Jill Lajdziak Makes a smart Career Move

Jill Lajdziak is the new president of smartUSA. She used to head Saturn, one of the casualties of General Motors’ downsizing its brand lineup. smartUSA already shows some Saturn influence with its no-haggle pricing and extreme devotion to customer service.

Jill Lajdziak, the new President of smartUSA in a smart fortwo.

“smart is a fabulous brand,” Lajdziak says, “and smart needs to be smart. What makes brands great is they stay true at their core to who they are. That will be my focus. My job here is to grow the business.”

“Part of this brand is terrific customer interaction,” Lajdziak continues. “That means trusting the people you’re interacting with in the facility both before and after the sale. It’s very much who smart is.”

The smartUSA Web site features a lot of interactive opportunities. Lajdziak has her own blog on the site. Customers get to post as well. Most of the comments are favorable, some, however, aren’t. Lajdziak is asked if smart will pay attention to the bloggers. “Absolutely!” she exclaims. “This business isn’t complicated. It’s all about a relationship with your customers. The media by which you do that may have changed, but it’s still a relationship business -“ a personal business. So, it’s important that I’m communicating, the members of my team are communicating. It’s just now it’s closer to real-time.”

Lajdziak says the company will pay attention to customer feedback and use it to drive strategy. The Internet is not her only means of getting feedback. Lajdziak attended the recent North American International Auto Show’s press preview days to hear from the press. “It’s important to hear from journalists,” she says -“ as well as the show organizers “but ultimately you want to hear what consumers are saying in the marketplace.” Sunday morning visitors to the smart “stand” found Lajdziak interacting with current and prospective customers.

During the press preview week, but not during the consumer portion of the auto show, smartUSA showed off its version of a plug-in vehicle. “We will be launching an electric-drive vehicle later this year,” Lajdziak says. “People look at a smart because of its size and they equate that to being environmentally friendly.”

The tritium space-frame exhibit helps dispel the myth that small cars are by nature unsafe -” and explains why smart drivers have a much higher view than most traditional sedans.

A variety of countries and almost all automotive manufacturers trying hard to be environmentally friendly, but smart already has four wheels up. The only cars currently on the road today that beat it for gas mileage either in the city or highway are hybrids. With its three-cylinder rear engine and short wheelbase, the smart car may seem to some to be almost too small. That, however, is before they get in the vehicle -“ a surprisingly easy thing to do: no bending over or folding yourself into yoga-style postures. Drivers in a smart fortwo are essentially at eye-level with those of SUVs. You can store golf clubs in the back.

So, Lajdziak has a good environmentally-friendly product to work with and a LEED-certified-Silver headquarters/retail building from which to work.

“It only makes sense for this brand to expand into the electric space,” says Lajdziak. True to the ‘city car’ position, the all-electric smart is anticipated to have an 85-mile range.

“I think people are rethinking their purchases,” Lajdziak observes. “They’re taking a pause in this whole ‘conspicuous consumption’ thing. If you have to go from point A to point B, or from your home to your office, why should you take an eight-passenger vehicle? You can be more socially responsible, use a smaller carbon footprint, and not have seven extra seats to haul around. Plus, you have the agility that a smart vehicle provides -“ it’s easy to park, easy to maneuver. It’s a smart purchase -“ and people are doing it for the right reasons,” she concludes.

The right reasons can sometimes have unintended consequences. New smart car owners are often provided with ‘courtesy cards’ to hand to people who stop them as ask them about their cars.

The smart showroom includes a mirror so shoppers can see the rear-mounted 3-cylinder engine.

“That was done in response to owners’ requests,” explains Lajdziak. “They just didn’t have the time to answer everything they were being asked, and they want to also make sure they were giving accurate information. We even had one owner who told us she always put on makeup and made sure her hair was brushed, even for a quick errand, because people would stop and quiz her about her smart vehicle -“ and sometimes they were people she knew.”

