Learning from the Outside In
Every year at Santa Margarita Ford, each employee in the Santa Margarita, Calif., dealership fills out an anonymous store survey. It acts as a report card for all of the department heads, and the surveys come down to two simple questions: Does your manager tell you when you’ve done a good job? Does your manager tell you when you’ve done a bad job?
In 2011, Gina Allen was ready for her report. She was known for pumping up her employees and always being a positive force in the dealership. She understood her employees. In fact, she related to them quite a bit. She started as an assistant at 18 years old in the dealership and worked numerous positions throughout fixed ops before becoming service director in 2011.
So imagine Allen’s surprise when the surveys came back to reveal that only 40 percent of her employees believed she told them when they were doing a good job and 60 percent said she told them when they were doing a bad job.
“I was pissed,” she says, with a laugh. “There was this huge gap!”
It wasn’t until Allen spoke with her mentor that she had a realization: You can’t fix everything and you can’t be perfect. All you can do is move the needle to make those numbers more even. So move the needle she did. Allen spent the entire year working on improving communication with her employees. She took them out to lunch, she made a point to go out into the shop and offer sincere compliments, she stopped holding one-on-one meetings with her office door closed (which the surveys indicated intimidated employees), she recognized when the detailers had to get 100 cars through the shop in scorching heat.
The next year when the surveys came back, those numbers were reversed.
“Everyone wants to be noticed. If I have a really good month and my owner doesn’t tell me, my feelings are hurt,” she says. “You have to get out of your office and you have to be engaging.”
Today, 34-year-old Allen oversees the fixed operations at Santa Margarita’s two Ford (one of which is a fleet center) and Toyota stores, and she’s built a culture that’s success focused and obsessed with pushing forward. The Ford store, for example, is one of the highest ranked in brake, battery and tire penetration for years and the Toyota store increased its wholesale business significantly in the past year. Despite being an industry newcomer, Allen has made a career out of thinking outside the box and positioning her departments to handle the road ahead.
Listen to Your Customers
It’s obvious to most dealers that they need to check their online reviews. It’s practically ubiquitous at this point that Google and Yelp drive traffic and that customers take the reviews on those sites incredibly seriously. But how closely are you paying attention to those reviews, and to sites beyond the most common?
“It gives you open and honest feedback,” Allen says. “Some customers will even post a review when they’re sitting in the lobby.”
That’s why, despite being the fixed ops director, Allen still responds to every single customer review, good or bad. Her strategy? First, don’t take it personally; that’s actually part of the reason why she responds to the reviews herself—she believes it’s best not to have someone personally involved with the customer respond to the review so it takes the emotion out of it.
“You’re super defensive as an advisor,” she says. “You get super serious about it. I want them to be passionate about it.”
Responding to the reviews takes a significant amount of research, which Allen says she tries to do as soon as possible so that the review doesn’t linger unanswered.
“You’re listening and trying to investigate. You’re going back and trying to piece it together. I want to understand what their perspective is that we’re doing something wrong. We’re here to do business for the long term; we’re not here to have the reputation slandered,” Allen says.
When speaking with the service advisors to identify the root of the issue, she advises always remaining calm but notes that in the majority of the cases, the advisors are already aware of the problem and why Allen has approached them.
“Usually, I would say in 99 percent of the cases, the customer is right. There’s only 1 percent of the cases where they’re completely crazy,” she says. “What my job is trying to show the service advisor the customer’s point of view. I try to relate it to something that the service advisor cares about.”
“Service advisors sometimes look at customers as an inconvenience. What you constantly have to remind your advisors is that their job is to help the customer. They are supposed to be the hero in all the situations,” she adds. “It’s supposed to be the service advisor. When you stop being the advocate for the customer, that’s when you’re in trouble.”
From there, she responds to the review and tries to take the conversation offline as quickly as possible. If she doesn’t hear from the customer in a couple hours, she’ll even make a phone call.
But addressing the reviews doesn’t stop at responding. She also makes it a point to bring up those reviews—positive or negative—in all-staff meetings and uses them as a teachable moment. It’s not that mistakes are unacceptable, Allen says—in fact, they’re to be expected—it’s about understanding what the customer’s concerns are and taking those seriously.
“Everyone is going to make mistakes. While we have our best intentions, we can make a mistake. That’s OK. There’s teachable moments there,” she says. “We’re not going to be perfect. It’s unrealistic for me to think that we’re not going to get a bad review. Then you start operating in a fear mindset. I always want my employees to come to me. As it relates to everything, communication is the No.1 thing.”
Find Your Customers’ Online Pulse
Back to the importance of paying attention to your customer’s pulse: Beyond religiously tracking her dealerships’ online reviews, Allen takes it one step further by being an active member in all community forums, such as the city’s Facebook site or the Nextdoor app. Even if you don’t live in the community, Allen says it’s imperative that you understand exactly what’s going on and what is important to your customers.
“I really think the community forums are becoming more prevalent, whereas the Yelp and Google reviews people take with them a grain of salt. People know that a lot of dealerships have pay plans motivated around those reviews,” she says. “Monitor your community sites on Facebook. Dealerships forget about those.”
