COSTA MESA, CA – Customer-relationship management systems, designed to keep businesses close to their clientele, can have the opposite effect.

Some auto dealers fret the sophisticated and expensive software programs, for all their touted efficiencies, overshadow a key part of automotive retailing: “the personal touch.”

“CRM systems have become a handicap by removing the one-on-one relationship with the customer,” San Diego dealer Michael Baker says at the E.N.G. Automotive CRM conference here.

The systems are electronic equivalents of a Rolodex, but with much more customer information, ranging from data on buying preferences to the number of driver-age people in a household and when they last bought and serviced vehicles.

CRM offers an array of sales, marketing and management functions. Those include tracking the progress of a sale, following up with prospects, delivering timely service reminders and sending birthday wishes.

But a feared drawback is that dealership employees can rely too much on CRM and not enough on their own human skills to cultivate customer relationships. CRM defenders say the systems were designed, in part, because employees weren’t doing enough on their own in the first place.

“I’d prefer that dealership people have relationships with customers, but we’ve established these fancy systems as a backstop because the employees are not establishing the relationships,” says Todd Stainbrook, a digital-integration manager for Ford Motor Co.

Dealerships’ high employee turnover rates often mean individual staffers don’t maintain long-term customer relationships, he says. “That’s why we’ve systemized and centralized it.”

But something such as a personal telephone reminder from a service advisor is more effective than a CRM-related recorded message, Baker says. “That’s so impersonal,” he says.

He adds: “Training needs to reinforce personal relationships. I can’t emphasize that enough. It’s about having good relationships with customers. It’s not all electronic.”

Experts say dealership personnel can be trained to use CRM systems and still offer the human touch in consumer interactions. Dealers need not conduct the training themselves, but they’re advised to give their blessings to it.

“If the dealer is not involved, there’s a problem,” Stainbrook says. “It starts at the top. Dealers are getting it, as CRM evolves. I’ve seen a whole new perspective from them.”

“But it’s still about people, still about listening to customers,” says Scott Waldron, president of Experian Automotive, an information services division. “Too many CRM programs focus on talking rather than listening.”

Another potential drawback of CRM systems is that their information capacity can be overwhelming.

“Our biggest challenge is not a lack of data but figuring out which is useful,” says Grant Paullo, BMW of North America’s manager-after sales marketing and communications. “We need to make sure we have the right data in place.”

Adds Stainbrook: “There is a proliferation of information. What do we do with all of it? I notice with the generation coming up that their expectations are high; they’re focused on themselves; and they are shocked if they get something that is not relevant to them.

“They’ve grown up with modern technology, and it’s our job to make sure we get to them and are relevant to them.”

An Accenture study cites a gap between what today’s consumers expect and what they get.

Modern technology is partly to blame for that, says Michael Keranen, American Honda Motor Corp.’s assistant vice president-dealer communications, training and customer relationship management. “We’ve done it ourselves by replacing a real human on phone calls to customers.”

The true meaning of “personalization” can be questioned when businesses use computer systems to massage customers. Says Keranen: “A personalized email is not personalization.”

sfinlay@wardsauto.com