Lexus Manila president Danny Isla on dealing with valued customers
How did you get started in the automotive business?
I had no inkling that I would be drawn into the automotive industry. Fresh from school, I took a fancy to cars but not to the point of being called an enthusiast. Doors for opportunity in the automotive landscape opened when I found my first job in a car financing company. My task was to generate credit applications and loan bookings from various car dealerships in a given area. Competition was tough, and the technology then was not as sophisticated as it is today, so I had to do tasks manually. I realized then that generating business was not only about having good products or packages to offer. It was more about establishing relationships and gaining the trust of the people in the dealerships.
Being assigned to different territories as a dealer coordinator, I was able to interact with the people who mattered in the automotive retail business, and it gave me good insights into how things ran in the industry. When the Asian financial crisis erupted in the early ’80s, interest rates soared to unbelievable levels, and the big players in the industry closed shop, including Toyota (Delta Motors), Ford and GM. I ventured into trading used cars, which was very lucrative at that time because of the scarcity of brand-new vehicles.
In the late ’80s, Toyota came back under a new joint venture arrangement between Toyota Japan and Metrobank. When I saw that a Toyota dealership was being constructed near my residence—Toyota Alabang—I applied for the sales manager’s position, not knowing that the guy who was interviewing me was the sales manager himself. He offered me a slot in the sales force. I accepted it. Technically, I started as a salesman, and thus began my deep involvement in the automotive business.
How did you end up at Lexus? And what convinced Toyota that the Philippine market was already ready for Lexus back in 2009?
I grew my career at Toyota Alabang. In 1998, I was given the privilege of joining the management team of Toyota Motor Philippines. As early as 2005, TMP began serious plans of launching Lexus as the luxury brand of Toyota in the Philippine market. It was a healthy strategy for TMP to build on the strengths of both the Toyota brand and the Lexus brand. It reflected strong confidence in the local market’s capacity for growth. Lexus Manila was launched in 2009, despite the country’s economic setback.
I think my appointment as head of Lexus Manila was backed by my extensive retail experience and my exposure to the total automotive industry. I am grateful for the trust. And now, eight years into the Lexus business, I hope that I have been able to deliver enough to be worthy of its leadership.
Is there a crucial difference between selling cars to the mass market and selling them to the luxury market? Or are the basic principles essentially the same?
There are basic principles in selling, regardless of what product you sell. It involves having the best product you can offer at the right pricing at the right time with the right level of promotions. It involves knowing the market and your customers. It involves the same ethics of being honest in your dealings and being fair.
Where the difference lies is in the type of customer in particular segments. In the mass market, pricing and promotions are the strong drivers. Communication is relatively generic—meaning it applies to everyone. Oftentimes, you hear of price wars among dealerships.
Selling to the luxury market is different because it requires greater effort in building relationships with customers. No hard sell is done because the customers know exactly what they need and they can afford to pay for what matters most to them, be it the vehicle’s physical and mechanical attributes, the comfort or even the brand image. They buy what is of personal value to them. At Lexus, we treat all customers like they are our guests in our own homes. We offer them hospitality and comfort to the level that they want to be treated. We do not pressure them into making a decision. We are there when and where they need us.
What do you say to those who insist that Lexus is just glorified Toyota? And what sets Lexus apart from other luxury brands?
I consider it a strength to be associated with Toyota. I believe Toyota remains the most formidable brand in the market. Its brand image hinged on product superiority, consistency and after-sales reliability is not a legend—it is a fact. And I capitalize on that whenever I encounter people associating Lexus with Toyota.
It’s like two brothers of equal stature. They both have good education finishing at the top of their class. One decided to work right away. The other decided to take up a doctorate degree. Both are happy for each other. They complement each other instead of being competitive toward each other.
