Every day at his Nissan of North Olmsted store near Cleveland, dealer Mike D'Amato looks over some information that he never used to see. It is a customer satisfaction report that he receives daily from Nissan North America, telling him what his customers are saying about their visits to his service shop.
"The process we have now lets the dealership know overnight -- sometimes within just a few hours -- if any issue comes up on a customer survey after a service visit," D'Amato says. "On any comment, we'll get notified so we can try to remedy the situation."
Truth be told, it is information that Nissan never bothered to process.
For years, the Nissan brand has ranked near the bottom of the industry on J.D. Power and Associates' scorecard of service department customer satisfaction. It has been a thorn in Nissan's paw over the past two years as the brand focuses more marketing dollars on buffing up its brand image to compete against Toyota and Honda.
Last year Nissan and its dealers mobilized to get out of the bunker. The brand's national dealer advisory board and the factory charted out a multipoint service improvement plan that is showing results. In 2011 Nissan scored 19th out of 21 mass-market brands. This year's numbers put Nissan 10th out of 21, solidly up into the industry's average territory.
"We were embarrassed," says Billy Hayes, who led the effort on the factory side. "This is important stuff. When you talk about owner loyalty, obviously product quality is at the top of the list. But the service experience you get with the car is also high up there."
Hayes' efforts to improve the service experience got him promoted in March to a new task as divisional general manager of global sales operations. Hayes says he now will be doing globally what Nissan and its dealers have been doing in the United States.
According to Hayes, the effort began with an acknowledgment inside Nissan that the factory wasn't doing enough to support retail service lanes. "We needed to start doing some things better internally," he says.
More cash was the first solution. Nissan gave retailers broad new discretion to approve warranty claims, even taking factory reps off of the task of auditing retailers. Nissan's new philosophy is that retailers should be able to spend more freely on customer retention, and only in cases of abusive spending will the factory step in to ask questions.
"Good will was the important first step," D'Amato says. "To be able to expense a rental car for a customer with a 20,000-mile car and know we're not going to get cracked over the head in an audit, that's huge."
Dealers also are spending more of their own money in small ways, like giving away free touch-up paint or replacing key-fob batteries free of charge. D'Amato estimates that between the extra factory good will and his own small expenditures, his monthly service costs have gone up about 10 percent. He calls it a minor investment in the brand.
A more significant investment has been the introduction of Nissan express service lanes. Nissan is still rolling out the concept, but about 400 of its 1,100 dealers now offer the lanes, which have serviced about 1 million customers so far.
Nissan is also training dealership managers. Nissan just completed a 26-city training tour that focused on getting dealership managers to raise their service-shop hiring standards, improve training practices and work harder at employee retention in the shop, Hayes says.
As part of the customer service makeover, Nissan asked every dealer to appoint one person as "owner loyalty manager" with bottom-line responsibility for service satisfaction. In some cases dealers hired the manager. In other cases an existing employee was given the job.
At D'Amato's store, he took on the task himself.
"Initially, we thought about hiring somebody," D'Amato says, "but for this store, it's me. So I take the training classes. I get tested. I read the data every day.
"Customer service really starts and stops with the dealer," he says. "It's a mind-set, and we're talking about it every day here."