Ford Division and Lincoln will establish operating standards for dealerships and reward those who comply.
Ford follows DaimlerChrysler, which gives the Five Star designation to well-run dealerships.
'We are trying to improve the image of our franchise,' said Joe Chavara, chairman of the Lincoln Mercury National Dealer Council.
'We are trying to come up with standards for a better (customer) experience,' Chavara said.
Ford and Lincoln dealers will earn a certain designation similar to DCX's Five Star award. DaimlerChrysler's program is voluntary, but the company rewards dealerships that meet the standards.
For example, customers seeking price quotes at DaimlerChrysler Web sites are referred only to Five Star dealers. Lincoln is considering similar handling of Internet leads, say sources familar with the plan.
Ford will roll out the Lincoln Premier Experience and Ford Retail Excellence nationally at the start of the 2001 model year. Each brand is establishing its own voluntary certification standards.
In response to queries by Automotive News, Lincoln and Ford Division confirmed the programs are in the works. Lincoln acknowledges it must improve customer treatment to play in the major leagues of luxury brands.
Jerry Reynolds, chairman of the Ford Division National Dealer Council, said dealers are involved in creating the program.
'We were excited to be at the table as the framework for the consumer satisfaction initiative was developed,' said Reynolds, owner of Prestige Ford in Garland, Texas. 'Not only was dealer council involved, but dealerships throughout the country were consulted, and our input is building a strong consumer-focused program.'
Ford Motor Co.'s programs may diverge from DaimlerChrysler's by offering more rewards to top-rated dealers. Although details are sketchy, the Ford and Lincoln programs envision creating monetary benefits or remuneration for designated dealers, according to sources familiar with the preliminary proposals. The form of such rewards still is being determined.
Lincoln executives are meeting in selected markets this month, polling dealers for ideas and feedback. Similarly, Ford Division is hammering out details in March and will brief dealers during five meetings in Las Vegas in April. Ford Division will test a pilot program in May.
'There are a lot of things that still need to be worked out,' Chavara said. 'There is no final program. We are bringing dealers in and getting input.' Chavara owns Central Florida Lincoln Mercury in Orlando, Fla.
Lincoln is considering independent third-party audits of dealerships and advertising as part of the certification process, Chavara said. Ford Motor Co. customer satisfaction data garnered from internal buyer surveys also will be used. Ford also may judge how well a dealership complies with service standards, presents the brand and trains personnel.
DaimlerChrysler revamped its Five Star program in 1997. Dealers must adopt, maintain and document best business practices.
For example, to obtain certification at least 70 percent of a sales staff must meet minimum training requirements; sales and service staff must contact customers within a week of a vehicle purchase or service; and customer complaints must be documented, consistently reported to management and resolved.
Both Lincoln and Ford expect to certify a sizable percentage of retailers. The Ford Retail Excellence program expects initially to include at least 70 percent of Ford Division's 4,070 dealers, said a source familiar with the proposal.
'Ford Division has not set the benchmark for the scoring,' the source said. 'That is still up in the air. There are still a lot of details to work out.'
Certified dealers may be spotlighted with special signage and in advertising. DaimlerChrysler has touted its Five Star dealers in direct mailings and in advertising.
One still-to-be answered question in the Ford and Lincoln programs is where Mercury might fit in. Mercury is not specifically included in either program. 'These are the same questions we on dealer council have had,' Chavara said. 'That is what is being worked out right now.'
The Lincoln Mercury business unit is part of the company's Premier Automotive Group, home of Ford's luxury brands Lincoln, Volvo, Jaguar and Aston Martin. But while Mercury is part of the PAG administrative unit, it is marketed separately and not as a luxury brand.
The Lincoln Premier Experience is expected to be restricted to Lincoln because it is a luxury brand competing with best-in-class retailers such as Mercedes-Benz and Lexus, Chavara said.
Ford Motor Co. will use the new programs to pressure dealers to handle customers well.
'Getting the dealers involved will raise the level of the entire organization,' said Tom Mattia, Lincoln Mercury spokesman.
'The program is broader than encouraging top-performing dealers,' Mattia said. 'The focus is on enhancing the customer experience at all of our dealerships. It is critical for Lincoln's continued growth that everything from the product to the way it is presented and serviced is a complete luxury experience.'