DETROIT (Bloomberg) -- For those who think the car-buying experience stinks, Ford Motor Co. is teaching its Lincoln dealers about fine cheeses.
Ford is spending more than $1 billion to try to resurrect the Lincoln brand and it knows it needs not just better cars, but a luxury car-buying experience that will attract younger, better-educated and wealthier buyers.
So it's putting its dealers through training at the Lincoln Academy, where they raise their consciousness and sharpen their senses with exercises including sampling cheese.
It's a challenge. When one of the trainers asked how old the dealers' customers are, several shouted out numbers in the 70s and 80s.
"People who literally live their whole lives to aspire to buy a Lincoln," responded Doug Fiedler, a Lincoln Academy trainer who consults for the likes of Ritz-Carlton Hotels and Norwegian Cruise Lines. "That's not a good business model."
And yet whiffs of concern in Dearborn, Mich., over the state of Ford's luxury brand are starting to clear from the air thanks to the MKZ luxury sedan, Lincoln's first of four new or redesigned models in four years.
The MKZ posted sales records in each of the past two months and spent fewer days on dealer lots than BMW's 3-Series or Mercedes-Benz's C-Class, according to data from Bloomberg Industries and researcher Edmunds.com.
Ford has been on a roll, with record North American pretax profit of $8.34 billion last year and a 0.8 percentage point gain in market share so far this year. Still, Lincoln is important to its future because Ford needs a successful high-profit luxury line to complement a range of vehicles in its namesake brand that is the best in a generation.
'Change the client'
The trainers at Ford's Lincoln Academy are calling their coveted buyers the progressive luxury client. Dealers are being coaxed into catering to this customer by tapping into their own senses of taste, touch, sight, smell and sound.
"This initiative isn't just going to change our brand, our advertising and our products," Holly O'Donnell, a trainer, told dealers last month during one of the sessions in Chicago. "This initiative is going to change the client that's going to walk through our front door."
Lincoln is moving to shake buyers from their association with the now-defunct Town Car, an airport shuttle for generations of business travelers, to build the sort of cachet belonging to brands like BMW and Mercedes-Benz. Critical to that will be promising products like the MKZ and the brand's next offering, a small utility similar to the MKC Concept shown at the Detroit auto show in January that drew comparisons to the Range Rover Evoque.
In the meantime, Lincoln is taking aim at sales and service staff to make sure luxury buyers want to do business with them. That's an area where Ford says even leaders like BMW and Mercedes are falling short of consumers' expectations.
When the researcher Luxury Institute LLC last year asked premium buyers what level of importance they placed on dealership experience on a scale of 1 to 10, the average score was 8.3, according to a survey released in November. At the same time, that sample of wealthy consumers scored their last sales or service experience with their current car or truck at less than 7.7, the study found.
"These clients want no hassles," Andrew Frick, a Lincoln group marketing manager, says in a training video beamed into Lincoln Academy sessions. "They want quality, reliability and effortless customer service. They're cynical, but open-minded. And there's a chance they have never stepped foot in a Lincoln dealership."