“We do everything based on what’s good for the customer, not what’s good for us or our employees. We figure if we do that, the customer will reward us.”
Rick Case, co-owner, Rick Case Automotive Group
“We have about 40 to 50 people a month get married at the dealership.”
Rick Case, co-owner, Rick Case Automotive Group
“All cars are the same, but the dealer can make the difference.”
Rita Case, co-owner, Rick Case Automotive Group
iPod-ready autos. Built-in global positioning systems: Every year, automakers add new features to their latest models in an effort to attract buyers.
Those new cars are then shipped to dealers dealers who make their living by convincing consumers they can’t get a better deal or receive better service anywhere else.
Rick and Rita Case, owners of Rick Case Automotive Group, know that anybody who walks into one of their dealerships can just as easily buy the same car at another dealer down the street willing to match any advertised price. So they must not only find ways to draw people into their showrooms but also make them happy, keep them satisfied and, perhaps most important, keep them coming back for all their automotive needs.
The Cases, whose Honda, Mitsubishi, Acura, Hyundai and Mazda stores are located in three states, are among the best at finding unique ways to differentiate themselves from the competition. It’s something Rick Case has been doing since he opened his first car dealership 44 years ago, and it’s what the husband-and-wife team attributes their success to.
“All cars are the same, but the dealer can make the difference,” says Rita Case. “If the dealership is a generic name, it’s not a person, a personality it’s not what people can sink their teeth into.”
And while it is an art not yet perfected, the Cases who met at a Honda auto convention in 1977 may have come as close to the ideal as anybody.
“I can’t think of any other person, any other two people, that have built a car company as fast as we have,” Rita Case says. “In 20 years, we have opened and are operating 12 car dealerships and a motorcycle dealership that we own 100 percent. There’s no one else that’s done that.”
Rita Case attributes much of that success to her husband’s marketing talents.
“The success of the business would have been impossible without his marketing genius and his ability to market these brands, create customer traffic and grow this business,” she says.
Last year, the auto empire posted revenue of about $500 million. And it all starts with bringing customers through the front door.
Twenty years ago, when the Cases opened their first Atlanta and Florida dealerships, the Hyundai and Acura names were unknown to American car buyers.
It wasn’t hard to differentiate a brand no one knew anything about; the challenge was getting people to come see cars they had never heard of at a dealership they didn’t know.
“It is more difficult,” Rita Case says of opening a store with an unfamiliar product. “Pioneering Hyundai in 1986, when no Korean car had ever been sold in the United States before, (we) had to explain that Korean cars could have quality, (and) we had to introduce a whole new name that people couldn’t even pronounce. There were seven different ways people were saying the name of the product.”
The Cases used a solution Rick had first tried decades earlier when Hondas came on the American scene.
“I bought a Volkswagen, a Toyota, a Datsun (now Nissan), a Ford and a Chevy and had them at the dealership for people,” Rick Case says. “I asked people to come in and compare them. They’re all here for them to compare and drive. I’ve done that at all the dealerships. When we opened Acura, we got a Mercedes and a BMW and had those for them to compare to the Acura. That works great.”
The Cases continue to give consumers the opportunity to drive competitors’ cars. Allowing them to compare gives them confidence in the model and helps build trust in the dealer.
In addition to trust, the Cases want to give customers a nice place to look at the cars. The Honda dealership in Davie, Fla., that they opened in 2002 is a far cry from Rick Case’s original used car lot in Akron, Ohio, where he paid $25 a month in rent.
“The Honda store has several unique things about it,” Rick Case says. “First of all, it is the world’s largest car dealership, over half a million square feet. We’ve got 1,500 cars inside. We have an eight-pump gas station. A year-and-a-half ago when I saw gas prices were going to go crazy, I put in a huge gas station.”
The Cases tie discounted gasoline to a rewards card that offers deals for repeated use.
“Every time they buy something, they get points, and they use those points to get discounts on purchases, services, parts, new cars, used cars, whatever,” Rick Case says. “They can also use that card to go through the car wash as many times as they want for free. They put their Rick Case Rewards Card in, and they buy gas at cost. We’re anywhere from five to 25 cents less than anybody else in the area.
“We get 1,000 people a day to come to that dealership. Probably 500 to 600 of them are for gas.”
Every time someone visits the dealership, that person is exposed to the brand and the products and services offered. Never satisfied, the Cases continue to look for new ways to draw attention to their enterprise.
