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Published: Wednesday, 10/28/2009

Chrysler's dealers left to wonder about plans


DETROIT - Chrysler Group LLC has been sending its dealers back to class, reminding them about the importance of courtesy and communication: Always return phone calls. Limit wait times. Open doors for customers.

However, the automaker is not following its own advice.

New management has said little about plans to revamp Chrysler's ailing lineup and return the once-great company to profitability. Dealers are left to wonder what they will be selling this time next year. Meanwhile, they struggle to unload unpopular models from their lots.

The lack of communication is a symptom of an automaker so focused on its grand plan that it may be overlooking the basics of running the business.

That means a tough year for the auto industry has turned into an especially trying one for Jeep, Dodge, and Chrysler dealers. Sales are down almost 40 percent versus 27 percent for the industry. Dealers have seen a quarter of their ranks purged since June, when the automaker left bankruptcy protection. They are facing shortages of some current models because Chrysler shut its factories for much of the summer.

For now, Chrysler's fate and its remaining 2,400 dealers hang by a thread of government aid.

Dealers are impatient for details about CEO Sergio Marchionne's five-year game plan, to be announced Nov. 4. Many say calls to headquarters have gone unreturned or they are told to wait, as the CEO tries to keep his plans secret.

A Chrysler spokesman, Kathy Graham, said the company could not provide details because the product plan just received board approval. Chrysler is to present its strategy in eight meetings with dealers around the country after Nov. 4.

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