Mercedes-Benz has launched a product specialist program for dealerships and aims to train 1,600 employees through the program by the end of next year.
Mercedes calls the specialists product concierges. They help customers, lead product clinics, walk the service drive to answer owner questions and train other dealership personnel.
Steve Cannon, CEO of Mercedes-Benz USA, said the program aims "to take better care of our customers" because of the "increasing complexity of our product line and the increasing level of our technology."
The concierge program was introduced to dealers in May at the brand's annual dealer meeting at the Mercedes-Benz factory in Vance, Ala., near Tuscaloosa.
The program is optional and includes three days of "intensive training," Cannon said. Dealers pay for the training, but Mercedes declined to give a cost. Mercedes wants dealers to hire concierges based on stores' annual new-vehicle sales -- one concierge for every 500 sales -- and have as many as four, Cannon said.
But opting out of the program comes at a price: Dealers who don't participate must have half of their sales staffs complete the training. Mercedes has 373 U.S. dealerships.
Cannon said 368 product concierges have been trained and it will take another 14 months to put the rest through the classroom and online courses. The concierges will be recertified periodically to keep them abreast of new technologies and products but Mercedes-Benz hasn't yet worked out that detail.
The concierges handle product deliveries and will travel to a customer's business to make a redelivery "if a customer calls back and says, 'I did not really understand it during my first delivery. Can I come back in or better yet, can you come to me?'" Cannon said.
They walk the service drive in the morning and approach customers to ask if they need clarification about a technology or a feature and provide instruction on new features. Much of the delivery and product information is conveyed via iPad apps.
Some stores are holding Concierge Nights, evening product clinics for customers. "We have quickly seen there is a lot for these people to do," Cannon said.
Many dealers are hiring college students or former product specialists from retailers such as Best Buy, Cannon said.
"I am impressed how some of our dealers have gone out of traditional car business hiring," he said. "They are not going down the street to the next dealership to hire these people but going outside of our industry."
Most dealers pay the concierge a fixed salary, which means the specialist can spend adequate time with a customer, unlike the commissioned salesperson who wants to move on to the next buyer to boost commission, Cannon said.
The concierge system "is augmenting salespeople," he said. "And what it also does is provide a great feeder system -- eventually these product concierges can evolve into salespeople or service advisers."
The product concierge is similar to the Genius Bar program in Apple retail stores -- product experts and troubleshooters who answer questions and give free technical support. BMW, Cadillac and Lexus have similar programs in their U.S. dealerships.
"Our focus has been more like a concierge vs. a Genius Bar," Cannon said. "For us in our customer car journey, a concierge is someone who is there at your service to answer your questions and to solve a problem."