Another example of Lajdziak’s desire to reach out to existing -“ and potential -“ customers is a section of the Web site that contains photos of smart cars that have been in crashes and the stories of their owners who have fared much better than expected. “As people read those stories it overcomes the perception that ‘small’ is not safe,” Lajdziak says. “We have a tridion cell, which is essentially a steel space-frame, built much like a race car, and it helps explain why smart owners feel safe.”

The construction of the space-frame is another reason why drivers are sitting higher than many of the larger vehicles on the road around them -“ it helps remove them from the usual point of impact in side crashes.
The existing smartUSA owner body is very passionate about their cars, much like Saturn owners were. They have, on their own, formed owner clubs. “That’s brand loyalty at its best,” explains Lajdziak. “We certainly will continue to foster that, and I look forward to participating in their events.

“You have to earn that loyalty,” Lajdziak continues. “It doesn’t just happen. You have to communicate with your owners. As information breaks on the brand you want to make sure they come along on the journey with you. Our dealers are on board with our communications strategy and want owners to know that they are there for them after the sale.”

Dealers sell smarts in one of three configurations -“ as a stand-alone store, as a separate facility in the same location as a parent Mercedes dealer, and as a sort of boutique within a Mercedes dealership. In each case the brand elements are present to “create that culture,” Lajdziak says. “It’s a very innovative culture, it’s a very innovative brand. The customer expects innovation when it comes to marketing, to the whole smart experience.”

Lajdziak spent most of her early days with the brand touring the country and meeting dealers. She is impressed. “The caliber of the network is very high. And I’ve had a number of additional handraisers who want to talk about becoming dealers.” Including former Saturn retailers, she is asked. “Absolutely!” she replies laughing.

One of the challenges Lajdziak faces is the number of smartUSA cars sold in the U.S. She needs to increase that number in the months and years ahead. She is asked whether there is a target market for the smart fortwo. “That’s a very interesting question,” she replies. “The people who are attracted to this brand actually cross generational lines. First-time buyers as well as empty-nesters -“ and then everybody in between. Demographically our buyers skew more toward higher educated and with higher incomes. It’s really more of a psychographic that differentiates who buys this brand. They are intrigued by the innovation of the product, they want to be a part of a change, of something bigger. They want to make a smart decision because it’s right for the environment.”

The smart passion cabriolet. Photo courtesy smartusa.com.

Partnerships with other marketers is one way smartUSA is reaching out to potential buyers who fit the appropriate psychographic. smart cars dressed like cupcakes for Little Debbie was one partnership, being a sweepstakes prize for Pyrex was another. “You’ve got to be very targeted in what you do,” says Lajdziak. “We have to make sure that our alliances align with the essence of our brand. We get exposure to a variety of audiences and that’s important, given the size we are, and the size of our dealer footprint. So, the more opportunities we have to expose the brand the better for us.

“The best advertising for this brand is somebody’s good experience with it, word of mouth,” Lajdziak continues. “Secondly is just getting it on the road, getting people to see it. It’s a billboard.”

What about opportunities going forward, since the earlier alliances were formed before her arrival. “We think there’s a real opportunity on college campuses,” she replies. “A leading cause of crashes today is too many distractions. With kids of college age that can often mean too many kids in the car. We obviously have a huge advantage with this car. You have to be focused when you’re driving it. And, of course, there aren’t all those extra people to distract the driver. It’s at a good price point,” she continues. “I’m a mom and I certainly want my kids to be safe -“ and the smart has such a good safety story to tell.”

College students, particularly at the beginning and end of a term, often have a lot of “stuff” to bring home to mom to wash. A smart fortwo has more room than might be obvious at first, but it can’t pull a trailer. Lajdziak points out a generational advantage, however. “It can be ‘flat towed’ [without having to be on a trailer] which is a huge bonus for camper and RV owners. That’s a whole population we can appeal to,” she laughs.

The smart corporate offices are in Bloomfield Township, and right through a doorway is a retail facility. “I love the ability to go on the other side of the wall and be on the showroom floor,” Lajdziak says, “There’s no better way to stay close to customers. I grew up in the retail car business, my dad was a car dealer. So I feel like I’m coming home.”

Welcome home, Jill.