DETROIT -- About 1,200 of General Motors' smallest, most isolated dealerships will see factory reps come through the door next year for the first time in a quarter century.
Starting in the first quarter of 2013, GM district managers will make regular visits to those small, mostly rural, dealerships, which now have only call-center contact with the company. GM created the call-center system about 25 years ago.
The move back to face-to-face contact with GM reps is aimed at helping smaller dealers improve their business and customer service, said Alan Batey, GM's U.S. vice president of sales and service. GM has about 4,400 U.S. dealerships.
"If you really want to take customer experience to the next level and be a partner and adviser to the dealers, sitting across the table on a regular basis and working on strategy is definitely going to yield a lot more upside," Batey told Automotive News.
It also comes amid pressure from the National Automobile Dealers Association for GM to change its controversial facilities-enhancement program, which NADA has argued is unfair to small dealers.
Most GM dealers are in the process of renovating their stores to comply with voluntary image programs at each brand. Many smaller dealers have said GM's design guidelines are too rigid and complain that they don't have a voice in the process.
In an Aug. 23 letter to GM's 1,200 smallest dealers, NADA said a task force met in early August with top GM officials, including GM North America President Mark Reuss. NADA officials asked GM to consider less-stringent facilities requirements for smaller dealers or to tweak the payment formula to cover more of their renovation costs, the letter says.
GM has said it can't grant blanket exceptions to the facilities rules based on dealership size, says Mike Martin, a Chevrolet dealer in Manassas, Va., and NADA's line representative for GM. But he believes that GM will be more willing to consider "logical exceptions," and that the one-on-one contact is a "huge step" to help that process.
"I think it will provide more decision-making power at the regional level, so those calls can be made right then, one-on-one," Martin says.
Batey said the personal on-site contact is "obviously going to help" dealers work through the renovation process. But he said the facilities issue was not a core reason for GM's decision to add the district managers.
As part of the effort, GM plans to appoint about 75 district managers. They will be GM employees; workers at the regional call centers with whom low-volume dealers now communicate, are contract workers.
GM now maintains 268 sales districts nationally.
Martin said the direct contact should help smaller dealers manage their inventories better.
"Our sales reps have gotten much more forward-thinking and strategic about inventory," he says. The dealers who've been on call-center contact "haven't had that same level of involvement."