Phone Call Dealers Hate

Hey Pete, factory rep's calling. He needs you to order two dozen leftovers so he can leave a hot meeting room where they've got him holed up until he sells off the inventory that no one's been buying. He needs you. Short of an audit, I'm not sure what is more nerve-wracking or relationship-trashing than having a factory rep who wants you to remember every favor he's ever done, and will ever do, as

“Hey Pete, factory rep's calling. He needs you to order two dozen leftovers so he can leave a hot meeting room where they've got him holed up until he sells off the inventory that no one's been buying. He needs you.”

Short of an audit, I'm not sure what is more nerve-wracking or relationship-trashing than having a factory rep who wants you to remember every favor he's ever done, and will ever do, as compensation for the cold leftovers he needs you to gobble up right now.

Who hates the call more, the dealer or the rep who compromises his relationship on such a call? On the one hand, the rep wants the credibility of someone offering products he believes in. Yet here he is with his boss's foot on his neck, required to make calls that force-feed dealers.

Factory guys have an odd way of thinking about a retailer's contribution to car sales. Instead of rewarding the fact that retailers pay the highest price charged for wares and are the most consistent, highest-volume buyers of those products, manufacturers treat retailers as if we were oversexed teenage boys looking to grope their daughters.

As a result, their support is last minute and incomplete, their audits aggressive and untrusting and their demands blind to the burdens of franchisee cost realities. (I would be remiss, however, if I didn't note those occasions when sometimes they step outside the factory role to balance the slate in ways that no one is intended to notice.)

Even their orientation to “customer satisfaction” is filled with contempt for retailers. To us retailers, customer satisfaction means, “We satisfied the customer enough to buy the car and keep it (hopefully in ways that will bring him back for service).” To a manufacturer, it means, “We slipped past this sale, but that's no indication they're happy, let's prompt a rethink of the low points.”

Retailers see completed sales like the PGA sees golf; handicaps are all about the 10 best rounds played. Manufacturers see it in reverse, fixated on a retailer's worst, most unlucky transactions.

If you think not, try to convince the CSI police that the number of owners satisfied enough not to fill out a form is one true measure of how well you treat customers. Or try convincing a warranty auditor that thousands of successful repairs, compared to the few mucked up pieces of paper, show the real picture.

From a dealer's perspective, manufacturers are looking for what's missing rather than encouraging more of what's there. Translated into marketing, manufacturers often invest more in conquest than retention.

Retailers live in the moment, trying hard (dare we say trying desperately) to close deals with whoever brightens their doorsteps. We're less accustomed to psychographics than in gross numbers of customers. We most love those who love us back.

For all their forward gazing, most manufacturers just benchmark what other, better performing manufacturers are doing right now. Why? There isn't much appetite on Wall Street for risky innovation. Risks of the day are bets on whether we can copy it before they can change it, or whether the market will saturate before we arrive on the scene.

Am I soured? Not on your life. I am a retail optimist. I believe that from differences come opportunities, and given the canyon of difference between what we and they believe customers want, we are destined to work it out together, locked in a dance that is choreographed for two.

A few years back, I was writing about the disintegration of the franchise system and the role of the Internet as a catalyst of that decay. Manufacturers were going to produce just what the customers wanted, just in time, and shipped to their doorstep.

Today, as when chariots were sold to Romans, it is the retailer who puts vehicles into the hands of consumers while manufacturers do battle for limited resources and race to keep up with one another. Last week's call for me to take unwanted, excess inventory was not just a call for help; it was confirmation of why I exist in the first place.

Peter Brandow is a veteran dealer in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

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