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By Paul A. Eisenstein

Buying a new car can be an unsettling experience no matter who you are, but it’s traditionally been all the tougher for women – who are often treated like second-class citizens, either more trouble than they’re worth or as easy marks to be easily taken advantage of.

“When I started looking for my last car, the first dealer I went to told me to come back when I could bring my husband with me.  He clearly didn’t think I was smart enough to do it myself,” recalls Alice Hissler, a single PhD scientist at a major Michigan university.

Hissler is by no means alone, and women are more likely than men to express frustration at the car buying experience.  But that’s beginning to change, driven by automakers, retail trade groups and women themselves who are using word-of-mouth and social media to get the word about which dealers to patronize and which to avoid.

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 And they have the muscle to do it considering women now account for 51% of the cars purchased in the U.S. and influence 96% of sales, says Delia Passi, CEO and founder of WomenCertified and former publisher of Working Mother magazine.  WomenCertified has just published a new survey that looks at what dealers should do to satisfy women customers and identifies some of the best in the country from the distaff perspective.

“Car buying is often viewed as a male-dominated activity,” said Passi, adding that, “Our goal is to identify and reward the dealerships that meet and exceed women’s expectations for the car buying process and encourage the industry to better serve their needs.”

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The new study, she notes, was done in cooperation with the Wharton School of Business, and was specifically constructed to focus on what women car buyers were looking for when shopping for a new vehicle.  It not only looked at the car buying process but also the service experience, where women often find themselves facing the harshest treatment.

The best dealers, the survey found, show “a genuine concern for the customer,” and are likely to offer a “nuance of hospitality” in everything they do, stressed Passi.  They’re likely to listen as much as talk, and clearly understand the specific needs and desires of each individual consumer.

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They’re also likely to make the showroom and service bay friendly places to spend time, especially for women who might have children in tow.  Top-ranked dealers routinely offered such niceties as good coffee, places to relax and even play centers for children.  Some would even provide transportation service for a customer who might, said Passi, want to get a manicure or run errands while waiting for a car to be services.

“They put themselves in the shoes of a woman customer,” she suggested, adding that those dealers were also less likely to make a woman feel pressured.

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Passi contended that the best dealers are likely to be driven “top-down,” and often – but not always – have women in top management positions.  They almost always do have women employees at all levels in the dealership.

The survey identified a score of top, women-friendly dealers across the country.  “Car buying is often viewed as a male-dominated activity,” said Delia Passi, CEO and Founder of WomenCertified, and former publisher of Working Women and Working Mother magazines. “but women not only buy 51% of vehicles today, they also influence 96% of vehicle purchases for their families. Our goal is to identify and reward the dealerships that meet and exceed women’s expectations for the car buying process and encourage the industry to better serve their needs.” (For the complete list, Click Here.)

To be added to the list, she noted, required a strongly positive recommendation from at least nine of every 10 customers surveyed who had previously used that dealership.

Beyond the initial sale, Passi stressed that it simply makes good sense to ensure women shoppers are happy.  They’re more likely to not only come back for another car later on but also to return to the dealership for service and other needs.  According to the survey, 80% of respondents returned to the top-ranked dealerships, up from 60% for those who didn’t score as well.