In some ways, Gil Weiss believes there’s no better time than the present to be part of the automotive dealership industry.
“The more screwed up it is, the greater the opportunity to use it as a competitive advantage,” says Weiss, president of Automotive Training Team, a dealership and job training company. “But today, the OEM requires that you have a suitable facility within the same brand, so no one has junky facilities anymore. There’s not that many bad dealerships anymore.
“It’s a level playing field, so where is the tiebreaker between how my store is going to perform versus another store in my market? If I have a strong, tenured staff, I will retain my customers better. Employee satisfaction impacts customer satisfaction. Employee retention impacts customer retention.”
That last sentence is exactly why your dealership needs a smooth, comprehensive end-to-end recruiting and retaining strategy. Most dealership have a strong process when it comes to warranty claims or inspections, Weiss says, but when it comes to hiring?
“We look as though we are doing this for the very first time, whereas we’re actually doing this way too often … We hire somebody and we wing it,” he says. “They’re looking for warm bodies. It’s not that they aren’t good at it, they don’t have enough people to choose from. What happens is they don’t retain [employees] like they should so they need more of them more often than they should.”
In today’s day and age, where turnover costs dealers significant money, you quite literally cannot afford to miss any step of the recruiting and retaining process. Weiss outlines the six steps any dealer can take to improve that process and better nurture their best employees.
Step One: Create an Employee Value Proposition
Before a job description can be written, before a job posting can be created, before a single interview can take place, you need to understand the “why” behind your dealership, Weiss says.
“OEMs are very good at this with their cars: Here’s why you should buy our brand. Here’s our benefits, cost of ownership, this is why you should buy us,” he says. “Dealers need that, too. Why work here?”
Get together with your team and outline that “why-buy” for the employment side of the business. Some of those items might even exist on your website already for consumers, but can easily be translated for employees. You’re not just selling a job, Weiss says, you’re selling an opportunity for a career and your employee value proposition should reflect that. Weiss says the following are all excellent examples of why-buy differentiators:
- Generous health plans
- More time off
- 401(k) plans
- Closed on Saturdays
- Family owned
- Philanthropy work
- Size of the dealership—whether it’s small or the biggest dealer group in the U.S., both have distinct advantages
- Investment in education and training
- State-of-the-art facility
- Highest CSI, volume, number of certified techs in the region
After those differentiators are identified, they should be compiled into literature that allows anyone to easily explain why a job at your dealership is desirable.
“There’s lot of opportunities for improvement in this,” Weiss says. “It’s about creating and promoting the right culture. And not just the culture of being nice, but a methodical culture where we have process and policies in place and we actively put systems in place to retain employees.”
Step Two: Recruit, Interview and Select
Next, it’s crucial to have a standardized interviewing and selection process. Weiss recommends having an internal recruitment bonus program for employees, regardless of job role, to motivate employees to keep an eye out for other possible candidates.
“It’s self-screening,” he says. “If they send me someone, I should hire them. People tend to know people who are of the same mindset. It’s just the way it works. Part of the reason is because certain personalities are predisposed to certain professions. Even if the dealership doesn’t have a robust enough orientation program, he or she will make sure their friend gets the coaching they need to succeed.”
Next, identify the exact characteristics that tend to predict success in the position for which you’re hiring and the types of questions to ask during the interview that could help you come to a determination on the candidate. Weiss says to always ask about factory certifications and CSI scores, and spend significant time on behavior-based questions.
The key during interviewing, Weiss says, is to identify up front if the candidate is a top performer and, if so, reverse the interview, in a sense, to spend significant time on the value proposition and selling the candidate on your dealership. Take him or her on a tour of the facility and introduce him or her to friendly people on the job so he or she feels a connection. It could even be worthwhile to introduce the candidate to the dealer principal to form an even stronger connection with the dealership.
During the selection process, Weiss says he is a fan of profile testing but notes that some are illegal to use and, of course, you can’t deny employment based on personality. However, profile tests (such as Omnia, ZeroRisk HR and Caliper) can provide valuable insight into more subtle aspects of candidates' personalities.
