It seems like there is nothing but good news for Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. Inc. as it enjoys strong sales and high profits.

But behind that is what Toyota executive Mike Musich calls “the not so good news.”

The dark side is that Toyota dealerships routinely rank at the bottom of customer satisfaction surveys for sales and service.

“Customers are saying our cars are as good as they can get, but they are also saying, ‘I’m not a happy customer,’” because of treatment at the dealership level, Musich says.

Customers feel a “disconnect,” he says. Toyota is trying to change that by getting dealers to plug into a voluntary dealership certification program called Toyota Signature. It is similar to Ford Motor Co.’s Blue Oval and DaimlerChrysler AG Chrysler Group’s Five-Star quality-enhancement programs.

Toyota Signature features stepped-up training and a measurement process that tracks progress.

The program systematically surveys customers on areas that affect them the most.

Those include: sales reception and product presentation, sales negotiations, financial services, vehicle delivery, service reception and write-up, repair quality, service delivery, follow-up and problem resolution.

Musich runs the program. He has been with Toyota for 15 years. Before that, he spent 19 years in sales and marketing positions at Chrysler.

Toyota dealerships tend to get low grades on satisfaction surveys for a variety of reasons.

One is the double edge of the brand’s popularity. Because Toyotas often are hot sellers, it becomes a seller’s market, with dealership personnel unmindful of customer needs.

“Sometimes, dealership sales growth outpaces the store’s capacity for patience in sales, finance and insurance and service,” says Musich.

Sometimes it is just a few sales people who lack adequate product knowledge or customer-relations skills, says James Lentz, executive vice president of Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A.

He says the Signature system allows dealers to drill down and find out where an associate needs additional training.

“People are out there simmering because of treatment they received,” says Musich. “Many of them are silent sufferers who don’t say anything. Others tell their neighbors and families, but they don’t tell the dealer that, for instance, they knew more about the product than the salesperson.”

He says these are things Toyota has heard from customers about their dealership experiences:

  • “The first dealership was almost a nightmare.”
  • “They couldn’t find the keys to the car.”
  • “The salesperson said, ‘You’ll be back’” (when the customer balked at a deal). “I went to a second dealership that was great.”

“We can learn from customers who like us, but sometimes we can learn a lot more from dissatisfied people,” says Musich.

He says many Toyota dealer principals have embraced the Signature program because it gives them a better grip on what’s happening on the sales floor, in the finance and insurance offices and at the service department.

“Toyota Signature is not reform school, charm school or boot camp,” he says. “It is a top-to-bottom review, based on what customers have told us.”

Here is what customers say they want:

  • A purchased vehicle to be delivered properly.
  • A serviced car to be fixed the first time.
  • Respect for their time.
  • To be seen as a person, not just a sale.
  • To be kept posted on the progress of service work.

Respecting customers’ time may seem obvious, but sometimes it is tough to do at a busy dealership, says Musich.

“At some doctors’ offices, the staff respects the doctor’s time more than the patients’ time,” he says. “That might work at a doctor’s office, but it doesn’t work at a dealership.”

Customer complaints fielded by Toyota include sales people on the phone too long, delivery of a car held up by unfinished paperwork and too much time spent in the F&I office.

“One person said she could knit a sweater faster than the time she spent going through the F&I process,” says Musich.

Employee turnover can upset customer satisfaction because it can cause staff instability.

“Turnover is an Achilles’ heel that can create problems,” says Musich. It is an industry-wide problem that’s not limited to the nation’s 1,200 Toyota dealerships.

The Signature process “does a diagnosis of employee satisfaction,” he says.

“We usually find turnover stems from internal reasons, most often a conflict with immediate supervisors. Employees usually aren’t leaving for better jobs.”

To foster better employee relations, the Signature program offers management training, as well.

About 254 Toyota stores are Signature dealerships. Musich says they have “higher satisfaction scores, higher loyalty rates and higher profits.”

Driving Toyota’s sales is the auto maker’s reputation for well-made cars. But other auto companies are making strides in quality, Musich notes.

“With the product-quality gap closing, customer treatment and satisfaction are the battlegrounds,” he says. “Everything rests with the fragile relationship between dealers and customers.”

sfinlay@wardsauto.com