How to Instill a Culture of Caring
It was an unseasonably cold winter evening for Lake Norman, a small town just north of Charlotte, N.C. Temperatures hovered around 10–15 degrees. The wind whipped around the dealership lot. Dealer owner Jack Salzman walked hurriedly to his car when he spotted something darting among the vehicles on the lot. Curious, he peered closer. It was a kitten, no more than a couple months old. Its gray and white fur was matted and it was eating what appeared to be a McDonald’s french fry.
Salzman was concerned. He knew the kitten likely wouldn’t make it through the night on its own. He quickly hopped in his car and drove to Petco, where he picked up a crate, blankets and food.
He wasn’t even sure if the kitten would be in the lot when he returned, but sure enough, it was still there.
Not only did the kitten make it through that cold winter night, but in the three years since, Mickey (named after its former food source) has become a staple of Salzman’s dealership, Lake Norman CJDR. Customers come in with food for Mickey. Mickey was vetted and spayed by Lake Norman Lucky Cat, a local program that humanely manages feral cats, which inspired the dealership to get involved with the organization.
But more than anything, Mickey is a shining example of Salzman’s (and his wife and co-owner, Robin) approach as a leader: He cares. He cares about his family, his employees, his business, his community—and above all else, his role in all of those different areas.
“Customers know that about us and if they have a problem, they’ll reach out to us,” he says. “Longtime customers know that if they have an issue, they can come to us. We’ll handle any situation.”
Salzman and Robin, a former vice president for CBS Radio who Salzman describes as scientific, numbers-focused and “not as fluffy as me” (he says with a laugh) and now handles the marketing and human resources while he handles sales and service, have remained purposely hands-on and involved in the dealerships, even as the dealerships have grown to sell a combined 5,500 monthly units and a monthly fixed gross of $920,000.
But it’s one thing for you as a leader to care. It’s another factor entirely to get your entire staff to care. That’s the trick, Salzman says, and it’s also the reason he was named the 2018 TIME Dealer of the Year. That trick comes down to one very simple practice: setting goals.
“To be successful, discipline is one of the key drivers. You have to be black and white. Not many successful operations live in the grey,” he says. “Goals are important. If we just say to everybody, ‘Go give it your best,’ I don’t know if that’s going to win. You have to win. It would be hard to be at a dealership that just isn’t doing well. The difference is the intensity and focus we put on hitting goals. That helps us stay relevant.”
Here are the four biggest ways that the Salzmans have created a culture of goal setting in their dealerships:
1. Supply information.
The Salzmans are big believers in knowing where you stand. That’s why, at the end of every year, they give each manager an opportunity to present where he or she sees his or her department going in the following year. Before doing that, they hold a big forecasting budget meeting, the results of which go to each manager so he or she can understand how the dealership performed year to date and the goals for the following year.
“We give every manager an opportunity to tell us where we’re going to be and we review that quarterly and annually,” Salzman says. “We pay out on performance on budget. That’s worked very well for us. We forecast for service, express service, customer pay, warranty, internal, road ready, accessories. We take the statements and do line by line, where we performed last year, what kind of personnel we need—we do painstaking hour by hour of budgeting and we hold everyone accountable.”
Arming managers with information is vital, Salzman says, and it starts with giving them a big picture of the industry. Let’s say you set a goal of 5 percent service growth for next year. Salzman says that first, you need to discuss where you forecast vehicles for next year.
“We put up a PowerPoint and say, ‘This is where we are. This is how the past year shaped up in sales, hour performed, CSI, and this is where we see the industry going. We see where Chrysler sees things heading,’” he says. “Sales, accessories, customer pay, light maintenance, we hit it all.”
That helps the service department see that there’s still growth available and that not having any service growth next year isn’t a possibility. Then, they look at every area of their department and figure out from where that growth could feasibly come. For the Salzmans, light maintenance is the big push and they’ve crafted a plan that involves working with local universities to get younger technicians and take them from oil changes and tire rotations to become full-fledged technicians. As a result, light maintenance had a record month last month.
2. Provide incentives.
There’s another practice that has become a staple of those annual kickoff meetings. In addition to meeting with all of the managers, the Salzmans hold an all-staff meeting where they pass out crisp, fresh dollar bills they’ve picked up from the bank. On one side, they ask every employee to write his or her personal goals for the year and on the other, his or her business goals.The bill serves as a reminder of employee's goals.
“I always push, I want to keep servicing a lot of cars,” he says. “The more we do, the more we can give back to the community.”
3. Find the right employees.
However, Salzman says there’s one caveat to implementing all of this: You need the right employees.
“If you’ve done research on us, one of the things that’s important to us is long-term employees. Our average length of employment is five years. That’s pretty unheard of. I think if you give people a vision and you let people know what you need from them, they tend to buy in a little more. We’re too big to be small and too small to be big,” he says. “There’s no other dealership that does what we do. Some dealerships pay managers well and support staff not so well. We didn’t get into this to be the richest dealer. Our philosophy is the better our people do, the better we’re going to do. The more we can pay out, the more we can be part of our community, the better we can run.”
When it comes to the hiring process, Salzman looks over every single application and meets every single person during the hiring process. He listens to where they’re going, the opportunity they’re looking for and helps determine if it’s a right fit.
“We have really good systems and processes. If they’re willing to come in and be part of our team, work with our system and processes, then they’re going to grow and keep getting promoted and that’s how we make it,” he says. “If I’m looking for a service advisor, I don’t have to be the person that's been at the other dealership. I need a person who’s willing to listen, learn, and talk to our customers. There’s a lot of training that we can provide.”
That attitude is also part of the reason why the Salzmans have been recognized for their diverse employee makeup. The dealership was awarded the 2012 Champions of Diversity award from the Lake Norman Chamber of Commerce.
“We have always sought out great employees regardless of gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, etc.,” he says.
4. Nurture employees.
They’ve also made a huge effort to nurture those employees. Robin sends handwritten cards to employees’ homes for big events; they offer numerous volunteer opportunities (15 employees, along with the Salzmans, recently spent a Sunday afternoon volunteering with Holly’z Hope, an organization that builds fences for dogs that are stuck outside); and they’re extremely transparent about the pay scale for technicians and what’s needed to advance.
“We don’t hold anybody back from training. We pay for it. Take as many classes as you want. The more learning you do, the more skills you have, the higher we’re going to pay you,” he says. “The culture can be seen when you walk around. We have countless people who walk in and say, ‘It just has a feel.’ That’s when I know. There’s just a vibe or energy in the store. We have happy employees, happy customers in there.”