Special Coverage

Management Briefing Seminars

TRAVERSE CITY, MI – Poor public perception of auto dealerships hurts the entire industry, says James Lentz, executive vice president of Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. Inc.

“The truth is, most people get to know the industry by visiting one of 21,500 dealerships, and it’s not always a positive experience,” Lentz says at the Management Briefing Seminars here.

The fear is such negativity could influence the way in which government leaders and regulators regard the industry as a whole and act accordingly during a time of increased national interest in mandatory fuel-economy measures and the like.

Lentz cites a Gallup consumer poll in which car sales people finished dead last in perceived honesty and integrity.

“It is a huge problem, and we’re all being judged by it,” he says. “One (surveyed) person said he’d rather be at a funeral than at a dealership buying a car.”

Lentz hastens to add he is not blaming all dealers, most of which “do a great job” selling and servicing cars. But he says the average customer wants to spend two hours buying a car, where instead it often takes seven to eight hours to complete the deal.

That stands to be a serious issue with 20-something Generation-Y members, he says. Marketers identify them as impatient consumers.

“We have to improve, streamline and put the fun back in car buying,” Lentz says. “Dealers look to our leadership. Clearly, we’re not doing enough.”

The issue is one that affects Toyota, in particular. The popularity of its vehicles creates a seller’s market. Because demand is high, some dealers have not felt the need to update their facilities or modernizing their sales processes. Consequently, Toyota dealers routinely rank at the bottom of customer-satisfaction surveys.

Ironically, many domestic-brand dealers, hungry for sales and thus catering to customers, score much higher.

Besieged by buyers, many Toyota dealers have outgrown their facilities. Collectively, Toyota dealers are putting $3.5 billion into improvements and expansions, Lentz says.

He praises stores that find creative ways to speed up the car-buying process.

For example, to cope with daily “crunch” periods that can overwhelm finance and insurance personnel, some Toyota dealerships cross-train showroom staffers to step in and help with F&I sales when necessary.

Lentz says auto makers can aid customer satisfaction at dealerships by better allocating vehicles. Dealers often are blamed for the unavailability of popular models.

“Every manufacturer needs an allocation system that is fair and equitable,” Lentz says. “Sometimes too much heat is put on dealers.”

sfinlay@wardsauto.com