Chevrolet staffs to learn Disneyland-style service

October 27, 2011

Chevrolet staffs to learn Disneyland-style service

Investment by GM in classes at theme park is part of initiative to give buying experience a dose of magic

/ Los Angeles Times

Los Angeles— Most people go to Disneyland for the rides. Peter Hoffman is going there to learn how to sell rides.

Hoffman, the owner of Sierra Chevrolet in Monrovia, and other Chevrolet dealers and their sales staffs are headed for classes at the Anaheim theme park and elsewhere designed to turn fast-talking car salesmen into personable Prince Charmings.

They will learn such rules as: A prince or princess never smokes in public. That takes the magic out of the Magic Kingdom. They will also learn that sometimes it’s better to be a little bit like Dopey. The silent dwarf doesn’t have to say anything to make people feel good. When it comes to purchasing cars, customers remember less about what the sales staff said than they do about the experience they had at the dealership.

The customer service initiative is the latest in a campaign by General Motors Co. to boost market share in California, where the storied American brand has lagged behind its import competition for more than a generation.

The Toyota, Honda and Ford brands each sell more vehicles in the Southern California market than Chevrolet. When it comes to just passenger cars, Chevrolet also lags behind South Korean upstart Hyundai, as well as Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Volkswagen.

That’s about to change, said Mark Reuss, president of GM’s North American operations.

“We are really going to have a go at California. This is not some half-baked plan,” Reuss said.

There are three parts to GM’s strategy. Along with improving customer service, the automaker is unveiling smaller, fuel-efficient vehicles that better compete with the imports Californians favor. It is also sprucing up dealerships.

A person familiar with the automaker’s discussions with franchise owners said GM plans to give California dealers a combined $60 million to $100 million over the next year or so as long as they sign 10-year contracts to stick with the brand. GM declined to comment.

The company has identified more than 100 franchises, primarily in the Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco metropolitan areas, and has offered $500,000 to $1.5 million in improvement funds, depending on the dealer, according to the person, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly about the initiative.

The funds will be used to move some dealer locations and refurbish facilities, including creating a uniform entrance that will give Chevrolet outlets a more distinctive look. Chevrolet has taken a meticulous approach to the details, telling dealers the style of furniture to use in their showrooms and choices of paint colors for the walls.

“They are really all over it with the dealers. We are 100 percent in support and actively engaged in their facility program,” said Marc Cannon, spokesman for AutoNation Inc., owner of two California Chevrolet dealerships.

But Reuss and GM executives acknowledge that no matter how great the dealerships look, customers won’t come through the door unless they have vehicles people want to purchase. Reuss acknowledged that GM, before its 2009 bankruptcy and government bailout, had become a “truck-funded, Midwestern and Southern” business that lacked cars that could sell on the West Coast.

But, Reuss said, for the first time in decades, Chevrolet has vehicles for other buyers, including fuel-efficient sedans such as the new Cruze, the Sonic subcompact and a new Malibu that comes out at the end of the year with a hybrid system that could get 38 miles per gallon on the highway.

Chevrolet is turning to Disney to teach the dealers how to retain customers.

“Disney has created a culture where they talk about how they are always on stage with their customer. Sometimes we take the customer for granted,” said Alan Batey, Chevrolet’s vice president of sales and service.

Niceties such as washing a car when it comes in for routine service and placing a bottle of cold water in the cup holder when the owner takes back the vehicle can help change consumers’ perceptions of the car business, Batey said.

Hoffman and other dealers know that no matter how good the cars are, the chances of selling them can go up in smoke.

At one Disney session, Bruce Hamlin, owner of Guaranty Chevrolet in Santa Ana, learned how Disneyland cast members aren’t allowed to do anything but play their role in public.

“Imagine that you have Cinderella going out and greeting these kids,” Hamlin said. “Can you imagine her taking a break and kids seeing her puffing on a cigarette?”

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