A fascinating thing about dealers is how incredibly passionate they can be immediately before and after a meeting with their manufacturers.
During the meeting, they all seem to shift into sales mode, and not a sincere sale either. During the meeting it's all warm handshakes and toothy grins. Sure they share tidbits of discontent overheard at the auction snack bar, but it's never this dealer's opinion. This dealer might be hanging on for dear deal life by a thread, but when the factory asks how it's going, “everything's great.”
I don't think of this as simply an example of dealer insincerity. It's a learned behavior such as when husbands are taught how to answer whether a neighbor's new baby is precious.
Trouble is, because we spare each other the real skinny on what's happening, we are never really sure what's happening. Moreover, false or limited feedback encourages the continuation of underperforming programs and products.
Dealers are taught early on that information from them to the factory should be supportive, positive and short.
When asked how you like the latest program, vehicle, or ad, a dealer response of “just fine thanks,” is just what the doctor ordered.
Add a few comments of helpful changes that would make that program, advertising campaign or product better, and you've just joined the club of dealers who think highly of themselves as major contributors to the success of the auto industry.
Let's face it, auto makers' questions to their dealers are overwhelmingly tests of buy-ins, and not probes into whether someone on the manufacturer's crack strategy team is naїve, sloppy or stupid.
Great news: It's not always this way.
Last month my team and I participated in a factory brainstorming session about regional marketing.
I must take my hat off to the senior management of my manufacturer for creating a meeting that was not overly scripted nor heavy-handedly controlled.
This meeting had almost none of the usual eye charts or downloads.
It was truly a unique dialogue between a manufacturer eager for feedback and a group of dealers cautiously offering their insights.
The odd thing is that as powerful as the experience was at moving us toward the warm feelings of partnership with our factory, the absence of follow-up shortly thereafter made us feel like prom dates waiting for a call the next day.
Worse still, we started to doubt whether our candid responses had been wise. We became paranoid. Had we fallen for the oldest trap in franchised retailing — the honest answer?
Happily no. Under the heading of better late than never, our new partner did in fact respond to our comments by updating us on their understanding and, even better, by rewarding those who attended with some co-op cash to help us take a few risks that would have been difficult to shoulder alone.
As a result, I'm positively supportive and much more likely to trust. Maybe I'll buy some extra inventory. Possibly I'll participate in a risky marketing effort. It's hard to say, but whereas I was thinking, “every man for himself,” I now feel like I'm on a team.
Don't get me wrong, I'm not gushing and giddy about the dawn of a new day. One robin does not a spring make. But I am renewed in my belief that the promise of the franchise system is not dimming with my make. My brand really takes frank dealer input into consideration.
In my case, the deal with dealer satisfaction, at least that part that isn't simply about making big money, is all about having a voice in the game.
Said another way, when my franchise is making tons of dough, it's easy to value a franchise simplistically — it's a money maker, end of analysis.
What keeps me focused and positive in the face of a tough market is whether my beliefs are reflected in the sales strategy. With my manufacturer as my partner, I don't give up.
After all, even though I may be hanging on by a thread, as long as someone's truly considering my opinions, “everything's great — really!”
Peter Brandow is a veteran auto dealer with stores in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.