The vehicle sales process extends to the service department at some dealerships, as more and more new cars are being “sold” by technicians, service advisors and fixed operations managers.
Some customers simply don't trust showroom staffers to give them the straight scoop. Others prefer to base buying decisions on a prospective dealership's service department capabilities and accessibilities.
Here is an example:
A middle-aged woman is a computer techie who knows an intake valve from a muffler belt. When shopping for a new car, she likes to look under the hood, ask questions and get answers about horsepower, torque, and the like. But one too many salesmen have remarked, “You wouldn't know anything about that.”
So when she started shopping for a Chrysler Pacifica to replace her aging Chrysler 300, she bypassed the showroom, headed straight into the service department and to Dan Petty, a master technician at Liberty Auto City, a 6-franchise Libertyville, IL dealership owned and operated by second-generation dealers Joe Massarelli and Jeff Oko.
Petty answered her questions about the Pacifica's drive train, driver-seat configuration capabilities and maintenance experience. He then took her to service director Robbie Long.
“It is not unusual for customers to go right to the technician for information on a new vehicle they are interested in,” says Long. “Men do it as often as women.
“I have found customers in the shop with note pad in hand talking to a technician or advisor, and I have had customers interview me about our service department before buying a car. They're seeking out techs or service advisors to question in an effort to learn first-hand how they will be treated if they become a customer of the store.”
(The woman shopping for a Pacifica ended up buying a Jeep Grand Cherokee from the dealership.)
The increase of customers interfacing with the service department in lieu of or before the sales department has utilitarian reasons, says Ed Kovalchick, a fixed-operations consultant with Net Profit Inc.
He says more vehicle shoppers consider the functional aspects of vehicles. Those consumers figure the service department has more information about that.
“When people spend a lot of money for a vehicle they want to know if it will function as they need it to function,” Kovalchick says.
He has been working with Toyota dealers in Puerto Rico to help them redevelop and redefine how they do business, with a renewed emphasis on retaining customers through superior attention in the service department.
“They are taking control of how service is presented and delivered, by training and leading their personnel,” Kovalchick says.
There is a focus on “selling cars through service,” Kovalchick says. “That is the future of the business, as far as I'm concerned.”
Liberty Auto City's Massarelli says his technicians know that sometimes they should give up something today — such as repair-order revenue — for a gain tomorrow. That is why they may suggest a trade-in option in lieu of repairs to a high-mileage vehicle.
“Today, techs are getting more familiar with trading service work on a high-mileage vehicle for the sales of a new car that will continue to provide service work for some time to come,” Massarelli says.
Auto makers have figured this out too, he says. Part of Chrysler's Five-Star program is to acquaint technicians and service advisors with the vehicle-sales component of the dealership business.
Just about anyone who works at Liberty's service, parts and body shop operations earns a $100 spiff for referring service customers to the sales department, if the referral leads to a sale.
“Sometimes I tell my service staff that they work for sales rather than for me,” says service director Long. “A top salesman here once credited my department for one-third of his sales.”
Dan Elmer, fixed operations director for Schaller Auto World in New Britain, CT, trains his advisors to look out for service customers whose vehicle needs might be better served by buying a new one.
“We strive to keep the customer in the circle and the whole intent is to sell them another car,” says Elmer.
Many modern consumers zero in on a dealership's service capabilities when considering where to buy a vehicle, he says. “It can be a deciding factor in buying a car.”
More dealerships would benefit by getting their people trained and acclimated to changing times, says Kovalchick.
He adds, “Overall, we just do not have the type of people in our service lanes that have the proper education and background for their jobs, which, in part, is to educate the customer about product knowledge and product value; what it costs to repair a vehicle and what the value of that vehicle is.
“Advisors who have this additional training are better prepared to retain customers through service by selling what is to the customers' best advantage. And that might be another vehicle.”
Says Elmer, “We're encouraging our people to embrace this culture change. That is, exchanging revenue from a heavy repair vehicle for the opportunity to sell and service a new vehicle.
“We used to be reluctant to push customers in that direction, but we have come to recognize that, long term, you gain another car to service and the customer will have that car serviced at your dealership for years to come.”
Former Ford salesman Jim Leman writes about automotive retail from his base in Grayslake, IL. He also restores old Chevrolets and Plymouths.