“We have a clerk of courts office (at the Davie Honda store) so people can come to the dealership, pay their speeding tickets, get their driver’s licenses checked on,” Rick Case says. “They can also get a marriage license, and we actually have a chapel there where they can get married. We have about 40 to 50 people a month get married at the dealership. They come in, get their marriage license from the clerk of courts, and the clerk of courts takes them to the room right next door … and they get married.”
A clerk of courts office may have no direct link to selling cars, but it certainly helps people remember the Rick Case name, and it brings more people through the doors.
That dealership also serves as a voting precinct for two districts, and during the last presidential election, 3,800 people walked through the showroom on their way to the cast their ballots.
The Cases also work outside the dealership to get the name known in the community.
“To brand Rick Case, we do lots of charity work,” Rita Case says. “We have our own Rick Case Foundation. We have our own Rick Case Bikes for Kids. We started the year we opened (in Florida).”
Community service was already a long tradition in Ohio, where Rick Case got his start selling used cars and Honda motorcycles.
“We are very visible in the community for our Rick and Rita Case Boys and Girls Club,” Rita Case says. “We do quite a bit of charity that also brands us. We have an emergency response team that we put together for helping the police. We have a relief fund when something happens to someone and (the family) can’t afford the funeral. Those kinds of things get the Rick Case name out.”
And it doesn’t hurt when you are the largest dealer in the world, a distinction the Cases hold for their Davie Honda dealership.
“When you are the largest of something, that also brands you,” Rita Case says. “We merchandise that, and we let the public know that we are the largest.”
Name recognition helps get people in the door, but getting them to buy and keep coming back is something else.
Rick Case is not just the owner of the company; his name is intertwined with every dealership and every car sold. And it’s not a matter of ego the Cases want people to know who the ultimate authority is.
“Nobody knows who to go to (if the name is not on the dealership),” he says. “It’s personal now. It’s us; it’s a person. The buck stops here. They know when they get to Rick Case, he can’t say, ‘Well I’ve got to talk to the manager.’ The whole idea is so people know who the owner is.”
The Cases also want to make the sales process easier and very low-pressure.
“Salespeople are not allowed to hang around by the front door out on the lot and jump on customers when they come in,” Rick Case says. “Our policy is a manager greets the customers and asks them to please let him know when they want someone to help them.”
Within each of the stores, the sales team is dressed in the same blue, Rick Case-logoed shirts, while the managers, including, Rick and Rita, sport white, long-sleeved shirts.
“We do that because we want the customer, if they’re not happy with something, to know they can go to a manager,” Rick Case says. “It’s easy to spot them because they’ve got the white shirt on.”
It’s all part of the differentiation strategy that infuses unique branding with best-in-class customer service. And if there is a problem, the Cases make it easy to go straight to the top.
Rick and Rita Case give every customer a card with their home and cell phone numbers. Case says he receives four to eight calls a week from customers, sometimes to complain, sometimes to praise and often just to find out if it really is the guy whose name graces the dealership.
While they are accessible by phone, and they visit each dealership at least once a quarter, the Cases know that it’s the salespeople who have a direct line of contact with customers. With that in, mind Rick Case makes sure the people he brings in to work in his stores share his customer-focused philosophy.
“We don’t hire people that have sold cars before,” he says. “We hire based on personality; we want people who are outgoing, and then we train them in our way. Our way is different than the regular car business. Our motto is, ‘Treat every customer like our best friend.’ That’s why we have the five-day, money-back guarantee, and our salespeople call their customers once a month not to sell them a car, just to see if they can help them in any way.”
And every customer gets the salesperson’s home and cell phone numbers.
“We say we’re available to our customers 24 hours a day,” Rick Case says. “We do everything based on what’s good for the customer, not what’s good for us or our employees. We figure if we do that, the customer will reward us.”
Keeping track of how well they are doing is very important.
“We measure ourselves based on the industry standard of customer satisfaction,” Rita Case says. “Each of the different manufacturers has a different term for what they call customer satisfaction. But it is all measuring the results of what the customer says about us.”
The regular phone calls provide anecdotal evidence, and surveys provide a more scientific approach.
“Rick and I measure our company’s performance volume as it relates to the market, customer satisfaction as it relates to our district, national and regional standards and employee turnover,” Rita Case says. “If we can retain employees, then we’re going to have happy employees. And if we have happy employees, we’re going to have happy, satisfied customers.
“If we have happy, satisfied customers and we do good marketing and provide state-of-the-art facilities, we are going to have high volume and be successful.”
HOW TO REACH: Rick Case Automotive Group, (800) 834-3965 or www.rickcase.com