The collective message went something like: "Treat the customer like an honored guest at the dealership and he will come back and buy from you again."
Now the idea is an adage for the entire industry.
Industry watchers agree the fight for customer loyalty on into the 21st century will be fought at the retail level.
For instance, Saturn Corp., the General Motors Corp. subsidiary, has emerged from several recalls virtually unscathed because of the royal treatment dealers give service customers.
Virtually every brand from Oldsmobile to Volkswagen has created or intensified dealership training programs to earn customer loyalty and sales.
A national customer loyalty survey of the top 20 makes by volume, conducted by market researcher J.D. Power & Associates for Automotive News and Advertising Age, concludes that the "retail relationship with the customer is important to maintaining loyalty to the make. A good dealer can make a difference."
Among respondents who would "definitely acquire" from the same dealer again, over half are loyal to the make. This compares to only 10% of those who would "definitely not" acquire from the same dealer again.
Also, among those who rated dealer service/repairs "excellent," loyalty to the make is three times higher than those rating dealer service "fair" or "poor."
Glenn Pincus, partner and director of consulting and training services at Power, says carmakers are doing the right thing improving dealers' retail efforts.
"Loyalty is not to General Motors or Ford, the way it used to be," Mr. Pincus says. "The loyalty is built at the retail outlet-loyalty to the relationship with people at the store."
Susan Jacobs, president of the automotive consultancy Jacobs & Associates, agrees but warns the benefits are long-term.
"If there is a level of trust at the dealership, that can pay off in loyalty," she says. "It's worth the time and effort but it's hard to measure the benefits now; we'll be able to measure the benefits down the road."
That's already the case at Toyota Motor Sales USA's Lexus division, where the customer retention rate hovers around 70%.
Dealership training is among the key elements to retaining customers, says Mike Slagter, Lexus national marketing operations manager.
Lexus dealership receptionists, for instance, are taught to greet and get the name of each customer, offer him or her beverage, and introduce the customer to a salesperson.
Also, Lexus has a dealer employee certification program that includes an on-going series of study materials. Each dealership "associate" is tested on the information.
About 90% of all Lexus dealer employees have successfully passed tests in all areas, Mr. Slagter says.
Among U.S. makes, Chrysler Corp.'s Customer One program, launched last year, ranks as one of the industry's most visible dealership training endeavors. Like Lexus' program, Customer One includes all dealership personnel.
Customer One was designed to go hand-in-hand with its new products, starting with the LH sedans-Chrysler Concorde, Dodge Intrepid and Eagle Vision-which debuted in fall 1993.
Chrysler moved into a new phase of Customer One training earlier this year with the introduction of its new small car, Neon, positioned to go head-to-head with Saturn.
The in-dealership training included bringing in the Neon for hands-on product training, and where possible bringing in a Saturn, Ford Escort and Honda Civic for competitive analysis.
It also involves teaching people skills, executives say.
"People who in the past might not have been trained are now in the forefront of creating the relationship between the dealership and the customer," says Luis Martinez, Chrysler's manager of Customer One training programs.
By the end of February, 110,000 people at 3,800 Chrysler dealerships had been through the program.
In-house dealership training is evolving to include programs to target specific niche groups.
GM's Cadillac division announced last month it will try to win back African-American consumers with a marketing program that includes workshops on racial sensitivity.
The idea is to train dealership personnel not to dismiss or alienate black customers who may dress, speak, and have different mannerisms than white customers.
Cadillac is also putting more emphasis on attracting more women buyers.
And with good reason. While Cadillac customers, in general, are quite loyal to the brand, there are fewer-than-average women owners, according to the Power survey.
Of the 20 top volume cars included in the survey, 45.3% are purchased by women. But only 29.4% of Cadillac's buyers are women.
Women car buyers are aware of the notion that dealership personnel try to take advantage of them, says Gerry Myers, president of Myers Group, a consultancy on selling and marketing to women.
During her classes, she cautions male dealership employees to avoid terms of endearment like "sweetheart." Also, dealership employees, when dealing with a couple, are taught to answer the woman's question directly if she is the one to ask it.
"Women are more loyal customers" than men, says Ms. Myers. "Once they find a place and if they are happy, they will tell their friends, they will send you referrals."
Joe Verde, president of Joe Verde Sales & Management Training, believes customer satisfaction classes are a step in the right direction. But, he adds, until salesmen develop sincere one-on-one relationships with their customers, it won't work.
During his seminars, he stresses the importance of staying in touch with the customer. He suggests things such as phone calls, birthday cards, newsletters, personalized service reminders and invitations to have oil changed or tires checked.
"After I sell you a car, that's when the work starts," he says. "I've got to stay in touch with you forever."