It's confession time. I recently took my car to an independent shop for service.

I know - I write for this magazine whose readership is auto dealers. I care about the industry and honestly enjoy the relationships I've developed with many dealers. When my cars need service, I prefer to take them to the dealership. However, this time, I had no choice.

I was leaving for vacation and wanted some things fixed on our second car and estimated it would cost $600. I called the dealership that usually services the car - three phone calls and no answer - this was after letting the phone ring 12-15 times. (Yes, the dealership was open.)

I've taken the car there because it's close to home. But they've always given me the impression that my business was take-it-or-leave-it. (I wonder how many other sales or service appointments were lost because the receptionist, or whoever is supposed to answer the phone, probably was on a break.)

Time to move on to dealership No.2. A helpful and pleasant receptionist answered the phone and transferred me to the service department — three times. Finally, after waiting about 10 minutes, someone in the service department answered.

I told him what I wanted done, and then mentioned the year of the car. He replied that the dealership doesn't work on cars that old. Granted, the car is 13 years old. But the repairs weren't difficult — a right axle boot, some belts and hoses replaced, an oil change and a few other small things.

It's a great second car, in decent condition with less than 100,000 miles, and it's that dealership's brand. I explained that to him. He didn't seem any more enthusiastic about it.

I'm thinking, here is a customer with an old car. People with older vehicles tend to spend more on service. Also, I possibly could be talked into a new vehicle while I'm hanging around the dealership. What was this guy thinking?

I ended up calling a friend of mine who works in an independent shop and had him make the repairs.

The sad part is that both dealerships are manufacturer-certified — supposedly the best of the best. My experience was… let's just say that I didn't even get the chance to have an experience.

“For the most part, cars are built so well today that customers are looking for tie breakers,” says John Holt, president and CEO of the Cobalt Group. For customers like me, who aren't beholden to any one brand, those “tie breakers” include dealership experiences.

For years, dealers have claimed they — not the manufacturers — own the right to access the customer. Some even claim to “own the customer.” The problem is that many dealerships are doing a poor job of owning the customer.

Fifty percent of people who purchased a vehicle at a GM dealership had no subsequent relationship with that dealer, says Karen Ebben, General Motors Corp.'s vice president of customer enterprise management.

I purchased a Chevrolet Lumina last year. I even wrote about it in the magazine, complimenting the dealership. But since I drove off the lot, I have not heard one word from that store. Not one card, not one phone call asking me about the vehicle, no oil change reminders, no maintenance schedules.

The latest CRM tools are meaningless if the employees aren't onboard. Maybe advanced CRM tools would have helped the GM dealership where I bought my Lumina to maintain a relationship with me. But do you really need the latest technology to send a thank-you card to a recent customer?

Before investing thousands of dollars in CRM technology, dealers need to start at the beginning — making sure their phones are getting answered and that service department personnel aren't turning customers away.


Cliff Banks is the associate editor of Ward's Dealer Business magazine.