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NINETY EIGHT REGENCY

The television show that won't be lighting up this fall's TV schedule? Detroit CSI.

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The television show that won't be lighting up this fall's TV schedule? Detroit CSI.

Detroit. A small firestorm was unleashed in the pages of Automotive News over the past two weeks when it came to light that GM is tossing some of their dealership customer satisfaction surveys because some dealers are "rigging" them. You know those customer satisfaction surveys, the ones we're all urged to fill out with gushingly positive comments - almost at gun point it seems - whenever we come in contact with a dealer for whatever the reason? GM apparently is finding out that too many of the surveys are basically meaningless when it comes to determining whether or not the dealer is actually functioning at a high level, because the dealers are exhorting their customers to send back only positive responses, whether they deserve it or not, and that maybe a new idea is needed.

Uh, do ya think?

I'm sure this comes as absolutely no shock to anyone who has bought or serviced a car over the last few years. I mean, when salespeople are touting the need for positive results on their survey forms before the signature on your deal is even dry, the whole drill has gotten out of control. And they're not just asking for positive results, they're asking you to give the top rating in every category because anything less is cataclysmic due to the way the manufacturers go about tallying the results.

I'll never forget one particularly unsavory new car delivery experience for one of the AE gang three years ago that was simply horrendous. It was one of those "last day of the month" deals, and the dealer was in complete chaos, but on top of that, there must have been a total meltdown in the back office when it came time to get the paperwork done, apparently, because a 30-minute routine delivery turned into a two-hour fiasco, leaving us cooling our heels waiting for the documents to be drawn up. And yet, when the paperwork was finally produced, and we were ready to leave (after seriously contemplating walking out on the deal and vowing never to set foot in the place again), the general manager had the nerve to bring up the CSI forms and to make sure we gave the dealer top ratings when we received them! We couldn't believe our ears, but that's indicative of how absurd all of this has become.

Not that our bad experience was an isolated incident, by any means. Talk to anyone about cars in this country, and they'll relate at least one bad story when it comes to buying or servicing a car.

The whole service evaluation thing is getting so completely out of hand now that if you're not brow-beaten before you leave the dealer to give the place a top score, you're reminded by mail, email or phone from the dealer's customer service representative - in a couple of days. And the pitch is always the same - "We need you to give us the very top scores so we can continue our rating as a (insert name of manufacturer dealer program here) dealer."

But the surveys belie a huge disconnect between the manufacturers and dealers on one side - and their customers on the other. And it has everything to do with a different set of expectations. For manufacturers, the dealer surveys are allegedly a way to monitor how well their dealers are taking care of their customers. At least that's what they think the surveys do, anyway.

For the dealers, it's a way to prove to the manufacturers that they are in fact doing a good job taking care of their customers, even though what they're really doing is arm-twisting customers to say that their dealership experience was excellent in every respect, when all the average consumer really wants to be able to say is that "the experience was tolerable, nothing went wrong, it was ready when promised with no horror stories - to my relief."

See what I mean about that disconnect?

People ask me all the time when it all went wrong for Detroit, and I consistently point to the decade of the 80s as the domestic industry's downfall. Back in those bad old days, when what used to be called the Big Three were churning out abysmally-designed cars and trucks with even worse quality, the dealers were forced to do quality fixes on-the-fly because the products they received from the factory were so bad, that they couldn't sell them without at least a day of fixing/repairing/finishing in the shop before they were ready to be put on the showroom floor. And that was for the "good" dealers. The bad dealers would just throw them out there on the lot and let their customers fend for themselves. This smorgasbord of bad juju resulted in the following:

1. The domestic dealers began to mistrust the manufacturers (if not flat-out despise them), because the manufacturers were dumping pieces of crap on their doorsteps that required major attention in order to be made presentable for sale, while the guy or gal down the street with the Toyota or Honda or Nissan store had none of that drama to deal with. On top of that, the domestic dealers then had to bear the brunt of the hordes of justifiably pissed-off consumers when they had problems with their vehicles down the road because of the inferior quality that the manufacturers were building in. Thus the distrust and dislike for the domestic manufacturers on the part of their dealers grew even more (not to mention the customers' dislike) - and in the midst of battling the manufacturers for every last dime of warranty reimbursement, they started angling for an Asian franchise for themselves.

2. After one too many horror stories about domestic cars and trucks were passed on by word of mouth, people began to give the competition a try. And after ownership experiences that were usually summed up by the words "nothing whatsoever went wrong with the vehicle the entire time I owned it," the word-of-mouth tide turned inexorably toward the imports' favor, as more and more people drifted away from domestic showrooms, never to return. Now, there are hundreds of thousands of families all across America who have never had a domestic car in their driveways. Ever. And Detroit is faced with the sobering reality that the pissed-off customers will never come back. Not only that, these consumers won't even consider a domestic-built car or truck now, even when there are legitimate reasons to do so.

