tl;dr: Ling is awesome and timely updates suck.
So, Dave decided to interview someone. The rest of Mavens - whose attitude to their own website was by now hovering somewhere between amused contempt and visceral loathing - mocked him, and stole his coffee.
But Dave was not to be dissuaded! He approached Ling Valentine of Ling's Cars car leasing fame, on the grounds that even if the interview didn't go well, everyone would be too afraid of Ling to say much.
Fortunately, Ling is a great interviewee.
GET ON WITH IT
First of all how long have you been using the internet? Were you an early adopter?
I have been using the internet since I was at Uni in China in the mid-1990s. When I moved to Finland for study in 1996, I began to use it a lot as they have so much connectivity. That's how I met my husband Jon online, as he was in the UK.
What does "Wah!" mean? It seems to have a few meanings...
"Wah!" is what Chinese people say when they trap their finger in a door. A cross between "Wow" and "aaagh". People in the UK used to laugh when I said it, so I decided to use it, and it took on its own life.
What do you think about people who criticise your site? Do they have a point, or do they just not understand what you are trying to do?
My site has a very difficult job to do. Most people look at it very simplistically, but it has to entertain visitors for a long time. Cars can be boring when you have been looking at the same ones everywhere for weeks, and the buying cycle can be several years; it's a massive decision to make, especially on the internet. So my site has to be memorable, entertain and create enough emotion for people to commit to a new car. I do all my sales online; I hardly use the telephone.
You have done things in a completely different way to how any agency would advise you to do it, yet you kick the shit of the competition - have you ever, or would you ever work with an agency?
No, I never worked with an agency. I really hate the "same again" website design. I believe most people would rather be surfing porn or entertainment, so I try to meet those needs, without taking my clothes off. Making it a bit funny, colourful, brash, in your face - that is what most people want. I hate the "professional" word, as agencies use that as an excuse for making stuff boring and uniform. I would not work with an agency.
Have you, or do you have advice from an SEO agency, or is it all done in-house?
My SEO is done by an 86-year old, grumpy racist Jew, who lives in Whitstable. He is a diamond. He constantly berates me to change stuff, I give him live editing rights on my header files and page titles, and he plays around and gets me great results. My SEO does pay dividends.
Do you use paid search? Is it becoming too expensive and competitive to make it worth the effort?
No, I don't use paid search. AdWords will eat every penny you have. I don't need to do that, as every penny spent must be recovered from customers. It also seems to become addictive for companies. Once they decide they need to use paid search, they seem to have to keep using it. I prefer to draw people to my website in a more natural way - based on its benefits.
Are there any other websites out there that you admire? (Chinese sites are interesting to us too).
This is hard. I admire websites that do their job, but so many don't. For me, it's all about results. So many businesses have websites that are unprofitable (including big ones like YouTube etc). It is a monetary question for me... does the website earn money? If yes, then I admire it, I guess.
Can you tell us anything about the infrastructure behind your site? Do you use a CMS, for instance?
I built my own CMS, called LINGO. When a customer makes an enquiry on a car, they visit LINGO. It's like a fully transcribed secure conversation area, with tabs for different cars. It's also fun, but different from my retail site. Every day, I have up to 1,000 conversation posts inside LINGO. Customers love it because it is an indelible written record - it cannot be edited - so if something has been said or promised, they can find it and hold me to account. Equally, customers cannot try it on... if they asked for a blue car, there it is in writing. So they cannot deny that later.
LINGO won the BT Business Award for IT and Communications in 2009, and it means I can manage 300 live customers with (some days) just one person administrating them. Customers see exactly how long they have to wait for replies, usually under 5 minutes, and they can upload documents, view loads of info about their car, track their mileage after delivery, etc. LINGO is just brilliant.
But there is more to it; because it is all live, online, I can see customers arriving on my website and have answers before they have even asked a question. I pedal like mad in the background and they are amazed when I beat them to a question.
Because it is totally secure, customers (especially ones with sensitive occupations, like politicians or police) know what they say stays inside and they can disclose personal info with no risk. It's much safer than an email attachment. Suppliers also use my LINGO area to retrieve the information they need from customers.
What is your team like? How do they help you?
My team is fantastic. We all work together and we have a scream. Most stuff is discussed, live, so my office is in constant uproar as customers arrive and we all shout out what's going on and how to best deal with them. This can also include jokes, taunts and friendly pokes. My staff, my customers and me all become great friends. My team is so good, that later today (as I type this) we are all 10 of us going for a weekend in Amsterdam on the DFDS ferry from Newcastle. It's all 100% free for my staff - my car suppliers have even contributed £1500 to a spending fund for my staff as they appreciate all the business they get and the low-cost, excellent way in which they can supply cars to my customers at virtually zero admin cost and overhead.
