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The Sweet Side of Growth

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Hold on, he’ll explain it quickly. 

He hears the same question all the time—over and over from anyone who learns about the award (well, six awards, really). And it’s understandable; he gets why you would be confused. 

“Well, it’s kind of funny,” Jeremy Beaver starts, “because people think of the ‘best places to work,’ and they think of Google, Facebook—I mean, this is Silicon Valley. Most people don’t think of DGDG.”

Beaver snaps off that acronym with as much enthusiasm and energy as he will in telling you exactly why Del Grande Dealer Group (that’s DGDG) has been voted the top workplace in the San Francisco Bay Area for six straight years. 

And just to clarify: Yes, DGDG is an auto dealership, and, yes, with 13 locations and more than 1,000 team members (don’t say “employee” to them), DGDG garners those accolades in the largest category of Bay Area News Group’s Top Workplaces—a category that includes all your favorite tech companies run by hoodie-wearing, millennial CEOs. The awards are based on extensive employee surveys.

So, that quick explanation?  

“Our foundation, everything we do starts with our team,” says Beaver, DGDG’s 31-year-old chief operating officer. “We want to provide a culture that is next to the Googles and Apples and all that fun stuff. We joke that there are no private chefs or ping pong tables around here, but it’s just about recognition and taking care of our team.”

A happy team leads to happy customers; a “world-class guest experience,” as Beaver calls it. Throughout, there’s an intense focus on implementing technology in all departments, as well as systems and processes to ensure consistency. And all of it adds up to a scalable business model. 

“That’s the 11-second elevator pitch right there,” Beaver says with a laugh. 

Of course, there are a lot of details that go into DGDG’s success, and all of it has led to the company’s rapid growth over the past several years. In 2013, DGDG had just three rooftops. By the end of 2016, its 13 dealerships (each with a service drive and parts department) pushed 31,000 vehicles through the front end and grossed a total of roughly $40 million in total service labor and parts. 

All of that growth, Beaver says, has been strategic. Each expansion, each push needs to fit into the DGDG platform; it needs to fit “with who we are,” he says. To grow profitably while maintaining your company’s core values, Beaver says you must focus on what created that culture in the first place.

“For us, that comes down to taking care of our team and giving our customers that world-class guest experience,” he says. “If decisions are made with that in mind, you succeed.”

 

Grow Your Team

The videos go out in an email every month to each team member at DGDG. This month’s might be a product specialist on the sales team who showcases her talent and passion as a dancer for the Golden State Warriors. Last month was a service technician with a lifelong dedication to practicing martial arts. There are surfers, hobby farmers, carpenters—this is the team at DGDG.

“Each person has a story,” says Laurie Johnson, director of training at DGDG, “and we pick one of our 1,000 team members each month to highlight. The [video series] is called ‘Happy Place,’ and the idea is to show a person in a situation when they’re in their happy place, and they talk about how important happiness is to them.

“Our entire business model and culture can be summed up that way; it’s all about a happy team and happy customers.”

Johnson plays a large role in creating and maintaining that culture. She’s worked in dealerships for nearly 26 years, starting in sales before finding her calling as a trainer. In the eight years she’s been with DGDG, she’s helped facilitate the company’s growth by implementing a company-wide, in-house training program, which focuses more heavily on cultural philosophies of the company than it does on systems and processes. 

The simple premise: Build and grow your own team that operates your way, and eliminate any concerns for what many deem as an industry shortage of quality workers.

“It’s a unique approach,” DGDG fixed ops director Tully Williams says. “Most people would be surprised by how extensive [our training program] is and how focused we are on it, but once you’re here, once you see it, it’s shocking to think of doing it another way. It works.”

It’s only possible, Williams and Johnson claim, because that philosophy comes from “the top down” [See sidebar: “Leadership Circle”] with Beaver and DGDG president Shaun Del Grande. The idea, Johnson says is to eliminate attrition, as well. Train, recognize achievement and offer advancement—those are the core elements of retaining happy and efficient employees.

“In service and parts, there’s nothing that can kill you more than turnover,” Williams says. “We want people who are here for 20–30 years and here for life. We want customers bringing their kids and grandkids to the same service advisor. You do all of that by growing your own team.”

Leadership Circle

DGDG COO Jeremy Beaver says to picture three overlapping circles. In the center circle is each DGDG general manager.

“Our leadership structure is set up to support each store and make sure each GM has the support needed to really thrive,” he says. On the next ring of that circle is the GM’s department managers at the facility (service, parts,sales, etc.). And on the final, outermost ring is the DGDG directors (training, fixed operations, etc.) and corporate leadership.

