Ford draws on luxury hotel experience for Lincoln overhaul

DETROIT Fri Feb 3, 2012 12:52am EST

The Ford Motor Company logo is seen on a wall at the Qatar International Motor Show in Doha, January 27, 2012. REUTERS/Fadi Al-Assaad

The Ford Motor Company logo is seen on a wall at the Qatar International Motor Show in Doha, January 27, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Fadi Al-Assaad

DETROIT (Reuters) - In the plan to overhaul its luxury Lincoln brand, Ford Motor Co is embarking on a new approach, leaving behind the routine ideas of the auto industry and instead taking cues from the likes of high-end boutique hotels.

Case in point: When the Graves 601 hotel in Minneapolis learned that Jim Farley, Ford's global head of sales and marketing, lived near Detroit during his stay last year, the staff swapped his copy of The Wall Street Journal with The Detroit News.

"They said, we saw where you're from and we just guessed that you'd rather have your hometown paper," recounted Farley, in an interview. "It's a simple thing, but I want to go back there."

The upscale travel industry, where personal touches build cache and repeat bookings, is providing a useful blueprint for Ford, the No. 2 U.S. automaker, as it seeks to attract younger buyers to Lincoln partly through better standards for customer service and beautified showrooms.

Ford is in the early stages of reworking its dealer standards, Farley said. How stylish hotels, casinos and even luxury safari tours treat their guests serves as the inspiration.

So far, more than half of Lincoln dealers in the top 130 U.S. markets have agreed to upgrade their dealerships. There are less than 325 dealers around the country. Currently, 75 dealers in cities including New York and Los Angeles, have built new showrooms or renovated heavily.

Through glossier showrooms and attentive service, Ford is hoping to place a more exclusive stamp on the Lincoln brand as part of a broader company effort.

Some U.S. dealers have balked at the showroom improvements, however, expressing concerns about the potential payoff. Analysts and executives have also expressed skepticism about the brand's vehicle strategy. In an interview with the Detroit News last year, General Motors Co Chief Executive Dan Akerson said Ford "might as well sprinkle holy water" over the brand.

But Farley said improving dealer standards is essential for rebuilding Lincoln, which was the top-selling luxury brand in the United States until the 1990s. Last year, brand sales totaled 85,643, less than half the vehicles sold by Lexus, Toyota Motor Co's luxury brand.

"The luxury automotive space is not the place for us to learn for Lincoln," said Farley, who led the Lexus brand before joining Ford in 2007. "When I or my peers or even our dealers go look around and say who does, who scales, who codifies personal service, it's not in our industry."

Farley said Ford is considering creating four or five standard "rituals" that can be employed by Lincoln dealers throughout the country. One example might be to ask each salesperson to provide potential customers with their personal cell phone number.

There is even talk of changing the vocabulary used to describe customers, Farley said, evoking the Lexus practice of calling visitors to the showrooms "guests." For Lincoln, potential buyers are seen more as "clientele," he said.

(Reporting By Deepa Seetharaman; Editing by Bernard Orr)

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