Turning drivers into geeks: Dealers debate need for technology specialists
Photo credit: BLOOMBERG
DETROIT -- Not all dealers agree on the best way to teach car buyers how to use the latest technology in their new cars, pickups and crossovers.
The vehicles unveiled during the 2014 North American International Auto Show here are certain to sport even higher levels of technology than their predecessors.
And some car buyers will need a little help in navigating the technologies to get the most out of them, dealers agree.
But whether a need exists for dedicated technology specialists to provide that education to consumers at the dealerships is up for debate.
On one side are Ford dealers who've used technology allowances from the carmaker the past several years to hire technology specialists and other dealers who've already hired such specialists or are moving in that direction -- even without manufacturer allowances.
On the other side are dealers who say the last thing customers want is to be shuffled to another person when they come in to buy a car.
"The way we approach sales, people want to deal with one person as much as possible," said Bob Shuman, owner and president of Shuman Chrysler Dodge Jeep Ram in Walled Lake, Mich., and chairman of the 2014 North American International Auto Show.
It's a salesperson's job to explain all of that to the customer, he said.
"They should be trained to explain the car and all of its technology and functions at delivery," Shuman said.
Ford dealers have used technology allowances from Ford Motor Co. to hire technology specialists since 2011 when the automaker rolled out the assistance.
Among them is Village Ford in Dearborn, Mich., which receives about $7,500 a month in allowance money, or about $90,000 a year.
Village Ford was able to hire a dedicated specialist earning $30,000 to $40,000 a year to teach customers to use the Sync and MyFord Touch in-vehicle communication systems, thanks to the allowances, owner Jim Seavitt said.
But Ford is phasing out those allowances, beginning with the $50-per-vehicle allowance to train customers on use of its Sync voice recognition system at the end of 2013. The $75-per-vehicle allowance Ford dealers get for vehicles equipped with the MyFord Touch touchscreen will be eliminated for 2015 models.
Some salespeople are very good at technology, but others are average or even poor, Seavitt said.
"We want consistency, and plus, it's a time-consuming process," he said.
Having a dedicated technology specialist allows the salesperson to go back to selling cars and allows the specialists to teach technology, Seavitt said.
Seavitt believes the quality of delivery will go down without a dedicated technology specialist in place. He said he may either shift his technology specialist into a sales position or perhaps host automotive technology seminars for consumers, for a fee, to continue offering expert education.
Car dealers outside the Ford brands are also beginning to hire technology specialists, even without manufacturer incentives.
The Troy, Mich.-based Suburban Collection has product specialists and/or salespeople trained to show customers how to use the electronics on their new vehicles, said chairman and CEO David Fischer.
"That's a standard part of the service we are offering, which is something that two years ago, four years ago wasn't done," he said.
It's something that's evolved as the cars get more complicated and include more and more features, Fischer said.
Such technology education is "now part of every transaction if the customer is willing," he said.
Suburban has 29 franchised automotive dealerships across 34 sites. All but two -- one each in Palm Beach, Fla., and Costa Mesa, Calif. -- are in Southeast Michigan.
Lou LaRiche Chevrolet in Plymouth, Mich., is in the process of hiring a technology specialist to verse customers in the nitty-gritty of the technology in cars and even simple things like how to lift the steering wheel, said Owner Scott LaRiche, who is vice chairman of the 2014 Detroit auto show.
"We're trying to figure out how to pay them. I'm looking for a Best Buy sales guy who's making like 40K," he said.
But how do you pay someone who's new to the dealership business?
"At Best Buy, specialists get paid hourly," LaRiche said.
But not all dealers agree dedicated technology specialists are needed.
Dealer salespeople have already spent hours getting to know the customer and will be more in touch with the level of explanation needed or desired, Shuman said.
Customers without a smartphone may have no interest in knowing how to sync their phone with the vehicle. Or a customer who's purchased a new minivan may have no interest in learning about the back-seat audio entertainment option if they only plan to use the van to haul lumber, he said.
And young adults typically need no education at all on today's vehicle technologies, Shuman said. "They can figure it out."
You have to tailor your presentations to your customer, Shuman said, and salespeople are the best people to do that.
Carl Galeana, owner and president of Galeana Automotive Group, which includes Galeana's Van Dyke Dodge in Warren, Mich., Fiat of Lakeside in Macomb Township, Mich., and dealerships in Florida and South Carolina selling Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep, Ram and Kia brands, agrees.
"You can fumble when you hand off too much," he said.
Additionally, consumers have done research on vehicle technologies before they get to the showroom, he said. "They're a lot smarter than they ever used to be on the product," and salespeople can reinforce what customers already know or explain what they don't.
Galeana doesn't see the need for an "outside person" to educate customers, who do need assistance.
"What little (technology) we have like Uconnect and things like that at Chrysler ... is part of the process," and something salespeople should handle, he said.
"That keeps the salesperson engaged with the customer — which is very important, especially as that person down the line says, 'I'm going to buy a second or third car.' "
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