I think Lexus has been successful in changing the old Filipino psyche that European luxury cars are more superior. With the continuous growth of Lexus sales over the years, I believe that we have already changed that perception. As opposed to the other brands, Lexus continues to adhere to its one-price policy, which relieves both customers and our people of the unnecessary stress during sales transactions. The market has actually grown accustomed to this transparent and equal treatment of all customers. Also, at Lexus, we give more focus and attention to the after-sales requirements of the customers.
What is the most fulfilling thing about being able to sell a car to a customer?
Fulfillment comes to me in three ways. One, each sale brings me closer to my target. Two, I make someone—the customer—happy. Three, I make a new friend. Believe me when I say that I am richer by the number of friends I have gained since Lexus Manila opened.
What practical advice can you give to anyone aspiring to become a car salesman?
There is no trick. Just be honest and truthful. Hindi na uso yung stereotypical car salesman who dominates the talking. Selling is more of listening intently to determine the actual requirements of the client. It is being able to give real benefit to the client.
Share an amusing or inspiring story you’ve encountered with a Lexus customer.
Only a couple months into our operations, an ordinary-looking and unassuming customer walked into the showroom at the start of business hours. He headed straight to the most expensive model on display. He asked the sales staff how much the car was, and if he could take delivery of the car on the same day. Still new and aware of the control procedures for a delivery, the sales staff could not give a definitive response.
I introduced myself and asked if I might be of help. He said he wanted to get the car within the day. He would go to Rockwell and come back after lunch to pick it up. I replied: “Of course you can have it, as long as the car is fully paid.” He asked for our bank details and told me he would remit the full payment that morning. He then left hurriedly. I told the sales staff not to rely on it—the client appeared to be just pulling our leg. By 10:30am, I asked our finance manager to check if money had come in to our account. Lo and behold, the exact amount I had quoted the client was indeed credited to our account! The customer came back in the afternoon to take receipt of the car as agreed upon. I invited him for a cup of coffee, but he wanted beer. Since we had excess cases of beer from our inauguration event just a few weeks prior, I obliged.
Over a couple of bottles of beer, we had a long chat about family, business and just about anything under the sun. In short, nagkapalagayan kami ng loob. Feeling so at ease already, he then sheepishly asked me for a small favor. He said that a delivery of another luxury car brand would be made to his condo somewhere in Makati. But the area where his condo was located was tight and quite difficult for a car carrier to maneuver in. He asked me if it was okay to have the car from a rival brand delivered to Lexus Manila instead. I said: “Of course!” We have since become more than business acquaintances. He has so far bought seven cars from Lexus.
Lexus Manila is most admired within the industry for being a pro-people company. Tell us about your people-first management philosophy and how this is key to your success.
I always tell my people that Lexus is not about selling cars. It is about lifestyle and providing wonderful experiences to the customers. The business of selling luxury is actually providing excellent customer service and building relationships. To achieve this, the whole team should be happy and properly motivated. I treat each Lexus associate with genuine care. I care for them beyond the walls of business. We constantly talk about good values that are important in life, personal or business-wise.
We espouse the Toyota Way philosophy, which has two pillars: Continuous Improvement and Respect for People. I put a lot of weight to the latter. Even the Beatles said it in a song: “The love you take is equal to the love you make.” I always want my people to feel the same level of importance we give to our customers—that they are well taken care of and that they belong. My team is the greatest asset of Lexus.
Since you mentioned the Beatles—and everyone knows about your devotion to the band—how would you compare Lexus to the four members of the British group?
The four Beatles put together harmony that is very Lexus. John Lennon is a legend. His thoughts were ahead of his time. He was a lyrical genius. He was passionate in what he believed in. Paul McCartney is polite, classic and elegant. He was even knighted for his services to music. George Harrison was quiet and calm, but had deep beliefs. Lastly, Ringo Starr is fun and sociable. Walang masamang tinapay kahit kanino. These are traits you can also associate with Lexus.
If you could buy one dream car now, what would it be?
I’d get the Lexus LX570. It is the car for all seasons and reasons. It rides as smooth as a luxury sedan, yet it can also deal with big boulders in the boondocks.