One day last week, the general manager at Carl Black Chevrolet-Buick-GMC in Orlando snapped a picture of the cars in his customer parking spaces: a BMW, a Mercedes and two Lexuses.
Their owners were there to test drive Buicks.
"We're getting trade-ins that we've never seen before," says Mike Bowsher, president of Carl Black Automotive Group in Kennesaw, Ga., which owns the Orlando store. "Audi, Lexus, Land Rover. This is who we're competing against. We can't run our stores like Pontiac dealers anymore."
To navigate that learning curve, the Buick-GMC dealer council this year is beginning a nationwide training blitz. Bowsher, the dealer council co-chairman, says the effort aims to create Buick specialists within the sales staff at each store and enhance overall customer service.
Sales staff members will undergo more rigorous tests of their product knowledge. And they'll be expected to scout the premium competition to get a feel for the level of service those buyers receive.
Dealers say hot products such as the Buick Enclave crossover and LaCrosse sedan are behind the influx of premium buyers. Also, the elimination of Pontiac has cleared showroom clutter and allowed Buick to stand out.
"With the loss of Pontiac came a sharper focus on Buick," says Brian Sweeney, General Motors Co.'s vice president of sales and service for Buick-GMC. "That tied right into some great products that came in." He noted that the Enclave had its best month ever in December, with 6,634 units sold, up 22 percent.
Sweeney says the dealers' training push is part of a broader effort to improve customers' showroom experience. More than 40 percent of Buick-GMC's 2,300 dealerships are undergoing or have completed store renovations. Two-thirds have overhauled their signage in the past year, erasing the Pontiac name with signs that have what Sweeney calls a more premium feel.
"A lot of dealers have lived on a loyal customer base, and now they've got some new blood in their showrooms," Sweeney says. "They've become very mindful of providing that premium experience."
In late 2010, Buick-GMC rolled out a new courtesy loaner program. It offers dealers incentive money to beef up their loaner fleets so they can put Buick service customers in, say, a Buick Regal instead of a Chevrolet Impala.
Product knowledge has become far more important for Buick salespeople than in the past, says Sam Slaughter, president of Sellers Buick-GMC of suburban Detroit, which sold 687 Buicks last year, the most in the country for a single store in 2010.
"We're seeing buyers from Infiniti or Lexus who want to know all about the product," Slaughter says. "They expect a certain level of knowledge and service."
That's daunting for salespeople who've spent a career catering to Pontiac customers, many of whom were more concerned about the monthly payment than the interior trim or sound system, Slaughter says.
It also could lead to some awkward moments as Buick specialists cater to erstwhile Mercedes or Lexus drivers alongside GMC pickup buyers.
Recently, a customer who arrived at Bowsher's Buick-GMC store in Kennesaw, Ga., in an Audi A8 demanded that the country music playing at the store be turned down.
"He said, 'I didn't come in here to dance,'" Bowsher says.
Bowsher says "delivering a premium experience" will be the mantra of the training program and is critical to maintaining Buick's momentum. "It's kind of like you finally got what you've always wanted," Bowsher says, "and now you don't want to blow it."