The automotive sales training video, Jody DeVere recalled, began simply enough.
"When Mr. Customer comes into the dealer," the announcer said. A little while later: "And when you introduce Mr. Customer to the service adviser." And again. "When you take Mr. Customer to the finance office ..."
DeVere said that by around the 500th time the trainer mentioned Mr. Customer during the 17-hour program, she realized he had yet to acknowledge the figurative stand-in for one-half of car buyers, Ms. Customer.
he story of the biased video is one anecdote among many about an industry that has historically directed its sales efforts exclusively to male customers. But at least two dealerships in this region are among the first to work with De- Vere to change the mind-set in the automotive world that overlooks women.
DeVere says women play a role in 85 percent of car-purchasing decisions.
As president of the Sarasota, Fla.-based media company Ask Patty, DeVere hopes to improve women's car-buying experiences through a Web site, AskPatty.com, that gives women automotive advice as well as training dealerships' staffs across the country to better communicate with and respect female customers.
In June, Borcherding Buick Pontiac GMC in the Kings Automall became the first dealership in the region to have staff members certified by Ask Patty as "female-friendly." The Robke Dealer Group in Northern Kentucky also is starting the certification process for its sales people.
Borcherding owner Kim Borcherding said Ask Patty's message of respect and relationship-building complements her own goals for the dealership.
"We find that the No.1 reason customers, male or female, don't buy at a dealership is that they didn't meet a salesperson that they clicked with, that they liked," Borcherding said.
Ask Patty, she said, gives her dealership a way to craft its buying experience to female customers. Keeping with Ask Patty's efforts to promote women in the automotive industry, Borcherding said her first two employees to receive certification were women who work in the dealer's service center. Five more employees are now enrolled in the course.
Betty Cooper, a warranty administrator at Borcherding who completed the certification, said the course taught her how to better communicate with women. She admits that she had an advantage as a woman but said she still found the training valuable.
"I can see how it is easy to fall into certain traps," she said. "You don't even think about your captive audience, as far as there might be equal men and women or more women than men. The book really opens up your eyes to a lot of situations."
Ask Patty is a division of the marketing company Carsmaga- zine.com. The firm launched Ask Patty in May 2006, first as a blog and then later as a full-featured Web site and certification program. By the end of July, DeVere said, she expects around 300 dealers will subscribe to Ask Patty.
A dealer pays a monthly subscription fee to Ask Patty in return for a listing on AskPatty.com and a co-branded Web site that allows potential customers to contact the dealer via the Internet. To be certified as "female-friendly," a dealer is required to have staff members complete an Ask Patty training course and pass an examination.
DeVere said she believes the Ask Patty training and certification can help businesses beyond car dealerships.
"I think it will be needed for companies to be competitive to really take seriously how they're not only marketing and advertising to women, but the total experience they're having," she said.
Ask Patty is seeking additional capitalization, with plans to accelerate growth by expanding its brand into body shops and car-parts stores. DeVere said she might take the brand outside the automotive industry to additional markets as well.
COMFORT AND EQUALITY
In its core market, Ask Patty's pitch is resonating with dealers. Darryl Roberts, the general manger of the Robke Dealer Group, said he learned about the Web site two months ago after it was featured on a local news broadcast. He quickly contacted Ask Patty and enrolled his two dealerships.
Robke, which owns a Ford and a Chevrolet dealership in Kenton County, is now in the process of certifying its employees. Roberts said his sales staff and managers will be required to pass in order to continue working at Robke.
While Roberts hopes the certification will increase sales, he said the central goal is to increase female customers' comfort when visiting their two dealerships.