Who Matters Most: Dealer or Manufacturer?

July 3, 2012
There are few brands I identify with more than BMW. I love BMWs. I’ve owned four of them. I wear BMW apparel. When it comes to cars, I love “the ultimate driving machine.” So, why I am driving a Ford truck? I bought my first BMW out of college. This was ...

There are few brands I identify with more than BMW. I love BMWs. I’ve owned four of them. I wear BMW apparel. When it comes to cars, I love “the ultimate driving machine.” So, why I am driving a Ford truck?

I bought my first BMW out of college. This was before they were considered cool and when there weren’t many on the road. Reliability wasn’t the greatest either. On several occasions I pulled an all-nighter making repairs so I could get to work the next morning. Still, I loved the car. I loved the way it drove, the way it handled, the way it seemed to be an extension of my body.

Eventually, I traded in the car. It had 130,000 miles, which was considered a lot back then. Despite the miles, it still brought a good trade.

Along the way I bought another one, which I drove briefly. It had more problems than I had time or money to deal with, so I let it go and went back to driving more reliable, practical, and boring Hondas.

A decade ago I was finally in the position to get another BMW. I didn’t just get another one, I got a brand spanking new one. I rationalized the cost by noting that all maintenance and repairs were included. When the car was delivered, I fell in love with BMW all over again.

According to BusinessWeek writer Ed Wallace, BMWs feel like they’re cut from one piece of steel. That was exactly what my car felt like. It was tight. Moreover, the quality problems that affected my earlier BMWs were gone. “I’m never going to drive anything else,” I thought at the time.

When my lease was up, I simply got another one. This one had a few more problems, but they were covered under warranty until… the lease outran the warranty. Oops.

In high school and college, I would tackle virtually any automotive repair this side of rebuilding a transmission. I used read JC Whitney catalogs cover to cover and comb through junkyards looking for parts. I not only made repairs. I made modifications. Improvements.

Today, it’s all but impossible to work on a car without professional engine analyzers and computers. When I took my car in for a repair, the first thing the service advisor did was insert the key into a computer key reader. This brought up a repair history and other diagnostic information. Even if I was still inclined, it’s too expensive to work on cars. The key reader alone costs $400 online.

Shortly after my car went out of warranty, my right turn signal went out. It was more than a bulb. The assembly fused and melted. My left turn signal had gone out in warranty, and was replaced. No dice now. The local BMW dealer stuck it to me. I protested, but that didn’t do any good. Then, the left failed again (out of warranty) and the right failed again (out of warranty).

The last time, I’d had enough. Three turn signal assembly failures in a year? I went to the dealership general manager and explained that I was a four time BMW owner, near the end of my lease and how he handled this problem would determine whether I became a five time BMW owner.

He explained that he was just a financial guy, but appeared to listen. I continued, imagining that as a financial guy he was concerned about the loss of a sale. I explained the situation. He promised to take care of me, but only delegated me back to the service manager, who made the original call.

Two things were clear. First, no one at the dealership was going to budge on the repair. Second, no one cared if I bought another car from them or not.

I was angry, but also sad. I still love BMWs. I still think they’re great cars. But, I knew my string of BMWs was at an end thanks to the BMW dealer.

When I bought a BMW, I didn’t interact with BMW. I didn’t buy from BMW. I didn’t get service from BMW. I never met a BMW employee. All interaction was with the dealer.

It works the same way in the HVAC industry. Consumers do not interact with manufacturers, but with their dealers. And since consumers do not identify with their furnaces and air conditioners the way they identify with their cars, there’s even less chance that a great product can overcome a poor dealer.

It doesn’t matter how good the product is if the dealer selling and servicing it is poor. Manufacturers who want to improve their brands and quality should exert just as much effort on helping their distributors improve their dealer base as they put into the R&D lab and factory floors. If the quality of the dealer is bad, the quality of the product will not matter.

Who matters most: dealer or manufacturer? They both matter, of course. However, the dealer is the lens through which the manufacturer is viewed.

In case you’re wondering, I really did buy a Ford truck. I picked Ford because I knew the general manager of the dealership, had a great experience at that dealership when my wife bought an SUV a few years ago, and have heard from person after person about how easy it is to work with this dealership and how well they’ve been treated. It proved out.

People talk. Reputations matter. Relationships matter. Whether buying a car or an air conditioner, the dealer matters.

Oh, and why a truck? Air conditioned seats. The temperature was in the upper 90s when I drove it. Once I experienced the air conditioned seats, it was all over. I really bought an air conditioner that came with a truck. I love air conditioning.

Matt Michel is the CEO of the Service Roundtable, which is mailing hundreds of thousands of dollars to contractors this week as part of the organization’s free Roundtable Rewards rebate program. If you are not in a buying group, you are paying too much for parts, equipment, and supplies. Learn about the Service Roundtable’s program by visiting www.ServiceRoundtable.com or by calling 877.262.3341.