Dealers already are plenty dissatisfied, what with plummeting sales, store closures and depleted inventories. Now you can add to that list less satisfaction with their dealership-management system vendors.

Overall dealer satisfaction with DMS vendors' products and services declined this year. The National Automobile Dealers Assn. tracks satisfaction with these vendors in a bi-annual survey.

NADA's 2009 survey shows that only 72% of dealership personnel are satisfied overall with their DMS vendors, compared to 79% in the 2007 survey. These vendors develop and support dealership computer systems that assist dealers in managing their daily operations.

OK, a decline of 7 percentage points doesn't sound all that dramatic. But it is statistically significant, says Dick Malaise, NADA chief information officer.

But dig deeper and you find that dealers and general managers in particular are far more critical of their DMS vendors than are dealership controllers and sales, service and parts managers. Their overall satisfaction with vendors declined precipitously to 51% compared with 72% in 2007. That's a decline of 21 percentage points.

Some of this dissatisfaction clearly is being fueled by the crummy economy and the accompanying pressures.

But it also stems from several areas of concern that vendors must address in 2010. In fact, the seven vendors evaluated in this survey now have a golden opportunity to help dealers and dealership personnel in critical areas that they have identified as important and deficient.

“Everybody's just down a little bit, and that affects everything we respond to,” says Jim Waldron, owner of Jim Waldron Buick-Pontiac-GMC in Davison, MI.

But Waldron, who chairs NADA's information technology committee, also notes that dealers today have increasing expectations of their DMS vendors, are better educated about what they want and can see how vendors differ.

Ron Lamb, senior vice president of sales at Reynolds and Reynolds Co., is candidly surprised that overall satisfaction is down by only 7 percentage points.

“The last year to 18 months has been just a time of survival, and dealers have had to make many, many difficult decisions about their business, their personnel, layoffs, things of that nature,” Lamb says. “There are no sacred cows, so it's not surprising to me that dealers are looking at every decision and thinking it through this prism of the recession.”

NADA has discussed the survey findings in meetings with each vendor. Not one of the vendors achieved NADA's goal of 90% dealership satisfaction. Two years ago, Automotive Computer Services Inc. was the only vendor to hit that mark, but dealerships gave ACS an 80% rating this year.

Vendors often do their own customer surveys, but they do take the NADA poll seriously.

“We'll start polling our customers more often and learning from our mistakes and we'll be back at the 90% level in the 2011 survey, whether the economy helps us out or not,” vows Van Koppersmith, ACS president. “I guess we got a little complacent. We grew tremendously in the last couple of years, so I understand where we may have slipped some in our dealers' eyes.”

Of the seven vendors, only Auto/Mate Inc., DealerTrack Systems Inc. and Adam Systems registered increases in overall dealership satisfaction in the 2009 survey.

Dealerships want a more flexible DMS that can adapt to their changing business needs, especially in this time of upheaval. They want software that can be customized to their needs, continued improvements to allow third-party vendors to share information with their DMS, better technical training for employees who use the system and greater ability to integrate with Internet-based systems that the automakers use to communicate with them.

Waldron thinks vendors will address deficiencies revealed in the survey.

“I think you'll see the scores improve dramatically when we do the next survey in two years,” he says.

Veteran auto journalist Ralph Kisiel specializes in covering information technology for dealers.

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