How did you get so cool?
I'm not sure I am cool, but largely (I guess) because I don't give a shit about 3rd party opinions. All I take into account are my customers. My staff and my suppliers have to work around my customers. Consequently, my business is all bottom-up and when some "sage" on Twitter criticises or tells me where I am going wrong - I abruptly tell THEM where to get off. Often a tsunami of customers join in to offer support. It's fun, exciting, and (I guess) cool.
What do think of car manufacturer sites? Or their Twitter feeds, or Facebook pages?
Car manufacturers simply don't get it. Their Twitter and Facebook sites are sugar-mouthed PR shite, they have no real regard for customers, just for their own overblown image. Car manufacturers can be found lying, twisting the truth or simply misleading people. Look at the rubbish spouted by Toyota over their product recalls, which then ended with an apology from their top boss. If car manufacturers truly engaged with customers, it would be so much better - but they don't. It is all just a PR effort, to them. In general, the car manufacturers and new car dealers hate me, because they feel I "steal" their rightful customers. They don't realise that customers should be allowed to make up their own minds.
Do you have three top tips for anyone else who would like to promote their own online business?
My three top tips would be:
1. Put the customer first
2. Don't be afraid to be blunt
3. Entertain people
How do you measure your success on the web? Did you ever doubt that you were doing things the wrong way?
I still think I may be going about stuff the wrong way, as I constantly get told that. But deep down I know that people prefer honesty to the corporate rubbish that others spout. I really hate using the word "we" on websites, I think that's a cop out. They should talk personally, not corporately. So many "experts" are now coming round to appreciating that my website works though. I count pals like Seth Godin and Jared Spool as being very helpful. I'm often featured in educational material, and I am an A-Level UK exam question, so I must be doing something right.
We’ve seen that, in general, Chinese sites tend to be more informationally dense than those in the UK. Do you think your heritage influenced your site design? Or was it Geocities? =P
Hmmm, I am not sure about this. I need to give people enough information to make massive buying decisions (often talking about new cars worth more than £30,000), so I think it is other websites who are out of step. The usual flimsy and inaccurate car leasing static-advertising site is the norm, so perhaps mine look busy because people make the wrong comparisons.
You seem consumed by how to make the car leasing industry better; what methods do you take to determine what works on your website?
I simply take customer feedback. I often change things on the fly. I instantly know if something works or not. We code the website live in real time (dangerous), but that means we can see what works and what doesn't work, instantly. Frankly, it is not hard to make the car leasing industry better, as it is a pretty old-fashioned industry, full of dinosaurs and chancers.
The site map feature is brilliant, as is the demographic detail you publish about your users (though I think it’s broken at the moment). Many people don’t have a good idea of how website data capture works- do people ever express concern that you can see all this data and put it on your website?
The sitemap with the moving little customers and live data is great. It is a big drain on resources though, and does freeze occasionally, mainly when there are more than 100 people bouncing around on the screen.
My customer data is always shown, but no sensitive data is revealed. Demographic data is really interesting so I try and show as much of that as possible. My customer demographics are very high.
You’re big on the personal touch- both via the chat functionality on the site and the multiple ways you give people to contact you directly- how important is this to your customers?
Cars are a big decision, and I think it's important the people know who they are dealing with. So I try to make it easy for them to talk to me. Except, I do my best to minimise phone calls as they are inefficient and unrecorded, so it's hard to record what was discussed. With cars being a high-value item, it's a priority to give customers as much reassurance as possible that they are dealing with a real person, who won't skank them.
How much time do you spend on the website? Are you working mad hours, or do you get time away from the business?
I do tend to live inside my website. Mainly, my customers are great fun and I meet some very interesting people... so I love to chat and interact. For instance, I have dealt with an Apache helicopter pilot, the head of BBC news, top policemen etc, and it is so interesting to discuss current events with them. I probably spend more time than I should on my website, but it is efficient, so I have plenty of time for a normal life.
The Indian call centre functionality is hilarious. What was behind the idea?
Lingani, hahaha! That female Indian voice was the only clear voice I could find for free on the web. So I built the character around her. I use her in my office to announce the arrival of customers to my website, and to announce Google search terms people use to land on my site (in real time). This way I can follow trends and respond to customers very quickly.