewell only invited customers.  Then, he opened it up to anyone driving a Cadillac! 

Cult-Like Brand Leaders Exhibit

The day Sewell Lexus opened, Carl was out of town.  The new dealership was filled on opening day with prospects.  The paint was barely dry on opening day.  When Carl arrived that evening, he found cups and empty boxes lying around outside.  He began picking up the debris only to be silently joined by several of his salespeople. “If you’re the boss, you can’t fake it,” wrote Sewell in Customers for Life.  “You either believe in the goals you’ve set or you don’t, and if you don’t you’re going to get found out.  Employees watch their leaders too closely for them to be able to fake anything.  Once people catch you not caring about a goal you’ve set—you said we always have to treat customers honestly, and they watch while you deliberately short-change someone—then it’s all over.”

Cult-Like Brand Leaders Energize

It only takes a few seconds with Carl Sewell to read his passion for customers.  His eyes light up and his smile broadens when hearing a positive comment or a helpful suggestion from a customer.   Framed customer letters adorn his office, not awards (and he has won a gazillion of them). He lives, breaths, eats, and sleeps “the customer.”  And, his regular meetings are dominated by customer-talk.  “Repeating our values and beliefs over and over again is a lot like why they hold church every Sunday,” says Sewell.  “Even when you know what you’re supposed to do, you sometimes can forget.  And, that’s why we keep repeating what we believe in—and celebrate each time we meet one of our goals:  to remind ourselves.”

Cult-Like Brand Leaders Harmonize

The leader’s role as a “harmonizing influencer” is to search for areas where the customer focus or vision may create some dissonance.  The clash may come from processes out of sync with the customer focus.  If the focus calls for creating customer partnerships yet the returns policies communicate mistrust, there is dissonance. As Carl Sewell states: “Being nice to people is just 20% of providing good customer service. The important part is designing systems that allow you to do the job right the first time.  Systematic approaches are 80% of customer service. They’re what’s really important, not the smiles and thank you’s. The key is to devise systems that allow you to give customers what they want every time.” 

Cult-Like Brand Leaders Sponsor

The word “sponsor” means “to champion, inspire, or advocate.” Carl Sewell has refined the art of celebration. Allison Cohen, a sales professional at Sewell Infiniti describes Carl’s approach in this fashion: “We have great celebrations.  We always have our end of year awards ceremony dinner. We also have a 20-group dinner. For every salesperson who sells 20 cars at least one time, we have a dinner and are given our checks.  If you sell 20 cars more than 3 times you are invited to Carl’s house for drinks, eat dinner at the five-star Mansion on Turtle Creek and stay overnight.” Leaders who celebrate know that the most powerful affirmations are those that matter to the one on whom they are bestowed.   They also know that servers who feel affirmed are more likely to pass that same feeling on to the customers they serve.

Customer service that yields a cult-like following makes customers feel they have been bestowed a value-unique experience that honors the very nobility of service. Its distinction signals an unmistakable spotlight on the customer. And, it starts with leaders who trumpet its importance, exhibit actions that telegraph its value, energize it by repeating it’s focus, harmonize its priority with congruent processes, and sponsor those who model it.  And, to quote Mr. Carl, it creates customers for life.

About the Author

Chip R. Bell is a renowned keynote speaker and the author of service national best-selling books.  His newest book is Kaleidoscope:  Delivering Innovative Service That Sparkles.  He can be reached at

[Image courtesy:HypnoArt/ Pixabay]


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