The clock said 5:30 a.m. on this particularly cold Sunday morning, but it was time to walk the dog. It wasn’t until I looked at my phone that I realized it was only 4:30. I had lost that extra hour the government gives me once a year.
There was no way I was going to be able to go back to sleep, but it was just as well. I find myself in the same trap I fall into every year. I am on deadline with three articles for three national magazines, all due Monday morning. With convention issues coming up, the workload nearly doubles. I need all the extra hours I can scrape up. I have been doing this for years, and the months after daylight saving time have produced some of my best commentary.
So here’s the drill: For most of the morning, I read and reread the more than 75 pages of material I have cut and pasted from industry news over the last 30 days. Then I go online to see what blogs, commentaries and breaking news events might be worth “Zieglerizing” for my readers.
By lunchtime, the wife and I were both ready to get out of the house. “Where do you want to go?” asked Debbie, and the negotiations began. She opened with Panera. I countered with the all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet. She just shook her head. “Chili’s?” she asked. No. “Applebee’s?” No. “What about the Pines Bistro?” Was she kidding? “Bistro!” I cried. “I don’t eat in no damn bistros!”
We both knew where this was heading: Jim ’N Nick’s. Southern barbecue is the only marriage counselor we’ll ever need. Debbie orders the turkey-and-lettuce platter and unsweetened iced tea. I prefer the barbecue brisket, Carolina-style and traditional pulled pork, slaw and beans and a 20-ounce Bud Light. You see, anybody can be skinny. It’s a lot of work maintaining this figure of mine. Not to say I haven’t tried to slim down. After Jared lost 200 pounds eating Subway, I experimented with a few diets of my own. The Five Guys and In-N-Out burger plans didn’t work. The Papa John’s regimen was sort of a bust too.
So thank goodness for barbecue — authentic Southern barbecue, that is. I once ate at a place in New Jersey that identified itself as such. Oh, was it awful. If you want the real deal, my Northern brothers, start at Four Rivers Smokehouse in Jacksonville, Fla., and then try Dreamland BBQ or Jim ’N Nick’s, here in Atlanta. After putting away a platter and a beer or two, you will be ready to take on anything. And anything — and everything — is exactly what we’re about to get.
General Motors’ ongoing, multimillion-dollar sponsorship of Manchester United FC is off to a rough start. The English soccer team failed to qualify for the major Premier League tournaments last season, months after GM pulled the Chevrolet brand from the European market.
Back in the office, there are stacks of papers everywhere — on the floor, in the drawers and all over my wraparound desk. There is one pile in particular that I really need to attend to. It’s a growing stack of recall notices from General Motors, some for my Buick and the rest for Debbie’s Cadillac. Like most of you, I really don’t have time to drive 25 miles every time we get a letter. And even after all those visits, I can’t help but wonder if I missed something.
I am Mary Barra’s biggest cheerleader, but I need relief. If an industry insider and lifelong “car guy” is losing patience, how must the average consumer feel? I realize GM isn’t the only manufacturer ordering recalls. They just happen to be leading the pack, and the floodgates opened around the same time Barra ascended to the chief executive role in January. She is on top of the situation and has been all year. The OEM and you, the dealers, are finding ways to engage recall customers and look for sales opportunities.
Barra has emphasized the need for full disclosure and transparency. That is a far cry from the good-old-boy culture she inherited. Incompetence covered for incompetence and everyone adhered to “The Code.” Like I have said many times, I trust and respect Barra and GM’s president, Mark Reuss, but they are surrounded by a brotherhood of boobs. The board may dismiss this as one man’s opinion, and it is. But if they think I’m alone, they’re kidding themselves.
Meanwhile, Barra has appointed Megan Stooke, GM’s executive director of global marketing operations, to oversee the effort to get your customers back to your stores. She has the database and every resource at her command to make it happen.
You may recognize Stooke as the executive assigned to oversee GM’s $559 million sponsorship of English soccer club Manchester United. The Chevrolet badge has been sewn on the front of the players’ jerseys for the 2014–’15 season, despite the fact that the OEM has already pulled the Chevy brand from the European market. Let’s hope the team fares better than it did last year, when they stunk up the Premier League and missed most of the big tournaments.
