Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Dodge: No 5 stars, no Web referrals

Sales policy riles stores lacking company rating
Bradford Wernle
Automotive News

August 20, 2007 - 12:01 am EST
If a customer in Columbia, S.C., searches the Web for a new Dodge Ram or Caliber, he or she would start by going to www.dodge.com. The first step is to insert the ZIP code - say, 29201.

The screen lists 10 Dodge stores. At the top is Dodgeland of Columbia, a Five Star dealer. To the right of the Dodgeland listing are four options: 1. Get a quote, 2. Search new inventory, 3. Schedule a test drive or 4. Schedule a service appointment.

For the nine other stores, there's a factory message that says those stores cannot offer the four services. The customer is directed to call or visit the dealership.

The customer can click on a box to go to the Web site of any non-Five Star dealership. But what appears is not really the store's Web site - it's a Chrysler factory site that lists opening hours and contact details only.

That's the way it is across the country: Chrysler will refer Web customers to only the sites of dealerships with a Five Star rating. Those dealers meet company-set targets in customer satisfaction, employee training and customer follow-up.

Many dealers feel the setup hurts them - and Chrysler, too.

B.J. "Benji" Brickle III, owner of Orangeburg Chrysler-Jeep in Orangeburg, S.C., says he has had great success using the Internet to sell Nissans at his adjacent Nissan franchise. All Nissan dealers get access to the factory's Web-based shopping services.

With Nissan, Brickle says: "I have a guy just handling Internet leads. If you respond to me on the Internet, I'm back to you in an hour. With Chrysler, I don't have that option."

Five Star dealers don't necessarily agree. John Schenden, owner of Denver Pro Chrysler-Jeep in Denver, says dealers who put forth the effort and expense to achieve Five Star status should get added benefits, including the extra Internet sales tools.

"They've had nine years to meet the minimum requirements of Five Star," says Schenden, speaking of the dealers who have not yet achieved the designation. Schenden was Chrysler's first Five-Star dealer in the nation when the program was created in 1997.

Chrysler spokeswoman Lidia Cuthbertson says the Web site was developed as an added benefit for dealers who had achieved Five Star status. But she says, "We're re-evaluating all elements of the Five Star program and hope to have a resolution soon."

Clifford Rudd, general manager of Troncalli Chrysler-Dodge-Jeep in Cumming, Ga., says Chrysler is shooting itself in the foot. Troncalli is working to achieve Five Star certification.

For instance, he says, a customer trying to decide between a Dodge Ram and a Ford F-150 can price an F-150 on any Ford dealer site. But the customer can price a Ram only on Five Star Dodge dealer sites.

Says Rudd, "If a customer can't see the Ram he wants but he sees an F-150 he likes, he's going to drop the Ram and go buy the F-150."

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