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‘This is not a customer. This is a relationship:’ Auto House on how repeat customers build long-lasting business success



Nearly everyone who’s bought a car has a horror story about their experience: feeling pressured into buying a car they didn’t want, watching the price soar in negotiations, or waiting for hours just to be denied for poor credit. 

But when Yelp reviewer Amber P. felt torn over buying a minivan at Auto House Tempe, she received an offer that would be unheard of at many larger dealerships. Instead of pressuring her to make a choice, her car advisor, Curry, told her to test-drive the minivan—for an entire day. 

Amber recalled: “We had soccer that afternoon. Curry said: ‘Take the car. Take it to soccer for your game. That’s what you’re going to be using it for. If you go to the soccer game and this isn’t the best thing ever, bring it back, and we’ll look for something different.’”

Amber did—and after driving her kids to the game, watching them get in and out on the video monitor, and putting the seats down to fit in extra equipment, the choice became clear. “That sold me because it was the right car for me,” she said. “And I did not want to get rid of it when my kids became teenagers because I loved it so much. That just speaks to the kind of experience [you have at Auto House.] It’s like, ‘We want you to have what you want.’”

The trust that Curry built with Amber in that exchange—and each time she returned to buy a car from him—is at the heart of every customer interaction at Auto House. With four dealerships located throughout the Phoenix, Arizona metro area, the business set out to make the traditionally tedious process of buying a car simple, accessible, and even fun. 

“Auto House is on a mission to change people’s minds about buying cars,” Auto House’s Vice President of Marketing Sarah Barr said. “It’s really our goal to be our client’s partner for life. We treat everyone the same, whether you’re coming to us to buy a $3,000 car or a $35,000 car. We want to be able to help you and be your partner for life for any of your car needs.”

In order to forge those lifelong relationships, each car consultant at Auto House is encouraged to showcase their own unique personality, rather than following a sales script. They accompany clients through the entire transaction, from start to finish. And they build trust by listening to their customers and helping them make the best decision for their needs—not the business’s bottom line.

“We don’t pass you off to what I call the ‘room of doom’ at an auto dealership, where suddenly your $300 car payment becomes $600 and you don’t understand what happened,” Sarah said. “That auto consultant is with you the whole way through. And that’s how we continue to help build that relationship.”

By operating outside the norm, Auto House has been able to differentiate itself in a market dominated by large companies. Its 40 auto consultants continue to nurture relationships with repeat customers, who act as advocates on their behalf. 

For example, whenever a consultant closes a sale, they follow up with a handwritten thank you note and a box of branded cookies—what Sarah calls a “surprise and delight” touch that encourages customers to come back and spread the word on social media and review sites, all without a big marketing budget. 

“We rely on our client having a good experience and coming back to us time and time again and telling their friends and family and their network of acquaintances that they had a good experience with us,” Sarah said. “And the only way to earn that is to treat people right. And you gotta treat them right the first time, the second time, the third time, from the beginning to the end.”

Since the business relies so heavily on referrals and word-of-mouth marketing, Auto House works hard to maintain a trustworthy online presence, as well as a positive customer experience. Reviews on platforms like Yelp help the business reinforce word-of-mouth recommendations and meet potential clients where they are—that is, searching online.

“If your neighbor down the street tells you that they had a great experience at Auto House, your first step is still going to be to look up Auto House on the internet,” Sarah said. “And if you go online, and there’s 3,000 reviews and an average of four-and-a-half or five stars, everything makes sense. That referral has credibility now because the reviews are in place.” 

Since purchasing four more cars with Auto House, Amber has certainly established herself as a loyal customer—the kind who leaves rave reviews that open the door for the next customer. She attributes her repeat business not only to the ease of purchasing at Auto House, but also to the relationship she developed with her auto consultant, Curry, whom she now considers a family friend. 

“[A dealership] is a relationship,” Amber said. “This is something that people go back to over and over in their lives. And there’s no reason why you shouldn’t have a trusted advisor. This is a financial commitment. I’m putting my trust, my safety, everything [in it.] Paramount to this is that you have a business [like Auto House, which] takes it seriously and says: ‘This is not a customer. This is a relationship.’ It’s that feeling. It’s that feeling that it’s personal. We are their customers as much as they’re our car people.” 

Auto House Tempe shares these tips that any small business can apply to build a solid word-of-mouth marketing foundation: 

  • Shake up the market you’re in and be something different. Think of the unique ways your business could differ from your competitors—no idea is too big or too small.
  • Take care of your customers, and they’ll take care of you. Customers who feel appreciated and valued can lead to additional free word-of-mouth marketing, beyond reviews and referrals.
  • Relationship building is essential to customer loyalty. You can’t put a price tag on relationships built. Invest the time to genuinely get to know your clients.
  • Keep up with the ever changing marketing world. Marketing tactics are always evolving, so stay up on the latest trends and customer behaviors. 

Editorial by Emily Moon & Holly Hanchey


These lessons come from an episode of Behind the Review, Yelp & Entrepreneur Media’s weekly podcast. Listen below to hear from Sarah and Amber, or visit the episode page to read more, subscribe to the show, and explore other episodes.

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The information above is provided for educational and informational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice and may not be suitable for your circumstances. Unless stated otherwise, references to third-party links, services, or products do not constitute endorsement by Yelp.

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