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Chevrolet staffs to learn Disneyland-style customer service

Most people go to Disneyland for the rides. Peter Hoffman is going there to learn how to sell rides.

Hoffman, the owner of Sierra Chevrolet in Monrovia, and other Chevrolet dealers and their sales staffs are headed for classes at the Anaheim theme park and elsewhere designed to turn fast-talking car salesmen into personable Prince Charmings.

They will learn such rules as a prince or princess never smokes in public. That takes the magic out of the Magic Kingdom. They will also learn that sometimes it’s better to be a little bit like Dopey. The silent dwarf doesn’t have to say anything to make people feel good. When it comes to purchasing cars, customers remember less about what the sales staff said than they do about the experience they had at the dealership.

The customer service initiative is the latest in a campaign by General Motors Co. to boost market share in California, where the storied American brand has lagged behind its import competition for more than a generation.

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The Toyota, Honda and Ford brands each sell more vehicles in the Southern California market than Chevrolet. When it comes to just passenger cars, Chevrolet also lags behind South Korean upstart Hyundai as well as Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Volkswagen.

That’s about to change, said Mark Reuss, president of GM’s North American operations.

“We are really going to have a go at California. This is not some half-baked plan,” Reuss said. “We will be putting a serious amount of money into this.”

There are three parts to GM’s strategy. Along with improving customer service, the automaker is unveiling smaller, fuel-efficient vehicles that better compete with the imports Californians favor. It is also sprucing up dealerships.

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A person familiar with the automaker’s discussions with franchise owners said GM plans to give California dealers a combined $60 million to $100 million over the next year or so as long as they sign 10-year exclusive contracts to stick with the brand. GM declined to comment.

The company has identified more than 100 franchises, primarily in the Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco metropolitan areas and has offered $500,000 to $1.5 million in improvement funds, depending on the dealer, according to the person, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly about the initiative.

The funds will be used to move some dealer locations and refurbish facilities, including creating a uniform entrance that will give Chevrolet outlets a more distinctive look. Chevrolet has taken a meticulous approach to the details, telling dealers the style of furniture to use in their showrooms and choices of paint colors for the walls.

“They are really all over it with the dealers. We are 100% in support and actively engaged in their facility program,” said Marc Cannon, spokesman for AutoNation Inc., owner of two California Chevrolet dealerships.

But Reuss and GM executives acknowledge that no matter how great the dealerships look, customers won’t come through the door unless they have vehicles people want to purchase. Reuss acknowledged that GM before its 2009 bankruptcy and government bailout had become a “truck funded, Midwestern and Southern” business that lacked cars that could sell on the West Coast.

However, Reuss said that for the first time in decades, Chevrolet has vehicles for California buyers, including fuel-efficient sedans such as the new Cruze, the Sonic subcompact and a new Malibu that comes out at the end of the year with a hybrid system that could get 38 miles per gallon on the highway.

Chevrolet is turning to Disney to teach the dealers how to retain customers.

“Disney has created a culture where they talk about how they are always on stage with their customer. Sometimes we take the customer for granted,” said Alan Batey, Chevrolet’s vice president of sales and service.

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The Disney training will teach dealership employees how to interact with customers and to do dozens of small things that Batey hopes will create repeat business.

Niceties such as washing a car when it comes in for routine service and placing a bottle of cold water in the cup holder when the owner takes back the vehicle can help change consumers’ perceptions of the car business, Batey said.

All this is playing out in California, the nation’s largest auto market and one of the worst-performing regions for Chevrolet. The brand has been tarnished by a reputation over a generation — fair or not — for producing gas guzzling, unreliable vehicles.

It is facing flak from shoppers such as Bernice Greene, a retired teacher from Anaheim who has spent several recent weekends trolling dealerships shopping for a new car.

“I looked at Kia and the Honda but not any American cars. I just didn’t consider them,” said Greene, who settled on a Subaru Impreza hatchback. “The quality of an American car was not that good. It might be up now, but I just didn’t look.”

In the 1930s, Chevrolet accounted for a third of new vehicles sold nationally. But its market share steadily declined all the way through the GM’s bankruptcy and government bailout in 2009, falling below 13% before bouncing back to just over 14%.

The picture in California’s big cities is worse. Chevrolet has just 6% of the market, according to an Edmunds.com and R.L. Polk & Co. analysis of Los Angeles-area registrations. When it comes to just passenger cars, it has less than 3% of the market.

“The job in front of them is tough,” said Jeremy Anwyl, chief executive of auto information company Edmunds.com. “There still is a heavy consumer bias against Chevrolet in California.

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“GM produced generations of bad vehicles that have lingered in the collective memory.” Anwyl said.

Reuss said that Chevrolet has its first opportunity to make gains in the Golden State in many years. Sales of Toyotas have fallen steadily for nearly two years and Honda sales are down this year as the brands have suffered through large recalls and an inventory shortage resulting from the Japanese earthquake this year.

That’s helped Chevrolet to begin to move the needle in Southern California. Through the first eight months of this year, Chevrolet accounted for 9,145 car registrations in the market, according to the Edmunds-Polk numbers. That’s up from 5,093 during the same period last year.

For years, Sierra Chevrolet lived off selling trucks and sport-utility vehicles, but now “cars are becoming a significant part of what we are selling .... Now the products are very competitive,” said Hoffman, who also owns Acura, Honda, Mazda and Subaru franchises in Southern California.

Hoffman and other dealers know that no matter how good the cars are, the chances of selling them can go up in smoke.

At one Disney session, Bruce Hamlin, owner of Guaranty Chevrolet in Santa Ana, learned how Disneyland cast members aren’t allowed to do anything but play their role in public.

“Imagine that you have Cinderella going out and greeting these kids,” Hamlin said. “Can you imagine her taking a break and kids seeing her puffing on a cigarette?”

Any smokers on his staff now must puff out of sight, behind a wall in a section of the dealership.

jerry.hirsch@latimes.com


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