 

 

 

Develop a Training Culture

As a leader, it’s time to retrain your mindset, Williams says. Think of a mistake in your service drive, or in a parts-ordering process. Maybe it was an incorrect repair procedure or a misdiagnosis of a vehicle, or maybe an incorrect part was ordered or a delivery vehicle missed a stop on its route.

Whatever the issue, Williams is curious what your initial reaction would be. 

“Bottom line is that when a mistake is made, this is a teaching moment,” he says. “If something is off, something was off in training or coaching that team member to do their job. We’re in the hiring business, not the firing business. Going in and screaming and yelling doesn’t help people perform. It’s a tough mindset shift, but for us, it was a necessary one.”

Beavers says it’s best to focus on the long-term goals of that team member. If you want them to be a lifelong member of the company, it’s critical to focus on continual improvement—and offer praise and recognition when appropriate. 

“We hold our team accountable and want to get better and grow,” Beaver explains. “The term we use is ‘safe but stretched.’ We need performance, but that comes from growth.”

It’s a difficult mindset to get through to people, Johnson says. But, once a team trusts in the intentions of leadership, they thrive, and begin to function in a way that best suits everyone’s goals.

“When we train and coach, we want to teach everyone to make the right decision for the customer,” she says. “We don’t give word tracks. We give culture training, so that they know what tehy need to do when they’re out there with a customer at the service desk or the parts desk. They need to know what’s expected of them. That’s the entire foundation for our training program.”

 

Create a Training Program

When Johnson came to DGDG in 2008, she was tasked with overhauling (or, really, creating) the company’s sales training program. 

Eight years later, the four-week bootcamp that DGDG product specialists go through is extensive. Note that it’s not for the “sales team” or “salespeople,” Johnson points out. 

“We don’t want that mindset—ever,” she says. “They’re ‘product specialists’ that help the customer make an informed decision.” 

Here’s a basic breakdown of the program (don’t worry, this sets the foundation for the fixed ops program now in full swing): The 30-day program starts with two weeks of classroom-style, hands-on training, learning processes, systems and company dynamics. Each division director (including Williams) and executive (including both Del Grande and Beaver) also present about various aspects of DGDG operations. This acts as the company’s certification period, and the following two weeks are spent shadowing an experienced product specialist.

“We don’t just throw them to the wolves and say, ‘Make us proud and go sell a car,'” she says with a laugh. “It’s really about learning how to be a professional and be there for the customer.” 

And that training continues with monthly online and in-house workshops.

The point is, Johnson says, to make sure you instill both the culture of the company and the importance of continual training and learning. 

Now for the fixed ops side:

“The last thing you want is the person who comes in and ‘knows everything’ already,” Williams says. “Not only can they not be taught, but they’re usually the people doing it wrong in the first place.”

Johnson and Williams have worked closely to implement a similar training program on the fixed ops side of the business, developing curriculum and concepts to push to service and parts teams at each dealership. 

Whether for service advisors (the first position the two tackled) or technicians or parts counter people, the same method of creating a program applies, Johnson says. There are simple, fundamental areas to focus on in the process:

Point Person.

Johnson is a full-time trainer—that’s her role and she focuses on and runs the company’s training programs, day in and day out. For Williams, having that point person is immensely helpful, as he needs to balance training and coaching initiatives with a clear focus on facility performance. 

“Most places don’t have a training director,” he says, “but the real key is having someone who takes it on as their role and can focus on it with the attention that it needs.”

Before formulating a program (and certainly before implementation), both Williams and Johnson say it’s absolutely crucial to assign responsibility for its oversight on a macro level. Without that, it won’t push forward, Johnson says.

Oversight.

One person cannot oversee training across 13 fixed ops departments, Williams points out. And while there is a point person in place, there needs to be oversight on the facility level from both the GM and service or parts manager. 

“Even if they’re not the ones doing the training—and we prefer they don’t, so they can focus on their roles—they need to be ensuring that what’s taught is being carried out,” Williams says. “They need to be on board and be advocates of what’s going on. If I go in and teach about a process improvement, and they have the attitude that once I’m gone they can go back to what they were doing, then change won’t happen and growth won’t happen.”

Training Requirements.

DGDG takes a continual improvement mindset to its training, meaning that every team member in every department is expected to continue with training every month, regardless of experience level. Even if it’s just a refresher, Williams says, it’s equally as important to drill into people the importance of not “thinking you can’t be taught more.” Everyone can improve, he says, and everyone needs to improve.