Thus, the dilemma Detroit finds itself facing right now: How do you get people to consider these new, ultra-competitive vehicles, which are in many cases equal to the competition and in some cases best in class? Is it by playing the CSI dance? In a word no - especially when it's being conducted like a game with little or no impact or meaning.

Ever since Toyota founded a car brand - Lexus - on the concept of customer service first and foremost, the other manufacturers have been doing everything in their power to catch up to them. The explosion of latte lounges, business centers and flat screen TVs in dealerships is a sight to behold, but is that really what people are looking for or need in order to visit a domestic dealership?

How about no?

American consumers had it ingrained in their collective skulls back in the dismal 80s that domestic dealer showrooms were something to avoid at all costs. And domestic dealers' service departments? Don't even think about it. Is it that difficult to see why the quick oil change center concept became a phenomenon overnight? People want nothing to do with a typical car dealership's service department, and no amount of free lattes is going to change that, either.

So, what can dealerships do in an attempt to combat this situation? If American consumers are avoiding shopping in domestic showrooms, why in their right minds would they consider having any service work done there - even if they still are driving a domestic car or truck? Especially when contemporary cars and trucks virtually require little or no service in the first 30,000 miles?

Some would argue that the problem of getting consumers into domestic showrooms is miles different from getting them into domestic dealers' service departments, but I would argue that it's one in the same problem.

Let's dispense with this harsh reality, first. Domestic dealerships will never get the numbers of customers back that they once had, no matter how hard they try, because a whole generation of buyers has moved on, and that's all there is to it. The domestic dealers are now faced with the challenge of building back business the hard way, which is by the word-of-mouth validation from one satisfied new customer at a time.

At least the domestic cars and trucks being designed, engineered and built today are worthy competitors, for the most part, so that the dealers can begin their long road back with a solid foundation, rather than being saddled with the embarrassing stuff from the "fix-on-the-fly" 80s.

But beyond that, what can the domestic dealers do? For most people, the thought of going to a car dealership - any car dealership - is akin to having a dental appointment. They dread it, and they don't want to do it, but in the end, they go just to get it over with, because at some point, a quick oil change place just can't do the service work necessary on a car or truck, and a dealer service appointment must be made.

And from the moment that contact is initiated to the moment the customer drives away after the appointment is finished - that's all the time a dealership has to "reach" that customer, good or bad.

As simplistic as it sounds, it ultimately comes down to the people whom the customer comes in contact with who will determine the fate of these dealers going forward. From the person who answers the phone, to the person in the service department who directly talks with the customer, to the sales person on the showroom floor - these dealers have an incredibly narrow window of opportunity to "reach" these customers - many of whom either haven't been to a domestic dealership in a very, very long time or haven't been to one ever.

If the work is done right, done on time and done with all the proper explanations about cost, etc., presented in the proper way, then that dealer has a shot - and only a shot - that the customer will go forward and say something favorable about the experience to a family member, a friend or a colleague. Heaven forbid the experience spurs that customer to at least have a look inside the showroom - that's almost asking too much. After all, one positive baby step at a time is all a dealer can expect in these turbulent times.

On the other hand, if a customer meets disappointment at every turn in dealings with a dealer, the likelihood of that person ever coming back amounts to two chances: slim and none.

A convoluted customer satisfaction survey after the fact - one that's skewed toward favorable results - means nothing, and the sooner these manufacturers abandon the use of them, the better, as far as I'm concerned.

These manufacturers and their dealers need to focus on things they can control. Which means building better products, and representing (and servicing) those products with integrity, courtesy and professionalism.

The Lexus example rings true: If you build excellent cars that don't break to begin with, then the rest of it is easy, and you can afford to spend the rest of your time coming up with creative ways to pamper the customer.

It's not that hard, really, but the Detroit manufacturers and their dealers have made it hard on themselves - and their dwindling customers - at every turn.

It took 25 years for Detroit to screw things up - royally, I might add. And it cannot be fixed overnight.

In a town where 30-day sales figures are still considered crucial, it's hard to imagine Detroit buying into the one-customer-at-a-time approach, at least not for very long that is.

But if the denizens of the Detroit automakers don't buy into it, then the implosion of Detroit will play out like a TV mystery nobody wants to watch.

Thanks for listening, see you next Wednesday.

source:

http://www.autoextremist.com/index.shtml

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I find that people go to ToyLexus in spite of the dealer experience, not because of it. Sure they have lattes and flat screens, but they also insult you or your intelligence within 5 minutes of opening their mouth.

If you really want a pampered, while not luxurious, dealership experience, visit Saturn.

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You mean how Lexus dealerships invite you to an 'Owner's Event' so you can get your free oil change and tire rotation while they fix a recall or serious TSB without informing you via letter of recall?