Finally, after making a selection, Weiss recommends staying in touch with those candidates that were highly considered.
“I would stay in touch with them for the next one. I would always have people who were in the hopper,” he says.
Step Three: Create a Formal Onboarding Program
Once the employee has been hired, is he or she just dumped into the role? Or does someone go around and introduce him or her, as well as send an email announcement welcoming the employee and announcing his or her start date? Weiss says that a proper onboarding and orientation process is crucial to the initial success of of the hire.
Before the hire starts, try to send him or her as much of the standard new hire documentation in advance so that by the first day, the new-hire packet is nearly filled out. In addition, send out an email to the company welcoming the new person and assign a team member to take the new employee under his or her wing for the first couple weeks.
When it comes to materials, he says that on the first day, you need the following items:
- Company handbook with policies
- Business cards (if applicable)
- Key and shop tag
- Log-ins for DMS and all related software
Weiss says the first day should look as follows:
8–9 a.m.: Introduce him or her to a point person in the accounting or human resources office, who has the packet of information ready to go. In fact, Weiss recommends having pre-loaded packets for each position, such as technician, service advisor, etc.
9–10 a.m.: Give the employee an employee handbook and have someone walk through that handbook, explaining how sick leave and vacation works, health insurance choices, how to clock in, etc.
10–11 a.m.: Discuss any ongoing education or training needs, including what credentials the employee needs, how he or she can take certification tests, etc.
11–noon: Lunch with the team.
Noon–1: Discuss how communication works at the dealership. If the dealership sends out newsletters, for example, give the employee copies of the past three.
1–2 p.m.: Play a video of the dealer principal explaining the company history and the employee value proposition.
2–3 p.m.: Take a tour of the dealership, which includes the sales department, BDC and inventory office. People need to know beyond their own department, Weiss says, and understand where everything is located to avoid confusion in the future.
3–4 p.m.: Meet the senior leadership team, including service manager, parts manager and sales manager. Meet the employee in his or her department who will act as a mentee for the first couple weeks of employment.
Step Four: Create Career Paths for All Employees
You want to create a culture of education in your shop, Weiss says. And while some positions, like technicians, lend themselves well to education and career paths, others, like service advisors, remain largely ignored.
“[Technicians] are all about getting trained,” he says. “It’s a badge of honor for them to be certified. In technicians, we don’t have an issue, unless we want to grow our own. We need to be proactive. Those programs can be very successful.”
Weiss says there is another department that automatically offers job candidates a defined career path: the parts department. Most parts staffers start by driving a truck; then, they stock parts; next, they work at the retail parts counter, then the wholesale parts counter; and from there, they might rise to an assistant parts manager and eventually to parts manager.
"It's the one path in the dealership that everyone knows is there," Weiss says.
Thus, he proposes dealers put together similar paths for sales consultants and service advisors to show new hires that the leap from sales consultant to sales manager is possible.
“Every service advisor follows a process. The problem is that it’s the process from the last place he worked or a composite of their favorite way of doing things,” he says. “We don’t get them sales training or product training. The techs get trained on that new technology, but the service advisor is hearing everything third hand. It feels like a dead-end job and it doesn’t need to be.”
Here’s an example:
Level One Service Advisor. A great source for this level of service advisor is the sales department. Think about it, Weiss says: Many salespeople are, naturally, sales-minded, but it may not fit their lifestyle very well. If they have kids who are in school or a spouse who works a more traditional job, those late hours typically don’t work well.
“Some of those people who like working there and are model employees, they’d be good service advisors. We’ve had success in repurposing some of those guys,” he says. “They know the product lines, the customers, they’re skilled at working with the public and they have sales experience and sales aptitude.
“That’s becoming a bigger deal because we're not bombarded with warranty work. We haven’t had to use those selling skills. That’s not our world anymore. We're not living off the land with warranties and recalls. We do want that business. We’re trying to conquest that business that we let the ISPs take. We’re relying on selling additional needed services.”