Plaintiffs’ attorneys are organizing class action lawsuits against manufacturers that installed Takata-brand air bags, which have been blamed for at least six deaths resulting from spontaneous deployment.
If the Crash Doesn’t Kill You, the Air Bag Might
Researching this article was difficult, as it was for the previous few. It’s tough to find material when 95% of the industry news is about recalls. Frankly, I’m tired of writing about it, and I know you’re tired of reading it. When is it going to end?
A popular theory among OEM spokesmannequins is that the Recall Renaissance is being driven by all the new technology and fancy gadgetry in today’s vehicles. Of course there are going to be recalls, they say. Excuse me, but I’m not buying it. Bluetooth connectivity and head-up displays aren’t killing and maiming our customers. Turns out it’s the air bags.
You don’t even have to be in an accident if you live in a hot, humid region. Those things can blow up for no apparent reason. We have six deaths and counting due to shrapnel flying through the passenger compartment. It’s sort of like having your own in-dash landmine.
The sharks smell blood in the water. In hot-weather states like Florida and Texas, personal injury attorneys are running advertisements, looking for plaintiffs to join lawsuits against the manufacturers. A group of five million Honda owners are claiming they have been deprived of the use of their vehicles and they have declined in value.
At the heart of the matter are air bags produced by Japan’s Takata Corp., which has been producing seat belts and child-restraint systems since the 1960s. Remember the Great Seat Belt Recall of ’95? That was Takata. And their air bags are installed in about 20 percent of passenger vehicles worldwide, including products from all the big Japanese OEMs, the Detroit Three and BMW.
Here’s what pisses me off, and should make you upset as well: At least 10 manufacturers have recalled 10 million vehicles for faulty air bags since 2008. So it’s not as if we didn’t know we had an issue. And I believe the Japanese manufacturers did what they always do: Identify the problem and quietly go about fixing it without making any big announcements.
Honda is in a real bind because they’re telling us there will be a lag in getting replacement parts to your stores. It could be months before some cars can be made safe. Their advice? Disable the air bags until the parts arrive. I don’t know whether they actually have offered this service stateside. If and when they do, it won’t last long. Imagine the uproar that story would cause.
Can you picture an American Honda dealership returning your car with no air bags? What if you drove off the lot and into a head-on collision? How much liability would that expose the company to?
Virtually every manufacturer knew (or should have known) Takata has had air bag problems dating back at least 10 years. You would think they would have anticipated the recent developments. So I don’t believe there is any justified sympathy for any OEM that installed Takata air bags. You will hear more complaints in your service lanes than they will hear in their boardrooms.
The launch of the new Ram 1500 EcoDiesel has been an unbridled success, but the author believes poor initial quality and reliability reports for Fiat Chrysler vehicles cast a long shadow on the OEM’s entire lineup.
In last month’s issue, on my blogs and in person, I’ve been talking about Ram pickups and the phenomenal upsurge in sales and market share. To recap, the new Ram 1500 EcoDiesel is at or near the top of the light-duty category in fuel economy, power and capacity. Chrysler says nearly two-thirds have been sold to former Ford and GM drivers.
And they can’t build them fast enough. In early November, the OEM announced a 10% production increase and added shifts. That’s a good start, analysts say, but they could sell 25% more if they could produce them. The launch has been one big party, but Consumer Reports just turned the lights on. The same outfit that praised the new truck in reviews upon its launch has ranked Ram’s existing pickup fleet third from the bottom in reliability. Where is the disconnect?
I have often said that Sergio Marchionne, the Italian head of Fiat and Chrysler, is one of my marketing heroes. He might even be a genius. But quality issues are threatening to define his legacy here. The Fiat 500 is rated last in virtually every initial quality report. Every reputable source we know is saying your cars are junk, Sergio. Don’t you know we ran Fiat out of town on a rail 25 years ago?
Look, I’m a Mopar man myself. My first car was a brand-new 1968 Dodge Super Bee. (I don’t know how many they sold in Italy.) I want Marchionne, the company and all you Chrysler dealers to succeed, but it won’t happen if your cars and trucks fail in every quality category. Performance, style and gadgetry will not sway the American consumer. The new Jeep Grand Cherokee is spectacular, and sales are great, but it ranks second to last in initial quality in every report. That will catch up with you and devour the brand. The dealers don’t deserve that.
