When a customer leaves his dealership without buying a vehicle, Darin Wade wants to know why.

To find out systematically and then do something about it, Wade, vice president of Rich Ford, has set up a sophisticated customer-relationship center at his Albuquerque, NM, dealership.

The center, using software that took more than two years to develop, tracks and follows up Internet and phone leads and all unsold prospects.

“There are lots of reasons people leave without buying,” Wade says.

Some reasons are disturbing, as the center’s seven staffers learn when they contact and interview customers who “walked.” Those people’s near-verbatim comments are transcribed into digital reports that go to dealership management.

Wade shows one such “client profile.” It’s a customer who, according to the report, became miffed when a salesman said he couldn’t test drive an F-250 pickup “until he knew for sure if he was going to buy a vehicle.”

Unfortunately, “that sort of thing happens all the time,” Wade says.

Some vexed customers are lost forever. Others can be mollified. “If you try, you can get them back,” Wade says.

It is part of his concerted effort to plug profit leaks. A process is the best way to do that, he says. “I know ‘process’ is an overused term, but it is relevant. A customer-relationship center allows you to track the effectiveness of what you are doing.”

In cases such as the irked customer who didn’t get a test drive, the center’s report goes to the sales manager who, in turn, talks to both the customer and the salesman. Wade gets a follow-up report.

Some dealership staffers, and even managers, dislike the system because it can show their mistakes and weaknesses. “No one has been fired – yet,” Wade says. “But it’s important to improve the tracking of information. When that happens, accountability happens.”

It’s vital to use modern customer-relationship management systems, and Wade compliments Ford Motor Co. for supporting dealers who do. “It’s the difference between survival and extinction, especially for Ford dealers, because there are too many of them.”

But those systems do not trump interpersonal relationships that are lifelines to auto retailing.

Accordingly, it’s best to get an Internet customer offline and on the phone, “as quickly as possible, because then you have tone and inflection.” Wade says. “Then you get them in the store, where you see the body language. A good salesperson uses all three.”

And a good dealership uses available resources to foster customer loyalty.

Satisfied customers tend to return to dealerships, just as medical patients usually keep seeing the same doctors, Wade says. “The loyalty factor is there. Dealers who screw it up are the ones that will go away.”

Wade is one of the best and brightest dealership managers, says Ralph Paglia, director-digital marketing at ADP Dealer Services.

“Darin graduated from college (the University of New Mexico) and went to work at a dealership by choice, unlike a lot of people, myself included, who got into the dealership business by accident,” Paglia says at an E.N.G. automotive conference in Costa Mesa, CA.

Described as a hands-on manager, Wade for 17 years has worked at Rich Ford, a 180-employee operation. It’s the No.1 Ford store in its market.

sfinlay@wardsauto.com