"Van Tuyl style" turns Nissan dealership around ERRITOS, CA - Like the weather, customer satisfaction is something dealers and just about everyone else talk about.

Ask a dealer what his top priority is. The answer most often is "customer satisfaction" or "customer loyalty."

At Cerritos Nissan, they've taken that principle and yielded real results in only a few years. The Cerritos Auto Mall store in southern Los Angeles County has leveraged customer satisfaction into what General Manager Peter Fice calls an upward-mobility engine.

"Thanks to our customer-satisfaction program, Cerritos Nissan is on the way to No. 1 dealer in volume among all Nissan dealers," he says.

The transformation of the Nissan store - which wound up 243rd on the Ward's Dealer Business 500 in 1999 after never even coming close to making the list - started in 1996.

That's when the highly-regarded Van Tuyl (V.T.) dealer network purchased Moon Nissan in the Cerritos mall, located on the LA and Orange county line, amid the largest new-car market in the world.

Larry Van Tuyl already was a Nissan partisan in his Phoenix base, where the V.T.'s ABC Nissan and Pinnacle Nissan have always ranked high on the Ward's Dealer 500.

His 73-year-old father, Cecil, always has focused on customer-relations builders like exemplary finance & insurance, service and body shop operations - and his long-established Midwest and Far West dealerships were second to none in their markets in customer-loyalty ratings.

"But Moon Nissan needed a total turnaround," says Mr. Fice. "Everything had to be changed - and was. The facility, personnel, customer attitudes, advertising, finally even the name.

"Larry and his team approved $2 million in facilities upgrading. We immediately set about installing a customer-relations culture, something which you'll see at the Van Tuyl dealerships everywhere. That meant personnel changes throughout the dealership, which now has 200 employees. It was tough medicine - but how it's worked!"

With the name changed in 1999 to reflect the dealership's location in the auto mall, Mr. Fice, 38, set about installing customer-service practices he learned after several years in restaurant management.

He says, "The first thing we did was make personnel accountable for customer-satisfaction ratings. That was accomplished through making sure there was top-notch employee satisfaction, and that, in turn, resulted from compensation bonuses tied to CS ratings. Monthly employee barbecues feature discussions of improvement ideas."

Cerritos Nissan brings the CS program right to Mr. Fice's office from a customer care center that takes all incoming calls and keeps records of questions and resolutions.

His executive assistant, Kathy Christiansen, oversees daily reports on customer calls, and two customer relations representatives are assigned to follow-up. That includes finding out why customers left without a purchase.

"But our most effective innovation," says Mr. Fice, "was a six-minute video presented to every new- and used-car buyer about the dealership itself. It introduces the customers to every manager and shows them the service and body shop departments.

"It gives them numbers to call and tells them about our Internet web site (www.cerritosnissan.com). We're surprised to see how often it's used."

As for the Internet, Cerritos Nissan is finding its own portal as productive as the leads generated by three national web sites it subscribes to.

"Frankly," says Mr. Fice, "I'd rather do a good job in closing a few leads than be overwhelmed by a ton of leads."

In another change dictated by the changing demographics in the Greater L.A./Orange County market, Mr. Fice focuses the dealership's marketing on Spanish language customers. The ad policy centers primarily on the Los Angeles Times and prime-time radio.

The customer-relations push paid off in 2000. New-unit sales jumped 20% from 2,932 the previous year to an estimated 3,600. Used-vehicle sales rose 18% from 1,682 to about 2,000.

Former Chevrolet General Manager Jim Perkins, who now head the Hendrick Automotive Group, calls Cecil Van Tuyl the nation's "best dealer."

Mr. Fice concurs. "I remember what he told us at our first meeting: `People go where they're invited. They return where they're welcome.'