"We have been driving hard for the last few years on the customer experience," said Gareth Joyce, vice president of customer services at Mercedes-Benz USA. "It is not just about the product; it is all about the package and how you look after the customers as well.
"This is just one of the building blocks in our portfolio to drive that program forward through our dealer network."
For the past several years, Mercedes-Benz has been investing heavily in its people, processes and technology to improve customer service. It will take four years to train 22,000 dealership and 4,000 Mercedes-Benz corporate and finance employees -- with 75 sessions each year, Joyce said.
The target is to have dealer network and Mercedes-Benz USA employees "walk out of the program with an infusion into their blood -- of the passion, the culture and the history of innovation of the brand Mercedes-Benz," Joyce said.
The training has three components:
1. A factory tour of new production for the C-class sedan
2. Classroom training
3. Driving off-road at the factory track and the Barber Motorsports Park in Birmingham, Ala.
It will cost about $1,200 per employee, not including travel and hotel. Dealers are footing part of that bill, Joyce said. "It is an equitable split," he said.
Joseph Agresta Jr., president of Benzel-Busch Motor Car Corp. in Englewood, N.J., and chairman of the Mercedes-Benz USA Dealer Board, will participate in the pilot run next month.
Agresta said he supports the immersion program: "To be a part of the Mercedes-Benz history and heritage is a very attractive thing."
Employees who have gone through the training will feel "that they are a part of a bigger story," Agresta said. "We want them to understand how they fit in.
"It will help dealers sell and help with employee retention as our team members will feel part of that heritage."
The visitor center has been revamped into a brand center that can also host tourists. Dealer and employee participants will go through it with iPads and scan certain displays to get detailed digital content, Joyce said.
For instance, at a display about Mercedes' AMG performance arm, "they can scan the engine on display and can learn more," he said. "For tourist purposes we would not serve that information up because it is deep-learning content -- they want a relatively superficial learning experience that is more enjoyment-driven."
Mercedes-Benz decided to conduct the massive training program at the factory because of its significance to the U.S. market. The plant produced 185,146 vehicles in 2013, making the M crossover and GL SUV and, for sale in China, the R-class crossover.
"We are building a bridge to home production pride, and those are the vehicles coming out of Tuscaloosa -- that is a good story to tell customers," Joyce said. "When the C class is at full volume, one out of two [Mercedes-Benz] cars that are sold in the U.S. from 2015 onwards will be produced in Tuscaloosa. This is a significant part of the culture of the brand in the U.S."
Joyce said the training will include about 90 percent of Mercedes-Benz dealership personnel in the United States.
The classroom instruction will take three hours, focusing on how to handle a customer "with a specific focus on the emotional element -- how to create 'wow' factors, how to delight and how to create memories," Joyce said. "It is less process-oriented and identifies opportunities to connect with your customer."
An hour-long session will focus on product innovations and technologies.
The plant tour will take employees through the C-class sedan body shop and assembly line and a 20-minute simulated tour of the paint shop. Production of the redesigned C-class sedan began at the plant earlier this year.
At an adjacent off-road course, participants will drive the M and GL crossovers.
"It is a marvelous place for us to let them put the trucks through their paces in an environment that is purpose-built," Joyce said. "When you have done that, you can really speak about the 'wow' of our products with firsthand experience to a customer."
At the racetrack, they will be instructed on the collision prevention assist systems in the 2015 C class and put the car through its paces. They also will drive the new GLA crossover and CLA entry sedan on a closed circuit. The last segment is driving AMG high-performance models at high speeds.
The training will be "a major building block" to "focusing on a relationship with a customer," he said.
Joyce said: "We expect people to come out with Mercedes-Benz pulsing in their veins."