Ken Schmidt

How to be the Harley-Davidson of Real Estate

By making the customer experience the laser-focus of your business, you’ll win clients for life.

November 11, 2019

In the mid-1980s, Harley-Davidson Motor Company was on the brink of bankruptcy. The company was facing increasing competition, dwindling market share, and a faltering brand image. Hollywood had latched on to the stereotype that bikers are criminals or involved in gangs. It didn’t help that dealerships were rundown, dirty, and often had nude magazine centerfolds handing up behind the parts counter. They weren’t exactly places where customers would take their kids, and there was little to no marketing toward female motorcycle riders. 

Something had to change. In 1985, Harley-Davidson hired Ken Schmidt to be director of communications to improve the company’s image and help sell more products. It was a tall order. Schmidt, who told his story at the REALTORS® Conference & Expo in San Francisco Friday, started by writing down three questions:

  • What are people saying?
  • What do we want them to say?
  • What are we doing to get them to say it?

The company embarked on a study of human behavior. “Every human seeks approval on some level,” Schmidt said. “Facebook today is an example of the human need for validation. To feel special, important, and necessary. It makes us feel confident and boosts our self-esteem.”

What does that tell business people? Schmidt says it’s an opportunity to make clients feel special. “It’s about winning people over from the inside out,” he said. “The strongest, most potent way to build demand is through advocacy—what people are saying about you.”

In addition to improving the quality of its products, the company redesigned its dealerships to create a more welcoming atmosphere for customers. Employees were tasked with taking a laser-focused approach to the client experience.

“You’re never going to have the money to take on the enormous competitors, but you can build consistency through consumers and what they’re saying about your brand,” said Schmidt, who stayed with the company for 14 years. “It needs to be the focus of any business.”

Visible passion is another characteristic that attracts customers. “It’s the most instantly mimicked of all human behavior,” Schmidt said. “We’re not here to simply serve; we’re here to delight. It’s not a marketing function, it’s an all-hands function of the business.”

Real estate professionals can take heed from the Harley-Davidson story by focusing on what they want customers to remember and repeat to others about their homebuying or selling experience. “A delighted person will always come back,” Schmidt said.