Chevrolet dealers are taking Mickey Mouse courses.

The General Motors brand is sending virtually all of its retailers to the Disney Institute in a program designed to adapt the entertainment giant’s principles of customer care to the car-buying experience. 

By next spring, nearly all of Chevy’s approximately 3,000 dealers will have attended sessions at Disney World in Orlando, FL, or Disneyland in Anaheim, CA, according to Colleen Haesler, Chevrolet director-sales operations.  

Attention to the customer experience is just one element of Chevrolet’s business strategy, she says.

Other elements include a refreshed product lineup (including the ’13 Spark and full-size trucks, ’14 Impala and Australia-sourced SS performance sedan), and the division’s system-wide facility makeover, part of GM’s Essential Brand Elements initiative.

“We felt an outside evaluation would be helpful, and we looked at several companies,” Haesler says in explaining why GM picked the Disney Institute. “The focus is absolutely on how we treat the customer, and ultimately driving opinion, consideration and retention.”

She also thinks Chevrolet could learn from Disney’s experience as an iconic American company that has experienced difficulties but bounced back to become an industry leader.

“Two years ago we started assessing our portfolio and our facilities, as GM emerged from bankruptcy, to really redefine who we are going to be going forward,” she says.

“The next place to focus was our treatment of customers. We thought it was an area where we could certainly improve and expand our professionalism and our competitive advantage.”

Chevrolet dealers were introduced to the Disney culture in a presentation at a meeting in Las Vegas last year.

Haesler says the message was received so well Chevrolet started a pilot program that brought Disney trainers to local markets at dealers’ requests.

“We touched over 9,000 people in those seminars,” she says. “We migrated from that into 2½-day meetings where we bring the dealer and/or executive manager to a Disney property to learn about the Disney principles and to share ideas and best practices with other dealers.

“It’s not that we want them to become Disney; we want them to take what they learn and implement it in their stores. Each market is different and unique, so it allows them to modify and adapt accordingly.”

The Disney Institute was established in 1986 after Tom Peters wrote of the Disney mystique in his book, “In Search of Excellence.”

“After that our phones started ringing, and we thought it might make sense to share the Disney approach (with other companies),” says Jeff James, vice president of the Disney Institute in Orlando.

Today the professional development organization serves clients ranging from World Cup soccer to the Miami International Airport.

“Through the years, we’ve helped businesses understand how Disney works and most important, how you can apply this to your company,” says James.

He says the Disney organization is “maniacally focused on the guest” and that a key to having happy customers is to have happy employees who enjoy providing guests with a great experience.

“The way you make your people connect with your customers is to have strong leadership that culturally allows your employees to act the way they think is right to provide that great service to their clients,” James says. 

Scott Shulman, owner of Best Chevrolet in Hingham, MA, took this message to heart after he and his service manager attended a Disney Institute seminar on quality service in 1994.

“Our customers weren’t happy, our employees weren’t happy and you better believe I wasn’t happy,” he says, explaining why he attended the seminar. “We needed to change the way we ran our business.”

After experiencing Disney best practices firsthand, Shulman returned to his dealership with a fresh outlook and mission statement – “Make people happy” – which he implemented in every department.

“We stopped using pressure techniques to sell a car and focused on pleasing the customer,” he says. “I assured everyone that no one would get into trouble by making a decision that helped a customer.”

This approach was tested when a customer complained that he hadn’t received a fullsize spare tire he thought he had been promised on his new pickup. “The salesman gave him one, no questions asked,” says Shulman.

He says the Disney principles he and his team adapted at Best Chevrolet have resulted in a customer retention rate of 64% (compared with an industry average of 39.7%), a customer satisfaction index in the 90s and a fixed-operations absorption rate of 92%.

Disney’s James says two of the most important things for a dealership to understand are:

  • Embracing a common purpose with an organizational compass that diverts employees away from departmental silos.
  • Shifting the emphasis from transaction to interaction.

“It’s amazing when the light bulb goes on with these dealers – it’s not just all about moving metal, it’s ‘I actually have to interact with my customers,’” he says. “Selling cars can sometimes feel very transactional; we would contend that it needs to be an interaction. And if you’re able to create an interaction, you build brand loyalty.”

“We’re watching customer interactions with employees,” says Chad Dresing, sales manager at Green Chevrolet-Chrysler in East Moline, IL, who attended the Disney Institute this year.

“We’re trying to catch people in the act of doing good things and making sure they are recognized for it,” he says of the dealership’s enhanced outlook. “It’s as simple as saying, ‘Hey, that was good,’ instead of ignoring it and going off in your busy day.”

Dresing also makes sure his employees understand and abide by the Green Family Auto mission statement: “We provide a worry-free experience selling and servicing the best vehicles for our valued guests.”

For Charley O’Daniel, general manager of Gunn Chevrolet in San Antonio, Disney training translated into, among other things, letting his sales team revise the new-car delivery process.

Instead of delivering cars in front of the showroom, customers now receive their vehicle in the service department where they tour the facility and meet the service writers. Simply having met those employees makes subsequent visits for maintenance or repairs more comfortable for customers, he says. “The Disney Institute really opened my eyes to going the extra mile for a customer.”

Chevrolet ranked fifth (655) in a recent J.D. Power and Associates U.S. Sales Satisfaction Index Study, behind Mini, Buick, GMC and Volkswagen. It ranked fourth (801) in Power’s Customer Service Index Study, also trailing Mini, Buick, and GMC.

Chris Sutton, J. D. Power and Associates senior director, acknowledges that Chevrolet performs relatively well in both studies, but there is always room for improvement.

“A lot of it is employees taking ownership of their position, communication between management and frontline employees, soliciting feedback,” he says.

“Not that Disney can necessarily help shorten the time it takes to buy or service a car, which is a source of frustration, but by putting the emphasis on employees and personalizing the relationship with customers, it can only benefit dealers."

Mainstream brands such as Chevrolet are improving their customer-satisfaction scores, says Fran O’Hagan, president and CEO of Pied Piper Management, a consultancy that uses mystery shoppers for its annual satisfaction index.

Luxury brands such as Mercedes-Benz, Acura, Infiniti and Lexus score the highest in this year’s index, which is at an all-time high.   

“That improvement was driven less by improvement of the luxury brands and more by improvement of the mainstream brands,” O’Hagan tells WardsAuto. “Many of those mainstream car salespeople are more helpful to car shoppers today than they were five years ago.”

There are many aspects of a dealership that are difficult for dealership employees to change, including the lineup of cars provided by the manufacturer, the national reputation of the brand and the store’s location, he says.

“On the other hand, dealerships can absolutely improve the way they interact with car-shoppers. It’s one piece of the business that is completely within the control of the dealership.

“Dealers who pay close attention to how their salespeople sell are rewarded with better dealership performance.”

Steve Finlay contributed to this story.