Level Two Service Advisor: After that person gets some time in service—and this could take months or years—completes all factory certification, and meets certain benchmarks for CSI, he or she becomes a level two service advisor, as well as receives a bump in compensation.
“We don’t have to be as competitive with salaries if we give them their first break,” Weiss says. “We haven’t necessarily spent more money, then.”
Level Three Service Advisor: At this point, there need to be benchmarks set for CSI, sales performance and customer retention and even if the OEM doesn’t assign this, a curriculum path for OEM certification testing for service advisors or warranty administrator.
“What happens is we give someone a promotion and say, ‘Oh, we forgot you need to take all these certification tests.’ We almost have to hold them at gunpoint to get them to do that. The completion of those certification tests should be a prerequisite for the promotion. If it becomes a rite of passage, they’ll do it at home. Now they're eligible for leaders of service advisors or assistant service managers,” Weiss says. “In other words, we need to offer them a career path.”
Weiss also recommends having a criteria of becoming this level of service advisor be mentoring a level one service advisor and having a pay plan structure so the level three service advisor has a vested interest in that person’s longevity and success, such as a stipend.
Step Five: Find Creative Ways to Reward
Compensation and rewards can be one area where a lot of dealers feel their hands are tied, Weiss says. But there are a lot of creative solutions to rewarding and compensating employees that don’t break the bank:
Providing a company car program. While an outright company car program is difficult with insurance, some sort of subsidized lease or purchase program for service advisors and their spouse is an easy opportunity to sell vehicle to your own employees and ensure employees are driving the same brand as the dealership, Weiss says.
"If we’re going to take a loser deal to hit those numbers to get the pot of gold, what's the reluctance to subsidize an employee’s purchase? This guy works here! We just lost more money an hour ago with a stranger,” he says. “It could be a systematic approach where they earn their way into that and longevity could be tied into this. I wouldn’t want to create a situation where a service advisor has been there 10 years, they should be able to drive a new car so darn cheap they never want to work for another dealership. Everyone needs a car; they probably like the brand of the car you sell.”
Opportunities to take classes or paid volunteer hours. Weiss says there’s huge benefit for employees like service advisors and managers to take continuing education classes or volunteer in the community, such as with the Lion’s Club or chamber of commerce.
“I would want my people infiltrating the ranks of our community,” he says. “Instead, we isolate from the public and never get an opportunity for repeat and referral. That creates an identity in the community.”
A pay plan structured around mentoring, as described in step four.
Step Six: Focus on Coaching and Mentoring
Finally, Weiss says it’s absolutely crucial to evaluate frequently.
“It can’t be arbitrary,” he says. “Once per year is not enough with the turnover problem. We need something that’s not as punitive and intimidating as a corporate America performance review.”
Instead, he recommends simplistic, one page quarterly reviews where the employee performs a self-evaluation from his or her perspective on a scale of 1-5 first and then the manager fills out the same review. Then, Weiss recommends having the manager and employee sit down to note the differences and coach them on improvement areas (See Sidebar: “How Can You Get the Most Out of Your Team?”).
“We may have 10 or 25 things we’ve decided as a dealership. Then we can discuss the differences in answers,” he says. “You’re going to have 1-4 things to coach on. If you knew what those things were intuitively and you went right to the employee, it comes across like you’re picking on me. Now, they could self-evaluate and it looks impersonal. It’s not an opinion or arbitrary. They’re not singled out.
“You can rehabilitate some of those people. We terminate people we shouldn’t terminate. We do so because we didn't’ set expectations, we didn’t onboard, we didn’t educate or develop, compensation plan isn’t what it should be. We could’ve saved some of them, too.”
In addition, effectively done, timed, brief meetings once per week in a private space can be another effective way to praise and coach. He says the key is to have an agenda and some substance to the meeting, whether it’s a guest speaker, a video clip, or praising an employee publicly to celebrate milestones.