I had the privilege of being a franchised dealer for 22 years in a medium-sized market in Indiana. You and I have shared many common successes and more than our share of mutual issues or problems.

Perhaps the greatest dealer issue I confronted was employees' respect for the customer. A hard part of our job is instilling the importance of being professional and focused on customer satisfaction.

Everyone in my dealership needed to know that our top priority was excellent customer service, and thus improved customer retention. Teaching those values was an important part of my business strategy as a dealer. It could be a tough teaching assignment.

Far more than grease on a carpet, or an occasional cigarette on a test drive, most upsetting was the lack of respect for the simple courtesies and forethought that would inspire Mr. or Ms. Customer to return to purchase more service or another car.

This was evident at all levels, including service department directors and automotive technicians.

Many dealers don't realize that, even though their face-to-face interaction with customers is limited to occasions when vehicles are returned to customers or there's a technical explanation of service performed, auto technicians are just as important to your customer-service strategy as are sales people in the showroom.

A customer's service experience is judged at all levels.

So how do we teach respect for customers? Developing a universal strategy for approaching customer relations is at the top of the list for successful dealers. While all dealers want to make every aspect of their customer service exemplary, auto makers are becoming more concerned about that in this competitive world.

Changing the way you approach customer service has to start at the top, particularly when you are changing the attitudes of seasoned technicians and veteran management. It should start at the top, but not end there.

Focusing only on staffers in leadership roles will cause you to neglect those that can grow with your business and remain loyal employees for years to come.

There are no best-selling how-to books as guides for dealing with customer satisfaction and entry-level technicians.

It is up to you to create consistent training for your entire service department, and make sure everyone is working towards the same goal. Your reputation and viability depend on it.

When you hire new entry-level technicians, ask them if they have been a part of a formal training program such as SkillsUSA, a high school-based initiative that teaches employability skills (including good manners and proper attitude) young people need to succeed as valued members of your service team.

When reviewing resumes and applications, look for candidates who have experience interacting with customers. Believe it or not, the shopping mall job they had over the summer could be valuable experience. Work ethic, manners and respect are part of an ideal technician.

Training programs such as SkillsUSA also teach young people what they can expect from their employer, and what their employer expects from them.

Exploring this relationship sets a level of common expectation that delivers an important asset: An employee who recognizes the value of your customer, and has a work ethic that will help you keep them coming back.

Larry Cummings is president/CEO of Automotive Youth Educational Systems (AYES), a partnership of auto makers, dealers, dealer associations and education agencies. Go to www.ayes.org for more information.