Curriculum.

Obviously, this is a crucial aspect to all of this. Williams says not to overthink it—but also don’t overlook anything, either. 

“For example, let’s say we want to develop some service advisor curriculum,” he says. “Start at the write-up process. In the write-up process, do they sit behind their desk—sit upon their alters, high and mighty—with their Burger King hats on, or do we want them out in the driveway, jumping out right away to attend to the customer’s needs? I think you can guess our answer, but that has to be trained, and that needs to be part of the curriculum for our training.”

Williams says to break down each position to its specific tasks. Then, analyze: How do you want each task carried out? Create a standard operating procedure for that task, and that can act as the informational portion of the curriculum.

Then, Johnson says, it comes down to finding the best way to deliver that content to the team, whether that’s through classroom work, presentations, or hands-on demonstrations.

“I find that working hands on in the field, so to speak, is best for fixed ops,” Williams says. “It’s easy to see how, say, using a tablet for a customer check-in and driveway walk-around inspection can better impact the customer experience. I grab a tablet and walk through it right there with them. They can see its effect right away.”

Continue.

Johnson and Williams want to stress even more the importance of continuing training throughout the year. Don’t fall back into old habits, and don’t let busy seasons or hectic shop situations distract from long-term goals. Set aside routine, scheduled time to train and stick to it. 

 

Offer True Advancement

Opening a new facility is determined by a lot of factors: market saturation, automaker franchise opportunities, physical space available, etc. One aspect to not overlook, Williams says, is available personnel resources. 

“All of those other factors might be checked off, but if we don’t have the right team in place to operate that new facility in the way we want it to be operated, it has no chance to be successful,” he says. “So that becomes the hardest part: Do we have the personnel to open that store that will believe what we believe?” 

That’s how culture becomes scalable, Williams says. And it starts in existing facilities. 

“On the fixed [operations] side, we want to create a ‘bench’ of good, qualified and trained people that are ready for the opportunity,” he says. “When we identify someone, we want to get them on the bench and ready when something comes up, so that if we grow, we can promote from within. Then, when that person becomes a manager, or a manager becomes a general manager, we have someone ready to go who knows exactly how we do things and why we do them that way. It’s a head start and we can go full steam right away.”

Beaver says that a thorough understanding of the processes in place is key for all personelle as the company grows and people advance. And culture has to be instilled to allow those processes to scale properly. 

Evidence of this effect: Beaver says that nine of the company’s 13 GMs were promoted from within, having gone through the DGDG “general manager academy” training program that Johnson put together. 

 

Connect with Customers

Here’s the process: When a customer pulls into the driveway, a service advisor is at her side by the time she opens her car door. The service advisor has a tablet in hand, open to the service department’s shop software program that allows for quick, real-time digital inspections. 

“They’ll pull up the customer’s information based on the license plate number, and be ready to rock,” Williams says. “They have everything they need right there and right then; no need to ask anyone for info or to run inside to look things up. It’s all right in their hands and they can begin addressing the customer’s needs right away without any delay.”

Technology is not an impersonal approach to cutting out jobs, Williams states with authority. It’s there to help the team better make personal connections with each customer.

“If you’re focused on the customer right away, and have that mindset, you’ll sell a light bulb with as much vigor as you would a motor,” he says. “That’s the point we want to get to—but there’s a lot that goes into that.”

Beaver says the overall goal is very simple, though. Everything done should “exceed expectations that customers have for an auto dealer,” he says.

That means a heavy focus on the latest technology to push efficiency (and impress the vehicle owner), an in-and-out drop-off process (centered on that personal check-in process Williams explained), text message and email communication, and, of course, the correct tools and equipment to solve the customer’s issues the first time around.

It’s about taking a personal, independent repair shop approach to dealership operations, Williams says. For 14 years, Williams ran his own independent shop and towing company. And the lessons learned have carried over to DGDG’s customer-centric approach.

“We don’t want that stereotypical, high-and-mighty approach with a service advisor up on the altar looking down at a customer for having an old vehicle or for a lack of knowledge about it,” he says. “That’s where our processes come in.”

For true growth, look at processes as “platforms” that aren’t one-off fixes for a specific facility, Beaver says. If processes and systems are developed to scale to multiple facilities, then customers can expect that same exceptional experience at any DGDG property.

