The sober property in some nameless commercial area between Essen and Bochum has seen a lot since the collapse of the local steel industry.

Many companies came - some went - again and again.

Today, metal waste is stored here, next door a logistics company waits for its trucks, and the local large bakery supplies its branch network from here every morning before the cities of the Ruhr area come to life again.

The bright hall at the end of a cul-de-sac is inconspicuous, and the missing company sign leaves open what is happening here.

Today it's busier than usual. Numerous vehicles are parked in a wild order in the parking lot, and security officers at the double-leaf entrance door not only check distances and corona tests, but also collect mobile phones.

The strict safety precautions are no coincidence.

The car manufacturers have no interest in having their cards looked at.

A customer clinic is taking place in the hall this weekend, strictly confidential.

There, one of the car manufacturers is testing what should be the trend in a few years.

Since car development not only involves years of lead time, but also several hundred million euros, one cannot be too careful.

After all, there are vehicles to be admired behind the strictly secured walls that are supposed to be on the road in a few years.

Therefore, nothing must go wrong in design, technology and positioning.

Generally, the car companies do not organize such surveys themselves, but use professionals.

HKM, Society for Marketing Research, is one of the experts for such customer clinics.

The Hamburg-based company works for various international car manufacturers when it comes to teasing out the taste of the coming years.

“The challenge is to use today's customer opinion to reliably predict the acceptance of a future vehicle model.

The mere evaluation 'I like / I don't like' is not enough.

We go much deeper," says HKM Managing Director Thomas Braun, "we are intensively involved with the mobility of the future and use the entire range of market research methods and techniques."

who coordinate the around 60 projects of the individual car manufacturers every year.

"We work closely with the client and develop surveys and methods," adds Braun, "regardless of whether it's a survey four or five years before the product launch or if the final details need to be checked again a few months before market entry."

Involve the customer as early as possible

Axel Harries, Head of Product Management at Mercedes-Benz, has known the customer clinics for many years: “We always have an ear to the market and therefore collect customer opinions even in the early stages.

Digitization creates opportunities that we did not have a few years ago.

In addition to feedback on design features, functional customer feedback also gives us valuable information on the use of equipment or the operability of our vehicles.” The car manufacturers organize clinics similar to those that companies in the consumer electronics, food or clothing industries do.