Does customer service still matter to John Hughes? Absolutely.

Speaking at a packed Hyatt grand ballroom for CCI’s first Lighthouse Leadership lunch for 2018, Hughes offered timeless nuggets of wisdom on how he’s stayed so successful for so long.

The car magnate said customer service was still a huge priority for his dealership and the old adage ‘out with the old, in with the new’ did not apply.

“We’re tending to forget who put us in business, who will keep us in business – the public,” Hughes said.

‘We’re all in the business of people. We tend to forget that, we tend to treat them as objects.

“Customer service is just good old-fashion manners. You smile, show some teeth, shake them by the hand.”

“You welcome them, acknowledge them – giving a name and getting a name and using that name.”

Hughes says women, in particular, get treated with disrespect in sales – a situation he aims to change.

“Half my sales are directly to women and half of the other half are influenced by women,” he said.

Customer service is also about listening and Hughes said it’s important to take on board feedback from customers after their interactions with your business.

Hughes listens to customer feedback so much that he will call disgruntled customers on a Sunday to work through their issue.

He shared the story of how he came up with his company’s famous philosophy, which was lifted almost verbatim from a customer complaint letter.

“A long time ago I was looking for a company philosophy. I wanted to come up with a philosophy that everyone in the company could embrace,” Hughes said.

“I nearly gave up. It’s very hard to encapsulate it down into a few words. Then I got a complaint letter from a customer.

“The final paragraph said, ‘Mr Hughes these incidents detract from the image of your company, which is that of a friendly and efficient company trading with integrity and determined to give its customers the best of service’.”

Hughes addressed the complaint and took the final paragraph to his managers, after adding the word ‘very’ before ’best of service’.

“I showed it to all my managers and asked them to improve on it without adding one word. We couldn’t,” he said.

“That’s now up on the walls behind all of our technicians. It’s on the back of our business cards.”

The customer experience is also important to Hughes who admitted he still picks up six to eight pieces of rubbish every day and urged attendees to make sure their ‘cabbages weren’t wilting’.

“When I was working at Attwoods Motorama I used to drive down Roe Street through to Northbridge every morning and Plaistowe’s was a chocolate-making company in Roe Street,” he said.

“Two screws in the ‘L’ in the Plaistowe’s sign had rusted and the letter had dropped. I drove past that place for two years and the ‘L’ never moved. Plaistowe’s went broke.

“There was another chap who imported a lot of refrigerated goods from overseas.

“He was very successful and one day I was there looking at the display in his store. His cabbages were wilting. He went broke.

“Are your cabbages wilting?”

The car industry was one of the hardest hit by the downturn and, coupled with digital disruption, it’s been a tough few years. But Hughes said tough times are the best time to trim the excess.  

“The internet has brought prices down. Its brought margins down – margins have never been lower,  and that’s the truth,” he said.

“It’s pulling our volume up but we’ve had to keep our prices down.

“Retail is tough at the moment after the boom, we’re slowly inching our way back but maybe (former Prime Minister Paul) Keating was right, maybe this was the recession we needed to have.

“We started questioning things. When things are going well you look at the bottom line and say well ‘that’s alright, keep going’.

“Now we’re lifting up the blanket, opening up the bottom draw asking ‘why?’

“Look at some of your expenses. Why are you spending that? Why are you doing that? Why can’t it be done another way?

“We’ve carved $3 million of our overheads in three months, stock, staff, conditions and marketing.

“Cutting back on numbers is unfortunate but you’ve got to do it.

“We’re leaner and meaner and hungrier and ready to go in 2018.

“And we’re ready to go because things are picking up. There is definitely improvement and we’re convinced 2018 will be a lot better than the previous two or three years.”

Don’t miss CCI’s next leadership event on March 9 where you’ll have the opportunity to hear from five of the leading NRL CEO's plus two of the game's most inspirational identities. Get your tickets to CCI’s Teamwork Beyond the Field – NRL Leaders Talk Business here.