 

Customer-for-Life Mentality

Think back to Williams’ comment about selling a light bulb. That’s an extremely low ticket—one that some dealers would likely ignore.

“But that’s a dangerous way to look at it,” he says. “Our goal in fixed ops is to retain a customer for life. That means, if we have 30,000 vehicles drive off our lot each year, we want those 30,000 vehicles coming back as soon as possible and not going anywhere else.”

That means you can’t disregard the light bulb, he says. That customer may have a brand-new vehicle, one that could be serviced for 10 more years by your team. 

“Send them away on that light bulb, and they won’t be coming back when something gives out,” he says. “Why would we ever want to send them somewhere else? They’re already our customer. Keep them as your customer. Don’t let them go, and never send them away.

“If you have 30,000 vehicles coming back, some might be a light bulb replacement for a tenth of an hour [labor]; some might be motors. All of them are customers.”

Every customer is just as important to the overall success of your business, and treating each on in that way, Beavers says, is how you build a reputation.

 

Proper, Customer-Focused Goals

There’s a clear reason why many operations are unable to get their teams on board with the customer-centric mindset Williams and Beaver describe: The teams are given goals that don’t align with that. 

“If we stay with the service writer example, if your only focus is on gross, why would you care about the light bulb, why would you treat each job and each person the same?” Williams asks rhetorically. “We don’t focus on average ticket or gross. We monitor it—we track everything and anything, and those are things that need to be tracked. But those aren’t our main goals. We focus on hours.”

The hours vs. gross transition is difficult for many, Williams says. There is heavy training and re-enforcement [See sidebar: “Train to an Hours-First Focus”] to make that mindset change. Using various software systems, Williams’ teams religiously monitor key performance indicators (KPIs) to determine how effective they are in meeting their goals.  

When everyone is on the same page, objectives are clearly stated, and people are meeting their objectives, Williams says they begin to focus solely on the customer experience. Whether that’s spending the extra couple minutes to figure out a customer’s issue on the parts counter, or digging deeper into a vehicle inspection as a technician. 

“Your processes and goals need to push that mentality forward,” Williams says. “It all needs to be set up to support your culture, your experience, and allow that to be repeated over and over again. That’s how you’re able to grow it.”

TRAIN TO AN HOURS-FIRST FOCUS

DGDG fixed ops director Tully Williams says that it’s not an easy switch to get service writers to focus on hours sold, rather than gross. Dollar signs are always easy for people to gravitate toward, and in most cases, it’s the basis of the writer’s pay. 

Williams suggests focusing on a handful of key areas to make this mindset change last:

  • Make pay plans easy to understand. In his service writers’ daily performance reports (all done through internal websites), Williams says that compensation is very simple to figure out. “We want them to see how much they’ll get paid within two minutes of looking at the report,” he says. “Then, it’s not in their heads all the time, and they don’t waste time thinking about it.”
  • Bury gross in reporting. It sounds simple, but Williams suggests setting up all performance reports in order of the metrics you want each person to focus on. “I bury gross way at the bottom,” he says. “It’s a subconscious thing.”
  • Reinforce the mindset. The goal, Williams says, is to ask a service writer how their day went, and they instantly reply with the hours they sold. “It takes a while, but you just keep reinforcing it,” he says. “And when I see their hours are great in the reports, I’ll send little notes saying, ‘Great job!’ I’m not ever mentioning gross to them.”

 

The Value of Technology

Sure, DGDG doesn’t exactly seem like a fit on a top workplaces list for Silicon Valley, but a closer look might change a customer’s mind. Technology is rampant throughout the operation, and that not only alters customer perceptions, but as mentioned earlier, it allows team members to better connect with customers onsite. 

“Our entire focus is on that team culture and customer experience, but it’s all tied together through the use of technology,” Beaver reiterates. “Technology is one of the pillars of our growth. Whether it’s in sales, parts or service, it’s everywhere. It eases everything we do, and makes everything transparent, simple and scalable.”

There is no “ideal size” for DGDG, Beaver explains, and the company will continue to expand when the right opportunity presents itself. 

“We don’t have a set goal, but we do believe that it’s doable to triple or so in size over the next two to five years,” he says. “What important is that we follow the way we do things, and stick to what makes us who we are. That’s how you grow effectively, and that’s how you can scale without losing your culture and who you are. 

“We aren’t over here saying, ‘This is the right way to do things’ for every dealership out there. This is the way we do things, and it works for us. That’s what everyone needs to figure out on their own—who you are as a company, and how you can carry that out as you grow.”

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