STUTTGART -- As Daimler AG struggles to keep pace in China with rivals BMW and Audi, the company is picking a fight with its own dealers.
In a strongly worded letter, Daimler China sales chief Nicholas Speeks accused independent Mercedes-Benz dealers in China of laziness and threatened them with consequences.
"Your performance as dealers worries me," he wrote in a February letter obtained by Automobilwoche, a sister publication to Automotive News China. "A telemarketer in a call center could achieve these low sales volumes."
Speeks added that any dealer who fails to meet Mercedes' standards must expect consequences "no matter how good our business relationship has been in the past."
Rainer Gehnen, managing director of the German-Chinese Trade Association, warned that the letter could poison Daimler's relations with its dealers.
"In my opinion, this mode of expression is a no-go for business correspondence even in Germany," Gehnen said. "In China, where saving face is important, it will have a downright catastrophic effect and could irreparably damage business relationships. This is certainly not the way to motivate Chinese workers or dealers."
Mercedes' collapsing sales underscore the pressure on Speeks and his boss, Daimler China chief Hubertus Troska.
In the first three months of 2013, Mercedes sales in China dropped 12 percent to 45,440 units, while BMW sales rose nearly 8 percent to 86,224 vehicles, and Audi sales jumped 14 percent to 102,810 units.
Troska, who took over the top China post in December after running Mercedes' global heavy-truck business, told Bloomberg this month one of the first things he did in his new post was visit dealers and do some mystery shopping.
Mercedes-Benz is accelerating its dealer expansion in China and streamlining sales operations to repair recent missteps that have contributed to the growing gap with BMW and Audi.
Mercedes lost the global luxury-car sales lead to BMW in 2005 and ceded second place to Audi in 2011. Daimler CEO Dieter Zetsche has vowed to win the global luxury sales crown back and China, the world's biggest light-vehicle market, must play a key role in achieving that goal.
David Phillips of Automotive News contributed to this report.