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I'm sure there are 'bad apples' out there, but methinks Peter is exaggerating somewhat. GM measures dealers against their own territory, and certainly a dealer that has a sudden spike or upward trend will get some scrutiny. Usually, it is a change of management or a refocusing of priorities that results in sudden upward trends.

Overall there is nothing devious going on here: as with all types of surveys it is the vast comfortable majority that merely need to be gently cajoled off their lazy butts to actually bother to respond. This is why I am generally suspicious of surveys. Since it is unlikely that someone is going to buy or lease a vehicle from someone (or a dealer) that they hate, 'managing' one's portfolio really boils down to persuading the comfortable middle to respond. You will always get the psychotically thrilled and the pathologically pissed off to respond to these surveys of their own devices.

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our dealership would bribe the customers to come in... free tank of gas or a dash cover...

we allowed customers really to come in give us the surveys to fill them out, but we would allow them to voice any negative opinion at that time to resolve any never-coming-back-to-this-dealership-again problems...

a lot of customers were already familiar with this, saying the toyota down the road offered them 2 tanks of gas or something...

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our dealership would bribe the customers to come in... free tank of gas or a dash cover...

we allowed customers really to come in give us the surveys to fill them out, but we would allow them to voice any negative opinion at that time to resolve any never-coming-back-to-this-dealership-again problems...

a lot of customers were already familiar with this, saying the toyota down the road offered them 2 tanks of gas or something...

That is a silly and dangerous practice. Now the dealers in your area have just opened up a whole new area of negotiation for the customers to take advantage of...after the sale!

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our dealership would bribe the customers to come in... free tank of gas or a dash cover...

we allowed customers really to come in give us the surveys to fill them out, but we would allow them to voice any negative opinion at that time to resolve any never-coming-back-to-this-dealership-again problems...

a lot of customers were already familiar with this, saying the toyota down the road offered them 2 tanks of gas or something...

That is a silly and dangerous practice. Now the dealers in your area have just opened up a whole new area of negotiation for the customers to take advantage of...after the sale!

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That is a silly and dangerous practice. Now the dealers in your area have just opened up a whole new area of negotiation for the customers to take advantage of...after the sale!

it could be, but it also drives the customer back down to the dealership and remembers the name a little more...

we used to be #5 on Chevys top CSI list... but almost all the CSI's were fake... granted we had a lot of happy customers, the consumers that buy on price will never be happy, so those are the ones most interested in coming back in for fuel...

but because of our high CSI score, we were able to obtain the vehicles that most dealerships couldnt, we got all the corvettes we needed, we got a full line of GMT900 before anyone really got a handful, etc...

but as to actually developing good and honnest customer service, it maybe difficult for chevy stores...

just as toyota has done the same practice...

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I recently went to my local Chevy dealer when the "service engine" light on my Trailblazer came on. The dealer is about 1/2 mile from the house and had a terrible service department about 5 years ago, when I last went there for an oil change for my 98 Vette.

What a difference! They were quick to greet me, courteous and replaced an oxygen sensor, under warranty. The service experience was a pleasure. They also offered me a free oil change if I would bring in any GM survey for them to fill out. I got my free oil change, but filled out the survey myself. It was all excellent, which was the truth.

They even accepted a "free oil change" coupon from GM for that visit and gave me their coupon for the promised dealer oil change. I can't believe the difference in "customer service" treatment from that dealer. It didn't hurt that it's also a Chevy/Buick dealer and I got a chance to get a short ride in an Enclave. It was a win/win for the dealer, GM and me.

Edited by RichW5
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When we leased the Envoy in August of 2005, I got one free oil change coupon for my CSI ratings. My dad bought a G6 a year later from my salesman, and he ended up negotiating for 5 or 6 of them. From now on, I decided that any new vehicle I purchase or lease I will negotiate with the dealer on what I can get for the CSI rating. If dealers are willing to hand out gas cards, free oil changes, and free car washes, why should I freely give them a CSI rating without lining my own pocket somehow? As soon as they mention the survey/CSI rating, I will ask what's in it for me? :P

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The whole issue with the surveys is that they do them internally. They should hire a company to do it for them and can ensure unbiased 3rd-party results. Sure it would cost a few bucks, but it's better than spending what they are now on completely useless information.

As for getting people in showrooms and dealerships, they are related issues and it's the toughest part of this turnaround. He's completely dead-on right about the situation. While the domestics are doing better with sales, maintenance and product, there are just a chunk of people who don't care. The real genius that needs to be found is how to get those people to take another unskeptical look. Either that or accept that it's going to be another 10 years of solid, overall corporate performance before you start seeing market shares rise again.

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My recent experience with larsen motors in McMinnville proves the point. The "old school" GM dealers need to have their franchised pulled if they don't want to get on board. These dealers need to be renovated and customer service should be taught as much as how to service / fix the car. Heck, simply sending their staff to an etiquette class would help.

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