Special Coverage

NADA Convention & Exposition

LAS VEGAS – U.S. Mercedes-Benz dealers and managers are behind some of the most creative programs launched lately by Mercedes-Benz Financial, a top executive of the firm says.

Dealer input goes way beyond dropping ideas in a suggestion box or raising a hand during a meeting, says Juergen Rochert, vice president of Mercedes-Benz Financial, a part of DaimlerChrysler Financial Services America.

Instead, the creativity stems from annual 3-day workshops Mercedes-Benz Financial began in 2005. About 300 dealers and finance and insurance managers from across the country attend.

“We do presentations and training, but the core of the sessions is breaking into groups to hash out new ideas and solutions,” Rochert tells Ward’s during an interview at the National Automobile Dealers Assn. convention here.

“We close the doors and talk about everything,” he says of the “Inside Track” meetings. “It is not just taking questions from the audience or asking what we are doing right or wrong. It is group thinking.”

Three wonderful things happen as a result, he says. One: “The dealers feel we’re listening to them.” Two: They swap a lot of best-practice dealership information. Three: “We get a lot of good ideas.”

Suggestions are ranked by priority and presented to upper management. Of 140 ideas presented the first year, 60 were implemented in some shape or form. Rochert considers that astounding.

Are some of the ideas just too crazy? Not really, he says.

“We set some parameters, but these dealership people are professionals,” he says. “If they think something might work, we’re going to consider it.

“We have lawyers and accountants who say, ‘We can’t do that.’ We say, ‘Think again.’ They often find a way. If dealers suggest it, it’s usually viable.”

A proposal to offer high-mileage leases of up to 20,000 miles (32,000 km) a year was at first considered a crazy idea, Rochert says.

“The initial overall feeling was that if someone is putting a lot of miles on a car, they should buy it, not lease it,” he says. “But we found a way with certain cars and lower residuals to offer high-mileage leasing, which appeals to some people and businesses.”

Another workshop idea Mercedes-Benz Financial launched is wheel and tire insurance.

Rochert recalls: “When that idea was proposed at a session, some of our people said, ‘You want to do what?’ But one wheel can cost $700-$800 on an AMG car, and going through a pothole can do some serious damage.

“It’s turned out to be a nice little program. We got our first claim in the first week from someone in Michigan.”

Other workshop ideas now in practice include a collision-insurance program guaranteeing the use of Mercedes-Benz parts, as well as enhanced functionality for computerized credit applications.

Another implemented idea: Financing that allows dealers more options to structure a deal for the lowest down payment (”although not all customers want that,” Rochert says) for customers who don’t have the best credit scores.

“In hindsight, that one was a no-brainer,” he says. “What we’ve learned from the workshops is that dealers want options. It’s important to listen and not immediately say no.”

sfinlay@wardsauto.com