Onboard technology triggers training challenge for dealerships

INFORMATION TECHNOLOGY
Name: Kevin Steele

Title: General manager of Schumacher European Ltd.

Favorite wireless device: Nextel telephone

Favorite Web site: CNN.com

Number of e-mails received daily: 3 or 4

Customers taking delivery of new cars at Schumacher European Ltd. of Scottsdale, Ariz., have a hard time getting out the door in less than two hours.

Schumacher's sales representatives need much of that time to teach customers about their vehicle's onboard technology. And if industry projections of rapid telematics growth hold true, training time and needs - for consumers as well as dealership staff - will intensify.

General Manager Kevin Steele guesses sales people at the Mercedes-Benz dealership spend an average of one hour per delivery just to explain telematics features.

"Voice-activated phones take some work to program," he says. "If new handsets are not programmed correctly, each time a voice mail comes in, the car's sound system is muted."

When possible, Schumacher () encourages owners to call or return a week after they pick up their vehicles. That way they are more focused on and familiar with their vehicles.

Schumacher's approach makes sense, says Jerry Lapides. The continuing education specialist at University of Michigan in Dearborn says some customers probably aren't interested in learning new things when they pick up their cars.

"Nobody is listening to you," Lapides says.

It's not just the customer

But Lapides and others say training the dealership staff on the equipment is becoming increasingly important, too. "We live in a complex world that requires training to know how to do a job," says Lapides.

Dealership training consultant Paul Montessoro thinks the training problem is rampant and monitoring technology training for sales staffers almost is nonexistent. Some staff members get it on their own or by the seat of their pants. Available training doesn't seem to distinguish between technical training and sales technology training, he says.

"It's a sad state of affairs, but training in technology used today - telematics or otherwise - is in need of reorganization," he says. "Not many (dealers) are training at all, beyond training manuals and factory CDs, DVDs. No one I know of is tracking it because they don't really want to know."

Montessoro is president of Paladen On-Line (paladenonline.com) of Boerne, Texas. His company has trained about 1,100 dealerships in e-commerce needs.

"The Chrysler, GM and Ford dealerships I've been in don't train in technology with their in-house training programs," Montessoro says. "If they do, it's either very elementary, or very technical. The only manufacturers who have been successful in training on technology are those who have dedicated, trained delivery professionals."

Another training expert, independent consultant Sam Bryant of Birmingham, Ala., says about $485 for each new vehicle sold is spent on advertising. But, he adds, "Less than $10.50 is spent on training per new vehicle retailed to teach the dealership representatives on product presentation, sales processes, service technical and customer relations management."

Steele, of Schumacher European, is well aware of the need for adequate training - for his staff to be more effective in explaining complex technology to customers. When the 2002 models arrived at his Mercedes-Benz dealership in September, Steele, 44, scheduled four hours per class for factory training. Half the time was devoted to vehicle information. Half went to telematics training.

Methods vary

An informal survey by Automotive News found that training methods vary from dealer to dealer.

At Keeler Motor Car Co. (keeler.com) in Albany, N.Y., Peter Connolly runs telematics classes for the sales staff and customers. The finance and lease manager says he is familiar with ever-changing systems because of his teaching responsibilities.

But Connolly is the first to admit shortcomings. "We don't do enough," he says of staff training.

Keeler sells high-end brands such as Jaguar, BMW, Land Rover and Mercedes. As features or systems become outdated, Connolly says, there is constant relearning.

At Crown Infiniti (crown.com) in Birmingham, Ala., everyone on the sales team must take Infiniti factory training. This year, the staff attended off-site sessions to learn about the voice-activated climate control/radio system in an $8,000 premium package on the 2002 Q45.

"This system includes a sophisticated global tracking navigation system," says sales manager Danny Turner. "But while the car is wired for a voice-activated phone, that is not yet available. We also have online training and some printouts to keep salespeople informed on the voice-activated system."

Suppliers pitch in

Sometimes, dealers can get training help from automotive suppliers. Visteon Corp. (visteon.com), for example, taught sessions on its new voice-activated systems to dealership service technicians at Nissan's request, says Rich Ansell, manager of OEM customer marketing.

Visteon produces telematics devices, including a voice-activated radio and temperature control system, and a voice-activated navigation system. Customers include Ford, Honda and Nissan.

OnStar - General Motors' onboard communications system - uses its field sales force to complement dealership sales training. "They make regular visits to dealerships," says George Gulliver, OnStar's director of sales and dealer relations in Troy, Mich.

Other training aids include an OnStar (onstar.com) pocket guide and interactive distance learning. The program attracts 150 to 200 students per session and features real-time, online quizzes.

"It's like watching TV," Gulliver says. "We use a format similar to the 6 o'clock news, with a moderator and (telematics) experts." it

Special Correspondent Lillie Guyer contributed to this report. Jenny King is a Detroit area free-lance writer.

You can reach Jenny King at autonews@crain.com

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