When the Consumer Reports rankings made the rounds, Bob Hegbloom, Ram’s brand director, fired back. “The average age of a pickup truck is 11 years old,” he said. “Eleven years ago, did anyone know what a Wi-Fi hotspot was? We have all this technology integrated into this system with an individual that may not have had a new vehicle in 10-plus years. There’s going to be some growing pains.”
Now I understand. It’s not the manufacturer’s fault. Out-of-touch, non-tech-savvy drivers are systematically destroying their cars. I can see the headlines now: “Chrysler Brand Manager Says Seniors Are Morons.” Choose your words carefully, my friend. Old folks read newspapers.
Sales of new Rams and Jeeps are still soaring, but I fear the brands will wither under attacks from analysts and irate consumers. You Chrysler dealers need to pressure your OEM to tighten up and stop cutting costs.
Don’t Ask for the Carfax
How many of you are giving Carfax access to your customers’ service histories? Follow-up question: Are you nuts? By what right do you give these vendors access to your customers’ supposedly confidential information? I often ask this question of dealers in person. Many have said they didn’t even know that was happening. Service managers, office managers and lower-level employees routinely sign off on agreements with data-suckers. It’s your job to put a stop to it.
What really frosts me is that some of the Web providers and CRMs are actually passing your customers’ information to third and fourth parties without your consent. I know for a fact that some of these companies you are paying for services are actually selling your data to other parties.
Well, I found a really neat, free program for PCs. “Ghostery” shows you every cookie on any website that is exporting data from that website to third parties. Better yet, it can show you exactly where your customer and visitor data is going. I realize there are some very legitimate companies that have valid reasons to be receiving data to perform services for you. But you will be surprised, if not shocked, when you see some of the places your website provider is sending your data.
Here’s what you need to do: Install Ghostery and pull up every page of your website, one page at a time. When it shows you how many cookies on your site are exporting your data, make a list. Then call in your Web provider and make them explain each of them. Some will be legitimate tools. Others might turn out to be ways for your trusted partners to skim and scam you.
Another fun activity is finding out how many programming errors are on your website. There is a program online called W3C Validator. Just go to their website and enter your dealership’s URL. The program will list errors in your website’s programming and tell you, at least to some degree, what it will take to fix it.
I can tell you right now that some of the errors the program shows might not be critical. It may find that your website is not optimized for the hearing impaired, for example. But it will also show errors that are driving customers away. This always pisses off the webmasters who take shortcuts when they are producing cookie-cutter websites. Don’t let your provider tap-dance and tell you these reports are not critical. Just tell them you want the problems fixed, today.
Joe Herman, COO of the Vancouver, Wash.-based Kuni Automotive Group.
Joe Herman was one of my best friends in the industry for more than 20 years. He passed away on October 29. I last saw Joe this past summer, when we held the Internet Battle Plan Conference in Seattle. He was 72 and fighting a losing battle against pancreatic cancer. Even though he knew he was dying, his attitude and spirit were inspirational. There was no pretense between us. We discussed these things openly. I knew this was the last time we would visit face-to-face. He was accepting and surprisingly calm about it.
I met Joe when he was CEO of the Planet-Potamkin group back in the early ’90s. I was a manager with them, back in the day, and Alan Potamkin has always been a great friend. Joe was a retail guy first, then a manufacturer’s representative, then served in the executive ranks at Potamkin, Group 1 and Penske. His last position was COO of the Kuni Automotive Group. Since joining the company in 2010, Joe was instrumental in increasing revenues from under $500 million to more than a billion dollars annually. He remained a leader and innovator until he left us.
Joe fought the cancer for a year. We spoke on the telephone and chatted via text or Facebook weekly. We shared opinions and personal stories. Like I said, he was my friend, as was his wife, Kathy, and son Chris. When they called to tell me that Joe was in hospice, I cried. Not sobbing, not sniffling, just letting the tears run down my face as I sat alone in my office.
I was joined in mourning by hundreds if not thousands of family members, friends and colleagues. Joe Herman was a generous person who inspired, mentored and made so many people successful.
Well, I have been sitting here awhile now, and I still have two more articles to write. So, until next time, keep those emails coming, and don’t forget to find me on Facebook and Twitter. Better yet, give me a call next time you’re in Atlanta. Maybe we can get some barbecue.