It was a “radical thought,” and at first got a cold reception, as such ideas often do, recalls Mark Schienberg, president of the Greater New York Automobile Dealers Assn.
At a meeting of dealers and auto maker representatives to discuss how to make the customer experience better, the New York association's leaders put this proposal on the table:
Create a program that customers with dealership complaints can turn to in an effort to resolve the problems, ranging from sales to service, from new cars to used. Moreover, let the dealer association run the show.
The room's reaction? Well, a standing ovation there wasn't.
“There was dead silence,” says Schienberg. “Then things got a little heated, as they sometimes do with dealers and manufacturers. I remember thinking: ‘This is probably the worst idea we've ever come up with.’”
But when things settled down, and the meeting participants got to the point, there was a consensus: Who better to handle these things than dealers?
“We said let us handle it because we're able to call dealers who spend a lot of money trying to make customers happy, and we'd have a good chance at resolving problems quickly,” says Schienberg.
That's how the Automotive Consumer Action Program (AUTOCAP) came about.
Its 25th anniversary was observed with assorted accolades at a conference during this year's New York International Auto Show, a huge event sponsored by the local dealer association.
AUTOCAP won praise for being a great success, handling thousands of complaints and resolving more than 90% of them.
“It has evolved into a model for other industries to emulate,” says Charles Gardner, director of New York's Suffolk County consumer affairs office.
“It's the most successful program of its kind that I've ever been involved in. I get the same reaction from consumers who have used it.”
There were initial consumer doubts about a dealer-run program to handle dealership complaints, says Gardner. Skeptics were aplenty. No more.
“We don't hesitate to refer consumers to AUTOCAP,” says Gardner. “It's a credible program and it saves our office enormous amounts of investigative time.”
Complaints run the gamut, he says. Sometimes it's a “he said-she said” situation. Sometimes customers feel ill-treated. Some complaints center on what the sales person said vs. what the finance & insurance manager said. Sometimes it's just a case of someone “getting up on the wrong side of bed,” says Gardner.
Such people are first advised to call their dealership to discuss their complaint with a manager. If that doesn't work, they are advised to call AUTOCAP. If AUTOCAP can't fix the problem, its staff provides names and numbers of other agencies that might be of assistance.
Schienberg credits AUTOCAP's director, Bernadette Hardy, for much of the program's success.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg proclaimed March 30 as AUTOCAP Day in the Big Apple.
Robert Fusco, chairman of the New York dealers association, recognized dealer Mark Herrmann of Mark Buick-Pontiac-GMC in Yonkers for his AUTOCAP leadership role.
Also at the conference was Phil Brady, president of the National Automobile Dealers Assn., who describes the success of AUTOCAP as “extraordinary.” and an asset of the industry.
So are other programs sponsored by metro New York's 650-member dealer association.
I was at the conference, too, to moderate a panel discussion entitled “Is Yesterday's Training Enough for Today's Repairs?”
The quick answer: No. The New York dealers association is addressing that head-on.
The association soon will open the Center for Automotive Education and Training. It is a 90,000-sq.-ft. training facility that's being built on a 7-acre site in Queens.
The first-of-its-kind facility will train up to 1,000 students a year for dealership jobs. That includes service technicians, sales people and office workers. It's a $25 million money-where-your-mouth-is commitment.
“The challenge to dealers is to bring expertise into the dealerships,” says Schienberg. “This is our approach to that.”
Steve Finlay is editor of Ward's Dealer Business magazine. He can be reached at [email protected]