NEW ORLEANS – The car-buying process needs to get easier and faster for customers, a top General Motors executive tells automobile dealers here.

Speaking to the J.D. Power 2014 International Automotive Roundtable on the eve of the opening of the National Automobile Dealers Assn. convention, Alicia Boler-Davis, senior vice president-Global Customer Experience and Quality, says she recently spent two hours at a dealership closing on the purchase of her new car, and that’s about an hour too much.

“We’re seeing some improvement in the process, but I still think it is too long,” she says.

GM is experimenting with a pilot program called “Shop, Click, Drive” in which buyers can search dealer inventory for the vehicle they want to buy, add accessories, estimate payments, apply for credit and set a date for pick-up or delivery.

In place at some Southeast Michigan dealers, Boler-Davis says she would like to see the program go nationwide within a couple of years, though she admits there still are issues in terms of closing sales at a higher rate.

In order to speed the buying process further and get customers at ease with online purchasing, GM dealers also will have to be able to value trade-ins over the Internet, she adds.

“(Consumers) will get more comfortable if the process is seamless,” Boler-Davis says. “They want to know where the vehicle is, get financing and factor in their trade-in value. Customers want to know, ‛What it’s going to cost me?’”

The only industry executive at a major automaker charged with overseeing both the customer experience and overall product quality, Boler-Davis says no one car brand stands out in the market in meeting buyer needs.

“None compares to Apple and Amazon in satisfying customers,” she says, pointing out that a one percentage point increase in returning (customers) is equivalent to 25,000 units, or $700 million in revenue.

To that end, GM has launched an effort to put a “Connection Center,” which mimics Apple’s Genius Bar, inside individual new-vehicle showrooms. So far, 50 U.S. dealers have signed on for the program, staffing their center with its own in-house technology specialists.

“The feedback so far is positive,” Boler-Davis says of the program.

GM dealers are becoming more receptive to customer-retention initiatives such as the Connection Center program, she says.

“There’s a cost to doing this, but we try to make sure that whatever we ask dealers to do is proven,” Boler-Davis says. “We pilot it at dealers first, then go forward. I think there’s more buy-in now.

“And the more dealers succeed with the new tools, the more they’ll be advocates of it. We both want to attract new customers.”

GM also is looking to step up turnaround on fixes when customers have complaints.

“The vision is to get feedback (from buyers), zero in on the issues and have a fix in a week’s time,” Boler-Davis says. “We have examples of that. We’ve done it for safety issues; we should be able to do with customer-satisfaction issues too.

“If we get an issue today, we should be working on a solution today.”

One of the biggest quality challenges is in the infotainment area, Boler-Davis says.

“Infotainment is a real hot button with some of our customers,” she notes. “Touch is great, but (the controls) have to work. You can’t (design systems) that make you go through five screens.

“As vehicles get more complex, the winners will be the automaker that makes it simpler for the customer.”

dzoia@wardsauto.com