Dealer driven to please

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So you want to buy a new car? And you wonder what's the best way to do it.

After all, it is the 21st century and the world is changing fast.

There are publicly held national automotive franchises. There's Autobytel.com to help you locate whatever you want, wherever you want it, for a small fee. There are all those helpful third parties-Kelley Blue Book (kbb.com), Edmunds.com, J.D. Power & Associates, Consumer Reports and buff books. Plus, there are commercials and banners on TV, radio, newspapers, outdoor, AOL, Yahoo!, you-name-it.

A recent Gallup survey showed that while only 2% of new-car buyers actually bought their cars online, 43% of them used the Internet for research before they purchased.

With an estimated 50,000 auto-related Web sites out there, finding one to provide expert opinions or facts isn't all that difficult.

And there are so many options-from import to domestic to manufacturer to brand to model to color to "lease or buy" to current incentive programs to quality ratings to mpg to resale value to monthly payment rate.

What's a shopper to do?

Wait a minute! Hold the phone! Haven't we forgotten something here? Or somebody?

FORGET SOMEONE?

How about the people who brought us to this 18 million annual new-vehicle circus in the first place-the independent franchised retail dealers who have been out there selling cars one at a time for a hundred years, investing their hearts and souls (and mortgages) in their businesses every single day?

These are the men and women who have made the automobile business what it is today, good and bad. According to the aforementioned Gallup survey, by the way, there's a whole lot more good out there than there is bad, and 83% of the people surveyed say they are well-satisfied with their current new-car buying process and dealership experience.

Call me a Pollyanna, but in my opinion, despite all the experiments and new technology and predictions of the imminent demise of the independent retail dealer, the independent dealer will continue to be the best source for new-car customers for a long time to come-at least for the first half of the 21st century. That's still going to be the place people go to buy their new cars.

Why, you ask? Well, besides the fact that an automobile is usually the second biggest purchase we make in our lifetime and, therefore, we want to see it, touch it, smell it and test-drive it, there are several other reasons.

In the first place, independent dealers have their livelihoods squarely on the line with every new vehicle they sell.

Selling and servicing cars and trucks is what they do for a living. It's what they've always done, often with spouses and kids at their sides.

If they don't do it right, and by that I mean fairly and squarely from the customer's point of view, they won't be doing it for long. As an automotive sales executive friend used to say, "The customer will always find you out." Independent dealers have everything to gain by treating customers right and literally everything to lose by treating them any other way.

Second, customers in the 21st century have and will continue to become increasingly sophisticated and knowledgeable as the selling process becomes more and more transparent, thanks to the Internet. There are simply no secrets left in the business. With today's communications technology, it's all instantly accessible to anyone, anywhere. Any dealer worth his (or her) salt knows that and would be a fool to try to dupe the customer once he's succeeded in getting him into his showroom in the first place.

Third, it is in the dealer's everlasting interest to do everything possible to make the customer happy, to make him his ally. Repeat customers are a whole lot easier to maintain than new ones are to conquer, and word-of-mouth advertising is infinitely more effective (and cheaper) than multimillion-dollar Super Bowl spots. A satisfied customer is the ultimate salesman.

Fourth, the franchised dealer has everything the customer needs, starting with the car or truck he wants to buy and including everything that goes along with it-title, taxes, license, insurance, and monthly payment amounts. Nobody else can accurately provide this information.

But at the end of the day, cars in the 21st century will be bought pretty much as they were in the 20th century-at local dealerships from dealers who have invested all they've got in their businesses. They need you. They know they need you. They know they need to satisfy your needs to keep you.

Mr. Liebler recently retired as senior VP-global brand marketing at DaimlerChrysler's Chrysler Group. He started at Chrysler in 1980 as part of Lee Iacocca's turnaround push.

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