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Dealership design - Do appearances really count?

Most customers couldn’t give two hoots of their horn what a dealership looks like. Carpets, blinds, signage design – these things are irrelevant, claims aftermarket consultancy Automotive Advantage. All the average customer wants is assurance that they’re talking to a knowledgeable, friendly member of staff.Not surprisingly, quality of workmanship came out top of the wish list for 99 per cent of drivers questioned in an Automotive Advantage consumer survey. Just behind it – on 96 per cent – was keeping promises on things like price and completion times. But on a list of seven criteria, the look of the premises was rated bottom, on just 18 per cent. Automotive Advantage said it even has evidence to suggest that the more elegant the surroundings, the more likely it is a motorist will actually distrust the people involved.

Chris Hallam, the firm’s development director, said he’d done focus group work with customers of both volume and prestige manufacturers in new premises. “The one comment we heard time and again from all types of customer was ‘These surroundings are all very nice, but at the end of the day somebody has got to pay for it. And that’s probably being reflected in my bill’.”

The new report raises a fundamental question – is the uniformity of dealership design all a big ego trip driven by what carmakers usually refer to as ‘brand image’, or does it help generate more business? Of course, dealership owners don’t have a choice in the matter; what colour tiles they have in the toilets is all laid down in the small print when they sign up for a franchise.

Carmakers appear to confirm the issue of corporate identity. “Vauxhall is a well known, trusted brand and we aim to give customers top quality service across the network,” said a company spokesman. “This is partly achieved by having a consistent look and feel, as we believe this heightens the customer experience and encourages trust.”

According to BMW, a professional appearance goes hand in hand with high standards of customer service.  “How a dealership presents itself to the outside world says a lot about the staff who work there, and the company and brand they represent to any prospective customer,” said a spokesman. But Hallam disagrees. “Buildings can’t talk. Our survey suggests it’s the staff who say a lot about themselves and how they can do the job, not the surroundings,” he explained, while acknowledging that BMW is a keen supporter of customer service initiatives.

But in demanding uniformity of their outlets, car manufacturers are only following a long established practice among other retail sectors, from food to fashion. The reasoning is that customers feel comfortable with what’s familiar to them, and that breeds loyalty. A notable example is Tesco: it continues to do record business yet its stores essentially all look the same. What’s more, shoppers’ perception is they’re getting value for money.

Automotive Advantage’s research suggests that doesn’t work with car showrooms. It’s not the fault of the dealership designers and builders; they’re only following a brief given to them by the vehicle manufacturers. Hallam believes the problem goes much deeper, and is more to do with people’s distrust of the car industry generally. “TV programmes like Watchdog and Garages From Hell don’t help. If a service advisor says you need a new ECU and it’s going to cost you this much, you have to believe him. It’s about the opaqueness of the job, too. You can’t see an ECU to appreciate it’s broken, so you have to trust the person telling you.”

Hallam emphasises that building trust is more important than building glossy-looking dealerships. “That’s why we support ATA (Automotive Technician Accreditation, launched in June) and are calling for a scheme of service advisor accreditation. Initiatives like these are another nail in the coffin of the less reputable operators in our industry.”

Chris Green, managing director of Sky Ford in Hemel Hempstead, Herts, supported the “people are more important than buildings” theme by pointing out that his dealership – “which is by no means the most modern looking” – is among this year’s winners of a Ford chairman’s award for customer care. “But that’s not to say that appearance and facilities aren’t important,” said Green. “First impressions really do count and we’re not unhappy with the standards laid down by Ford. We’re in the retail business and we have to buy into the ‘retail look’ whether we like it or not. Having attractive premises is a mark of respect not only for customers but staff as well.”

Green didn’t go along with the view that customers suspect they’re paying through the nose for better buildings, either. “Dealerships by and large reflect the price positioning of the cars they’re selling. People entering a prestige dealership expect luxury; it’s all part of the customer experience which they’re prepared to pay for.”

But what happens when price and perception are out of sync? Back in the early ‘90s, before Automotive Advantage even existed, Chris Hallam was working as a development manager on a project which saw Halfords trying to move its service centres more upmarket to compete against the dealers. “After the improvement work had been done at a site, we did an exit survey of customers. There was a belief that bills had gone up to cover the cost. They hadn’t at all, but it’s all about perception. There’s nothing wrong with boosting the image of how premises look, but it has to be matched by customer service development. Sadly, the two don’t always go hand in hand.”