Lindsay Chappell
Lindsay Chappell
Infiniti, Nissan Reporter

Why GM dealers have a chance to shine

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NASHVILLE -- There’s no getting around the fact that General Motors is taking a clubbing right now.

A huge recall, several lawsuits, a blistering congressional hearing, apologies to consumers, potential criminal investigations -- it’s all bad.

But then there are the retailers.

The image of 2.6 million cars being recalled is ugly. But the prospect of 2.6 million GM customers queuing up to deal one-on-one and face-to-face with their local retailers is an opportunity to reclaim the day.

This is precisely what makes the American auto retail franchise system excel: The manufacturer is always a cold and mysteriously remote abstract entity off somewhere in a corporate tower. The car dealer is the human face the consumer met in the showroom -- the person from those slightly amateurish TV ads that run during the ball game. This is the person whose picture appeared in the local paper surrounded by kids from the YMCA, the woman whose voice is heard in the radio spots, the manager who cut me a pretty good deal on my trade-in, the guy in the work shirt who topped off my wiper fluid and didn’t charge me.

GM’s dealer body is about to get 2.6 million opportunities to make a good impression and remind people why they bought that car in the first place. Replacing all those ignition switches from hell can’t be done by a faceless corporation -- it has to be done in a garage by a person or persons who might well live in my same neighborhood.

Terrible in nature -- regrettable at every part of the story -- this is nonetheless the opportunity for GM’s dealers.

Lexus is famous for turning past recalls into concierge-oriented opportunities to bolster its brand image. Toyota dealers used their massive recalls of 2010 to thank customers and make them feel confident about Toyota products.

There are a hundred touch points to every recall.

Service lane managers will have to greet those customers. Owners will be peering inside garages to see how the dealer keeps house. They will be sitting in waiting lounges and staring at the walls, drinking the dealership coffee and using the dealership restrooms. How the service lane conversations take place, what words are spoken, how consumers are moved from station to station, how generous the loaner cars are, how professional and friendly the cashier is -- these are just the obvious touch points.

GM has spoken a lot recently about what the New GM is all about. The dealers can put action behind those words.

You can reach Lindsay Chappell at lchappell@crain.com.

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