Dealership personnel need to understand how to treat women customers, says Skip Merrick, automotive chairman at Alfred State College in New York.

He has created an ethics training program to help students understand the vulnerability and intimidation that many women experience when buying a car or seeking repair services.

The program is part of a required service manager/consultant course where students learn how to effectively run an automotive business.

Through role-playing and real-life experiences from female students and staff, students learn how women generally perceive the automotive buying and repair process.

Merrick teaches students to:

  • Understand that a woman relies on her car in different ways than a man. For example, a woman faces a potentially vulnerable and dangerous situation when her vehicle stalls out.
  • Never use a condescending tone of voice, inappropriate language or refer to female customers by anything other than their first name.
  • Maintain eye contact to communicate sincerity.
  • Avoid using negative body language, such as folding arms, tapping a foot or checking a watch that may communicate boredom or superiority

In an auto service department, "a woman looks for cleanliness, notices body language and seeks respect from whomever greets her," says Merrick. "Many females also admit feeling ignored, talked down to, taken advantage of and even pushed out the door when they interact with dealers or repairmen. And we want to change that."

His students also study female purchasing power and discuss that women will often drive far to patronize a repair shop they trust.

Students determine how they can implement what they learn about female customers upon getting their first job.

Brian Bingham, shop foreman at Mercedes-Benz of South Atlanta, says Merrick's ethics training makes Alfred State College students more employable.

"It's apparent that these students receive real-life experience as a part of their education, and that's a big part of what we look for when hiring," says Bingham. "They're well prepared and know how to approach every type of customer, right off the bat."

Merrick kicks off his ethics workshop with this story:

A female friend, in the market for a new car, decided on a particular car and dealership. As she was about to sign the contract, she was asked if she needed to take the document home for her husband to sign. Insulted, she ended up buying a car from another dealership.