Are Auto Makers Loveable?

All of a sudden General Motors, Ford and Chrysler want to be loved again. Fritz Henderson, the new head of GM, says he doesn't want customers unless it's because they really want to drive his products. GM and Chrysler are dialing back stringent credit requirements to help finance challenged customers. They're reversing (although not quite eliminating) draconian penalties imposed on dealers. Detroit

All of a sudden General Motors, Ford and Chrysler want to be loved again.

Fritz Henderson, the new head of GM, says he doesn't want customers unless it's because they really want to drive his products. GM and Chrysler are dialing back stringent credit requirements to help finance challenged customers. They're reversing (although not quite eliminating) draconian penalties imposed on dealers.

Detroit is starting to “get it.”

The trouble is that few trust the domestics to get it right no matter how much money and love we shower on them.

We want a U.S. auto industry built on the belief that it will manufacture, sell and service products that we feel good about. Everyone gets that.

The problem is that we don't want to be tax burdened by underwriting a stock play staged so Wall Street and Detroit can invent new strategies more complex and less customer-focused than the ones that already failed.

It seems particularly distasteful that GM, Chrysler or Ford might be propped up by a subsidy pulled from the wallets of the same public that wasn't satisfied enough to buy their products in the first place.

If America wants GM, Chrysler or Ford to survive, all they need do is buy from them rather than from Toyota, Honda or Nissan. We're just not voting that way.

It is unknown whether Toyota, Honda and Nissan will shoulder the responsibility of paying enough wage earners and taxes to support both customers and the roads over which their vehicles will travel. But whoever survives the car wars will inherit that responsibility whether or not they have American-sounding names.

A non-automotive manufacturer I work with asked how he might avoid this mess. He doesn't make cars, but we both recognize that sometimes the widget isn't the problem. Rather, it's the culture of the widget maker that sometimes needs adjustment.

My friend is a third-generation manufacturer who sells his products through a dealer network much like the automobile franchise system. His company is 100 years old and enjoys a happy customer base and decent profitability.

The thought that GM, Chrysler and Ford are in the straits they're in strikes fear in him. He and they compete with imports. He and they employ union labor. He and they have demanding customers.

I explain it to him this way: Broken cars can be repaired with trips to the shop. It's harder to fix broken cultures and relationships.

For years, domestic manufacturers have invested more resources defending themselves against a paranoid fear of being taken advantage of than in providing the kinds of products and work environments that everyone wanted.

Chargebacks for missed or incomplete documentation become ways with which greedy manufacturers punish and steal from dealers.

In turn, dealers who are treated harshly put their customers and service staff through rigorous and unfriendly scrutiny. What results is that every warranty repair is painfully vetted in the customer experience and every product failure amplified and highlighted.

In time, the warranty dollars may or may not be reduced, but the customers are made well aware of how often their cars break down and that their slightest misstep will hit them squarely in the wallet.

In contrast, a friendlier competitive experience might simply and quietly repair the fault with “no charge” on the customer's bill. That customer likely dismisses the product “failure” as maintenance.

Mistrust between a dealer and manufacturer always winds up squarely in the customer's face. It's no less dramatic than the scars that kids suffer when mom and dad bicker endlessly.

Amplify this tension by the hundreds of contacts that customers, dealers and manufacturers exchange over the lifetime of a vehicle and you begin to see why simple trust is what is on trial in the case of domestic versus import, subsidy versus bankruptcy.

Peter Brandow is a veteran dealer.

TAGS: Dealers Retail
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