Eight years ago, when Gary Dilts and Robert Williams spotted an "Ample Parking" sign above a two-space lot at a Bronx, N.Y., dealership, they knew there had to be a better way to spend $200 million.
"Dealers all over the country knew J.D. Power's SSI (Sales Satisfaction Index) survey asked, 'Is there ample parking, yes or no?' " said Dilts, now the Chrysler group's senior vice president for sales. As a result, "there were 'Ample Parking' signs at Chrysler group dealerships all over the U.S."
The signs underscored what sales chiefs at what was then Chrysler Corp. had suspected: Dealers were focused more on improving their store's scores than on customer satisfaction.
In the mid-1990s Chrysler had earmarked $200 million annually for the customer satisfaction campaign. Dealerships were using their share to send customers cookies or instruct them on how to answer the surveys, said Williams, now the Chrysler group's director of retail strategies and dealer relations.
Dilts and Williams, then in lower posts in the sales organization, embarked on a three-year effort to persuade management to adopt what has become the Five Star dealership certification program.
"It was a travail of failed attempts over three years," said Dilts, a former head of dealer training.
Five Star, which marked its fifth year last month, created two classes of Chrysler group dealerships. The ones that comply with standards for service, a clean and well-maintained site, and customer follow-up are certified as Five Star dealerships. They get a special sign and benefits such as Internet sales leads and the right to sell Chrysler certified used cars.
Why did it take three years?
"Management thought we would have a revolution," Dilts said. "They were afraid of change."
Dilts said he was told, " 'You can't do that, put a dealer across the street from the other with an advantaged sign and then tell the world one is a better dealer than the other.' "
" 'Yes, you can,' '' Dilts recalled saying. " 'Why am I afraid to tell the customer this is a better place to do business and to tell dealers if you don't like that, then change the way you do business?' "
Arguments were made against the corporation erecting Five Star signs. But the signs were key, Williams said. "They were our point of leverage, the only real estate at a dealership that the Chrysler group owns and the only place that we have control."