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Rural Montana car dealer makes house calls

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(Crain News Service photo) Rory Goodale, American Ford’s service manager, helps customer Mark Nissley load his Ford Super Duty onto the dealership’s flatbed truck to transport it 30 miles from Nissley’s ranch to the dealership for scheduled maintenance and cleaning.

By Richard Truett, Crain News Service

GLENDIVE, Mont. (Feb. 24, 2014) — It has been a brutal winter in eastern Montana, with the area posting at least five record low temperatures and, in recent weeks, being pelted with nearly two feet of snow.

But this is not a winter of discontent at American Ford in Glendive, a small city nearly 150 miles south of the Canadian border.

Despite the weather, American’s service department—with 17 bays, including lanes for oil changes and detailing—is booked three weeks in advance, said Kyle Johnson, the store’s general manager.

How does he beat the snow and cold? With a trusty flatbed truck and a Ford dually pickup and trailer.

The store’s 30 employees use the trucks to pick up and deliver customers’ vehicles for the service department. They also deliver newly purchased vehicles to customers. They even haul vehicles to potential customers for test drives.

“We try to take the distance out of the buying and service equation and go to our customers if we have to,” said Mr. Johnson, who has been with the dealership since it opened in 2002.

“We believe that customers are pretty busy, whether it is farm-related or they are out on their ranches just trying to get their jobs done. The cold really hampers a lot of what they are doing.”

Though American’s crew is busy with off-site pickups and deliveries, the services are not confined to wintertime. Going to customers year-round has been part of American’s operations since the store opened.

Customer service

Glendive is situated along Interstate 94 about midway on the more than 400-mile drive from Bismarck, N.D., to Billings, Mont. In other words, it’s out there. The city has just more than 2,000 households and about 5,000 residents. American averages sales of about 40 new and used units per month, mostly pickups and crossovers.

“What leads us to doing so much business away from our store is customer service,” Mr. Johnson said. “When you provide that kind of customer service, it gets to be expected. It perpetuates itself, and you start doing more and more.”

The store has a full-time traffic coordinator, Mr. Johnson said, who schedules off-site pickups and deliveries. “Our motto is, ‘Every customer every time.’”

American has no dedicated crew for off-site customer service. If a salesman sells a vehicle and the customer wants it delivered, the salesman takes care of it.

The service manager often goes on trips to pick up and drop off vehicles, Mr. Johnson said. “It’s all hands on deck. It could be myself going with the service manager.”

450-mile delivery

Distance is not usually a concern for new-vehicle deliveries. Recently, a customer recommended the store to a friend, and American delivered an F-450 Super Duty pickup nearly 450 miles away in Butte, Mont. Mr. Johnson said the store does not charge extra for long-distance deliveries.

In December, American transported a new F-250 to a customer near Bismarck, N.D. “The customer purchased a Ford from us and did not have to take a day out of their farming and ranching activities to get this new vehicle,” Mr. Johnson said.

The service department picks up customer vehicles for routine maintenance such as oil changes. Mr. Johnson said doing so keeps the store connected to its customers and often leads to more service business.

When vehicles are brought in, they are inspected and customers are told of worn brakes and other parts that need replacing. Service has become the backbone of the store’s business.

“In 2013, we spent nearly $400,000 to increase the number of lifts and shop tools to support getting every customer in the shop regardless of the schedule,” Mr. Johnson said. “We increased our technician count by four and added a service and parts director and one service adviser.”

Mr. Johnson’s advice to auto dealers who are considering offering pickup and delivery: Make sure your road crew has the proper clothes and safety equipment.

“The day-to-day tasks are much different when it is 20 to 30 below than when it is 70 above,” he said. “It is very important to manage your time and expect the unexpected—because it is going to happen.”

On one recent off-site job, the dealership’s crew encountered a winter storm in which the wind chill dipped to minus 40.

American’s business model likely wouldn’t be practical for car dealers in more populated areas with more dealers.

“Montana is wide open,” Mr. Johnson said. “Until you see it, you don’t appreciate why they call it the ‘Big Sky State.’

“There are a lot of miles between us and our customers. And it is something that you learn to do and adopt as part of your business philosophy when you live out here.”

This report appeared on the website of Automotive News, a Detroit-based sister publication of Tire Business.

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