High-tech gadgets call for dealership help desks

Terry Box
Dallas Morning News

Dallas — Donna Higley often talks to her new high-tech Lexus.

“I’ll be in a parking lot and it will warn me of something ahead and I’ll say, ‘Yes, yes, I know,’ ” said Higley, 74.

She didn’t do that with previous cars.

But like lots of new vehicles, Higley’s 2014 Lexus ES 350 is loaded with devices that can be paired with smartphones to do everything from providing directions to a restaurant to rolling up the car’s windows from miles away.

Those features, however, have gotten so complex that some dealerships — the Dallas area’s Park Place Lexus among them — have set up full-time help desks to help baffled owners figure them out.

“There’s nothing worse than paying a bunch of money for a new car that has all these features you can’t use,” said Jordan Case, president of Park Place.

Higley, for example, struggled with her car’s “turn-by-turn” navigation system before she got help from Greg Milner, 48, one of three technology specialists at one Park Place location.

The system can be set to give verbal instructions to the driver.

“Figuring out which button to push to set it was so frustrating,” Higley said.

About 18 months ago, Lexus — working with Park Place — began forming the dealership help desks, staffed by full-time technology specialists.

Lexus now requires all of its dealers to set up help desks, and they’re typically located in high-visibility areas near customer lounges.

“We stay moving all day long, assisting people with their cars,” said Chelsea Fluegel, 26, one of four technology specialists at Park Place Lexus’ other Dallas-area location. “On days when you have a little down time, you do research on all the new technology.”

The top requests for help generally involve pairing smartphones with a car’s systems and dealing with voice commands, she said.

Occasionally, tech specialists even get dispatched to a Lexus owner’s house to help program a garage-door opener.

Other dealerships schedule regular Saturday tech classes or assign tech-savvy people on the staff to explain Bluetooth, navigation, active cruise control, lane-departure and other systems when new vehicles are delivered to buyers.

But many customers — particularly those over 50 — may need regular assistance as they attempt to deploy those systems, dealers said.

“We try to assess people’s abilities when we deliver new vehicles,” said Brian Huth, general manager of Five Star Ford in Plano. “If they are middle-aged and have a 13-year-old son or daughter, they’re fine. The 13-year-old will pick it up immediately. Anybody in their 20s we give some basic information and they’re fine.”

Just about everyone else will need additional coaching — some on a weekly basis.

Paying a Price

As Ford and practically everyone else in the industry discovered, high frustration levels with new technologies can lead to low customer satisfaction scores in surveys.

And that can ultimately push some aggravated customers to defect to a different brand.

Nonetheless, automakers will continue including new systems as technology spawns them.

Walking Through It

Many Lexuses, for instance, have valet features that will display on a smartphone when the owner’s car is started and how far it was driven.

A couple of weeks ago, Huth, the general manager at Five Star Ford in Plano, surprised his teenage son with one of the features on his 2014 F-150 pickup.

“We were coming back from his football game, and I pushed a button and said ‘I’m hungry,’” Huth said. His truck responded with the restaurants in the area, one of which was just two blocks away.

As consumers get more accustomed to high-tech features, many will base purchase decisions on what various vehicles have to offer.

“I think technology is rapidly approaching styling and performance as major considerations in the purchase decision,” said Case, the president of Park Place Lexus.

Now that Higley has mastered much of the technology in her Lexus, she says she is “thrilled” with her car.

“I’ve gone into the dealership to ask a question and had to wait because they were dealing with so many other questions,” she said. “I think (help desks) are just critical for cars today.”