For the past 10 years we've praised — ad nauseam — “thinking outside the box.”
Conventional wisdom is shunned as the foolish consistency of little minds. Fast-track executives prefer to risk failure rather than succeed through tried and true methods.
Common sense seems to be uncommon and undesirable. It's no wonder dealers so regularly ask themselves, “What are they thinking?”
I'm hoping for a return of “inside the box thinking” along with the new money that is entering Detroit.
I look forward to cars that work; a warranty that's straightforward (and included); a vehicle sale price that I can actually live on without extras; and products that are compelling enough that I don't lose every time the customer says yes to an advertised price.
Inside-the-box thinking may sound regressive, but I'll call it a return to sanity.
For the last 50 years, money men — bean counters — have run the automotive business.
One of them, somewhere back in time, convinced Detroit that a dollar of dividend on Wall Street was more valuable than a satisfied customer on Main Street.
Some time between then and now, it was decided that the profit on a car belongs to the shareholder and that the dealer will live on something else.
What ensued was such a tortured, callous, indifference that customer satisfaction programs and countless regulations (complete with draconian penalties) quickly were enacted.
Gone were the days when customers and their local retailers had any sort of relationship. Gone are those dear customers who thought that it would be an unthinkable insult to their local dealer to show up for service not having bought the car there.
A dealership is a lot like a movie theater these days. The money from the ticket sale goes to the film producer and the theater owner is left to make his money at the concession stand.
The result is that it now costs too much for popcorn and a soda. This works in theaters because the public has accepted that the theater is not responsible for the film.
On the other hand, dealership customers believe the dealer is responsible for everything. Worse, the manufacturer has shifted most of its responsibility onto the dealer, furthering the myth about dealers having the resources and authority to make all things right.
Imagine what a movie ticket would cost if every time you didn't like the film you could ask for your money back from the theater, making theater owners responsible for each viewer's satisfaction with the film.
A generation of slick theater owners would emerge, looking to hook you into fine-print disclaimers and protection policies.
Producers would talk publicly about quality film houses, but secretly revel in stories about sneaky theaters achieving volume sales by appearing to give away tickets below cost.
Fortunately, the public understands a bad movie is not the fault of the theater owner. The same public understands most retail items aren't the responsibility of the vender. No one expects the local appliance store to pay for repairs if a TV breaks down.
I wonder if appliance vendors got out of the repair business when big-box thinking focused manufacturers on volume rather than customers. So strongly do customers align responsibility with service of a product that it would be easy for a manufacturer to sidestep its share of the responsibility.
When a manufacturer ceases to listen to the public, the world looks like a spread sheet instead of a relationship.
We need to go back to a time when common sense prevailed, when managers made decisions in the field based on knowing right from wrong and with the confidence of support from their superiors in the home office.
Maybe after all the losers finally give up their market share, we will see sanity return to retailing. I welcome that, even though I do like unlimited soda refills for just 25 cents more.
Peter Brandow is a veteran auto dealer in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.