PELHAM, Ala. — When one of Lee Harkins' vehicles was serviced at a car dealership in the Birmingham, Ala., area this past summer, none of the employees was wearing a mask and there was no evidence that the vehicle was sanitized before or after it was worked on.
Those were the wrong signals and a missed opportunity at a time when many consumers are squeamish about letting anyone touch their vehicle, according to Mr. Harkins, CEO of M5 Management Services Inc., a fixed operations consultancy in nearby Pelham.
Pandemic or not, "people want to feel reassured, and they want to know that somebody's put forth the extra effort to keep germs off their car," Mr. Harkins said.
When the coronavirus pandemic slowed traffic in the service lane, dealerships offered concierge services such as pickup and delivery and mobile-service vans to stay busy and give options to customers who didn't want to visit a business. Another big selling point was the cleaning and disinfecting of every car after it was serviced.
Like other "white glove" treatments, the question remains how long service departments will offer these amenities to customers.
At Honda of Downtown Chicago, vehicles are sanitized at no cost when they come into the service department and before they leave. Service Manager Joel Adames said that was a key part of a sales pitch the dealership made to customers about health and safety during the pandemic.
Mr. Adames said the dealership will continue to sanitize vehicles after the pandemic subsides and plans to order two fogging machines that disinfect interiors instead of having workers do it by hand.
He said the customer-focused efforts — from pickup and delivery to sanitizing — kept his service department running full-bore and generated "slightly under $1,000" in customer-pay work per repair order during April, when Illinois was under a strict stay-at-home order and many customers were petrified at the thought of letting others get inside their vehicle.
"The way we overcame that was to tell them, 'We know you're at home; we don't want you to come out of your house because it's not safe. We'll come to you and make it as convenient as possible, and every car is cleaned and sanitized.' "
Mr. Adames said that at some point he expects to charge for the sanitizing service.
Mr. Harkins, though, said he thinks dealers should consider offering it as a free, value-added service. Sanitizing is a logical extension of traditional practices such as putting paper floor mats and seat and steering wheel covers in vehicles brought in for service, he says.
"I want to sell the effort to protect you and that your best interest is my focus," Mr. Harkins said. "How I sell you on that is that I let you see me doing that for you."