LAS VEGAS - Ford Division expects its new Blue Oval Certification program for dealers to improve the brand's consumer satisfaction ranking from below the industry average to the best in the business.

Introduced during Ford's spring dealer meetings in Las Vegas last month, the program is a comprehensive series of standards and processes that dealers must prove they meet through documentation and third-party evaluation.

J.D. Power & Associates will perform the dealership evaluations and assisted Ford in defining the standards and processes.

Ford currently rates 26th out of 36 brands in service satisfaction and 23rd out of 36 in sales satisfaction.

"The hard facts show we need substantial improvement in this area," says James O'Connor, president of Ford Division. "We're not interested in moving up incrementally. We want to go right to the top."

Certified dealers will attain high scores in customer surveys, conduct employee training and employee satisfaction surveys and have "clean, comfortable and competitive" facilities.

There will be new standards for the sales process, which must be measurable and verifiable. Dealers must have sales and service follow-up, problem resolution processes and a designated customer-relations manager.

On the service side, dealers must have documented and measurable processes for delivering timely, convenient and quality service.

Ford dealers who attain certification will receive monthly cash bonuses and their employees will be eligible for a vehicle purchase plan, a Ford-leveraged 401-K plan. Service departments at certified dealerships will get increased assistance from the company for loaner vehicles.

In addition to J.D. Power, Ford enlisted the help of 42 focus groups of dealers throughout the country while formulating the Blue Oval Certification plan.

"Dealers are very supportive of this," says Jerry Reynolds, chairman of the National Ford Dealer Council and owner of Prestige Ford in Garland, TX. "It is something we asked for."

Evaluations, which will take two J.D. Power representatives a day to a day and a half to complete, will begin in July. Officials would not offer a timetable for their dealerships to become certified.

The actual certification process will come at no expense for dealers, however, some dealers may have to spend money to get their operations in shape to become certified.

"There's no question that some dealers will have to make a significant investment to get there," says Mr. Reynolds. "Others won't."

One who won't is John Jarnagin of Rutledge, TN. "I'm already doing all these things," he says. "The customer signs our paychecks and we've got to take care of them."

"I'm a seven-time Chairman's Award winner and I know that customer satisfaction always pays. I'm already doing most of these things."

National advertising promoting certified dealers will begin in January 2001.