Allen can spout out dozens of examples where being an active member of those sites has paid off but here’s a recent example: A local DJ who was a loyal customer of the dealership made a post on the Facebook forum to say that he stopped in Santa Margarita Ford to have a nail in his tire serviced, only to be told it was a two-hour wait and would be charged $25. Frustrated by what he perceived as unfriendly service, he went to an independent repair shop, Tucker Tire, in a neighboring community that got it done in 15 minutes and didn’t charge him at all.
“He posts this whole situation,” she says. “That starts a conversation. That goes to 35 people saying how much they love Tucker Tire for situations like that. … The whole conversation is going on for about three hours, back and forth.”
Not only had Tucker Tire gained a customer for life, the entire conversation essentially served as free publicity for the shop—and negative attention for Allen’s dealerships.
“The impact it had on the community site—they were advocating for this indy place that wasn’t even in the community! There’s a hugely important lesson there,” Allen says. “I think dealers don’t look at that. They don’t pay attention to it. There’s always situations like that on those sites.”
Again, this is where Allen is able to bridge listening to her customers and taking action: She swiftly called a meeting to figure out what happened with the customer and why he left unsatisfied. As it turned out, the most senior service advisor had handled the potential job and thought he was being honest with the customer because the shop was overloaded that day.
After that conversation, Allen created a chain of command for service advisors to go through when walk-in situations pop up.
“You’ve got to keep fostering that,” she says. “You can’t expect that they know how to do that all of the time.”
Foster Open Communication
For the first few years of her career, running the two Ford stores came easily to Allen. Most of the employees were long term and she had worked her way up the ladder with many of them. Several of them were instrumental to her growth, even. However, when the Toyota store was acquired, it required her to work differently.
“They didn’t know me at all,” she says. “Trying to build a team, you have to put yourself out there. You have to be vulnerable.”
The acquisition forced her to consider her strategy when it came to fostering open communication with employees and the keys that had allowed her to do that at the Ford stores in the first place. To begin, Allen says she’s always frank about her own shortcomings and mistakes. She says you have to show employees that you’re never too big to fail and that mistakes are to be expected. However, Allen says the true key to creating a successful fixed ops department is to identify motivation. During employee reviews and even job interviews, Allen asks every employee the following question: If you could take a vacation somewhere within the next year, where would it be?
“One guy recently said, ‘I want to take my kids to Disney World this year.’ Why do you want to go to Disney World? Because my kids are six and nine years old and my daughter is really into princess stuff,” she says. “Now, that goes into my file book. His goal is to take the kids to Disney World this year. So when I’m talking to him out on the floor, I can say, ‘A hundred more bucks gets you to Disney World.’ Plus, you get insight into their lives by asking that question that you might not get otherwise.”
Having those kind of conversations, Allen says, is crucial to getting employees to trust that you’re there to help them succeed, which increases their belief in themselves. Having those conversations increases communication and ensures your employees feel noticed beyond simply the day-to-day aspects of their jobs.
Rethink Internet Sales
For most people in the U.S. their first major life purchase is a new car. It’s a huge purchase, Allen says, and one that’s generally exciting.
“A car is an expression of themselves,” she says. “What kind of car you drive tells a lot about you. And they like to buy presents for their car. You buy new door mats or something. And where do people go to buy presents these days? They go to Amazon.”
That’s exactly why Allen and her parts manager have made selling parts on eBay and Amazon such a focus over the past 18 months; it’s a way to reach your customers and create a new profit center for the dealership. Here’s the twist, though: It’s not just the DIYers that are driving the majority of the online parts sales. Instead, it’s the average driver—mainly women, in fact—that are making those online parts purchases. One of the most popular items are rhinestone-encrusted start push button covers.
“It was a cute fun little present for my car,” Allen says. “We overlook women when it comes to cars and buying presents for their cars. It’s not just guys with big trucks. It’s women and their cars. Now we have them all over our front counter and it’s a hot seller.”
But let’s back up for a second to discuss how Allen made that discovery in the first place. When she came onboard as fixed ops director, the Toyota store wasn’t doing any wholesale business and the Ford store was doing roughly $250,000 per month in sales. Ford had recently released its Omnicraft line to support all makes and models and Amazon and eBay were gaining steam selling parts online. Allen saw an opportunity, and she capitalized on it. She hired an Internet parts manager, Russ, to handle the online selling, research the market and look at possible incentives from manufacturers. What Allen and Russ discovered is that DIYers are against the homeowner’s association in town. Believe it or not, there’s not an AutoZone or a NAPA to be found in the community. That’s where the idea to sell kits—such as for a re-hose—came from.
Over the holidays, Allen noticed they were selling a large amount of pink Mustang hats. During the summer, they’ll sell tons of windshield covers.
“You have to think about Internet big,” she says. “Don’t base it off the people in your area. You have to do research, you have to be on the forums, you have to know what the prices are in Google Shopping.”
Understanding the competitive prices is a common reason why many dealers haven’t gotten into the online parts business, Allen believes, as many parts managers want to hold a significant amount of gross on that part. The reality is, it is competitive, she says, and it does take a while to build up your reputation and create a profit center. The first month, the dealership only did $6,000 in online sales. These days, they’re up to $40,000 in monthly sales. But, Allen believes that even if you’re only doing $25,000 in sales from the Internet, you’re still generating sales and moving parts.