Infiniti Tries Softer Approach to Selling Cars

IF American consumers think most automobile salesmen take a "hard sell" approach, then they might be in for a shock if they visit one of Nissan Motor Corporation's Infiniti dealerships.

"The approach is you don't push people into cars. You don't try to make the sale on the first contact," says Rudi Krezbig, a salesman in Phoenix for a week-long introduction to the Infiniti division's unusually laid-back style of selling and servicing cars.

In its effort to carve itself a niche in a crowded luxury car market, Infiniti is spending millions of dollars to keep customers satisfied with the experience of buying and owning a car.

The "Total Ownership Experience" (TOE) program begins to take shape under the hot sun baking the tarmac at Firebird International Speedway just outside Phoenix, where Infiniti has brought together teams from a dozen dealerships around the country. They include salespeople, mechanics, even telephone receptionists. And they drive luxury automobiles, not race cars, around the track.

Like many of the other "students," Mr. Krezbig has spent much of his career selling German luxury cars. And like most, he had little or no previous sales training. He joined Don Mealey Infiniti in Orlando, Fla., last year.

Infiniti officials don't like to discuss how much they're spending on their customer satisfaction program, though Mike Kennedy, who oversees operations at Firebird, concedes that supporting the training center alone runs well into "seven figures." Cash incentives for dealers

And that's only one part of the program. To help ensure that all this education gets put into practice, Infiniti has created a "Customer Satisfaction Fund." When customers buy cars or take them back for service, customers are surveyed by the factory. Each of the nearly 60 dealerships that meet or exceed very tough standards are rewarded with cash payments of up to $100,000 a year.

Is it worth it? The answer depends on how you do the counting.

"Given our size, it might be viewed as frivolous or too expensive," Infiniti general manager Bill Bruce concedes. "But we don't look at this as a short-term operating expense but rather as a long-term investment. How much would a manufacturer pay for a 2 or 3 percent increase in brand loyalty? That's worth millions in sales revenue."

In several critical measurements, the TOE program is paying off. Infiniti recently tied for the No. 1 spot with Toyota's luxury division, Lexus, in the oft-quoted Customer Satisfaction Index prepared by J. D. Power and Associates, the California market research firm.

"Lexus had a little edge in the product category," says Gun Dukes, an account executive with J. D. Power. "Infiniti was the stronger of the two makes in dealer service. It came in at the top ... with a score of 181 - an all-time record."

Industrywide, Mr. Dukes notes, 53 percent of new-car owners rated their dealer service advisers as excellent. Infiniti's rating was 86 percent. Only 20 percent of Infiniti customers reported problems when they took delivery, half the industry average. Infiniti sales rise steadily

"The award gives you instant prestige," Mr. Bruce says. "That means sales." Indeed, after a slow start, Infiniti's sales have been on a steady rise. Bucking the recession, sales more than doubled during the 1991 model-year - to 37,035, compared with 17,114 in 1990.

Representatives from a number of competitors have gone through the Infiniti training program. General Motors Corporation's Saturn division has set up its own customer satisfaction course. Chrysler is toying with the idea of linking dealer payments to their individual customer satisfaction scores.

"Customer satisfaction will ultimately decide who survives and who doesn't in the automobile market of the not-too-distant future," says Ray Ketchledge, president of Detroit's Sandy Corporation, which designed the TOE program.

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