Auto retail needs to address its Achilles’ heel

February 4, 2021

Employee training and retention re-enters the spotlight with greater importance as governments renew lockdowns and impose tougher rules to manage the pandemic crisis.

With COVID-19 cases rising in a number of Canadian provinces, you can be sure that the mental state of just about every person in the country is being challenged right now.

Hard-hit Quebec, for example, extended its near-full holiday lockdown into 2021 and added a curfew — a first in Canada. So while dealers across the country are facing more intense forms of lockdowns, likely impacting their bottom lines, it may be at odds to note that employee training and retention must remain a focus.

One of the reasons for this is because unhappy employees risk being poached, according to Michel Beaulieu, President of Summum. Salary alone is not enough to make a difference; dealers need to make people comfortable, relevant and competent.

“I think what has to change with COVID, before and after — it’s a realization that many people do (need to feel relevant), which makes dealers feel that it is important for them to support their staff rather than leave them to themselves and then hope that it will all work out,” said Beaulieu in an interview with Canadian auto dealer.

His company was founded in 2005 and has two main divisions: Summum Automobile Training (services and workshops for individuals and dealers who want to train their employees), and Summum 360 Solutions (warranties, loyalty and retention programs and solutions).

Last year, Beaulieu was working with a dealer group that lacked the ability to provide its employees with the necessary help and motivation they needed. Whether the situation came as a result of the chaos created by the crisis and subsequent lockdowns last year, or due to other reasons, Beaulieu said the group realized they were at risk of losing certain employees to the competition.

“It’s always easy for a competitor to go and find someone who is out there and is already trained to a certain point,” said Beaulieu. “And they (the dealer group) realized that in order to keep them, whether it’s within their network or so that others can benefit from it, they need to help their employees along in order to improve their knowledge and competence.”

Simply put, dealers need to take care of their staff.

Identifying strong and weak points

Beaulieu said his company’s approach to training and coaching involves helping individuals validate how they apply or put into practice the theoretical information they learn. To do this, a system is set up where employees can record videos of their meetings with clients (whether they are in F&I, sales, or another department), and then review the footage.

Numerous pro-athletes have taken a similar approach; it’s not new, but it can be effective. Beaulieu said employees that do this are more likely to “jump into action” after seeing their videos, and become more aware of their strengths and points of improvement.

“They learn a lot about themselves, and it’s more motivating than listening to a teacher during five consecutive days of class,” said Beaulieu. “It’s a different way, and the two can be complementary, but we tried to bring a different element into this way of doing it.”

Protect your investment

Another reason why training and retention must remain a focus is due to the cost associated with turnover, according to Jessi Kessel, Director of Operations at Auto Careers Group.

“I think it was always important and it was always like a dealership’s Achilles’ heel,” said Kessel. “However, as we’ve seen in many areas of dealership operations, the pandemic has really brought things to light, and the reason why I think it might be more important now than before is because of the simple cost of turnover.”

It is no secret that losing an employee will cost the dealership money. And while it is important to reduce the operating cost of a business, which was evident from the significant layoffs observed in 2020, employee retention and training can serve as an insurance policy.

According to Kessel, if dealerships continue to do what they were doing pre-COVID, being more reactive and less proactive and hiring based on “feeling,” turnover will continue to occur — and it will cost the dealership time and money.

“As an assurance, making the right decision with their hiring today and making sure that they retain that person through training and onboarding — making sure that there’s a good culture and an environment for them to go to work — I think that’s more important today,” said Kessel.

Dealership trends to address

While the idea of training and retaining an employee may seem simple, Corrie George Elieff, co-founder of Grant Cardone Canada and the Young Entrepreneurs Sales Academy (YESA), advises first addressing the trends impacting auto retail.

According to Elieff, one of the reasons why the industry is struggling with retention is because salespeople do not know how to sell.

“We’ve seen a lot of trends pre-COVID. A lot of business owners didn’t realize that they had a problem with their sales staff,” said Elieff, adding that a little more than 82 per cent of sales staff in the industry, based on 2017 data, do not follow-up beyond one point of contact.

Elieff said the trend was around well before the pandemic, at a time when there was enough demand and qualified buyers in the marketplace. He believes salespeople are more like order-takers, and if that seems like a tough statement, it is worth noting that his company has trained more than 2,000 dealerships.

To put things in perspective, the Grant Cardone Canada business focuses on training dealerships on everything from sales to negotiation, marketing management, leadership retention and more. YESA includes a sales staff of just under 20 people that does outbound sales for a large telecom company in Ontario.

Another trend they noticed pre-pandemic was that nearly 60 per cent of salespeople do not make cold calls to leads on a daily basis — meaning they were not calling previous customer lists and orphaned lists. According to Elieff, this comes down to a lack of techniques that would otherwise allow staff to follow up 10, 15, 20 times over a three-to-six month period without frustrating the client.

“The truth is, now more than ever, our sales people are not prepared,” said Elieff. “Most salespeople are not prepared to deal with the marketplace in its current situation.”

The salespeople that know how to make consumers feel welcome and build a relationship also know how to establish trust, which helps create a sense of faith in the dealership from the customer. That faith translates into greater trust in health and safety protocols, sanitary conditions, and comfort in doing test drives amid the pandemic.

But sales staff that lack the ability to build relationships inevitably struggle to establish trust and communicate ideas over things like text messages, emails, and phone calls, according to Elieff.

Employees need to play their own game

The key to hiring and training correctly, it seems, is ensuring that potential hires are playing their own game and are not simply being hired or trained because it is part of the process.

“They can’t just be training because it’s part of their job. They need to be training and getting better and find the new processes or whatever the new operating procedures are,” said Elieff. “They need to be doing that for their own goals.”

So if the salespeople sell to customers, the sales managers need to sell to the sales reps, and the dealer principals and the general managers need to sell to the sales managers.

“It’s all a big sale. And how do we do a sale? We ask: what does that individual want?” said Elieff. “When I’m interviewing somebody or want to roll out a new training program with my people, the first things that I’m doing is a fact-find — I’m literally applying a sales process, I’m doing a discovery, I’m doing a needs-analysis on my staff member or my new recruit, on my onboarding group.”

Elieff then turns the quest into a class and discovers why the employee chose that dealership over another, and seeks to understand what they are looking to achieve in their career, knowing that some people (especially young millennials) may not be looking for a career position for the next decade or two.

So Elieff explores questions with potential hires like: where are you looking to get to? And what is your current strategy for getting there?

He said he will also tell them that he understands that they may be joining him for a year or five years, and that he is fine with this. But hiring that employee is also part of an exchange that needs to be made clear: helping an employee reach their goal also means the employee must help the business reach its targets.

It is about setting up a relationship and an agreement early on, so Elieff receives the employee’s permission to call them out when they begin to steer off-track from their goals. “I treat it like a sale. I’m always selling my staff.”

The second part of his approach involves the managers and the general managers.

“They need to exemplify what they’re selling, period,” said Elieff. “We’re talking about leadership training, your ability to handle people, your management skills, your persuasion and negotiation skills, as leaders.”

Elieff views his sales team like a sports team, of which he is the coach. Like Toby Bryant, Michael Jordan, Dwayne Wade, all pro-athletes that “never stopped training,” Elieff needs to sell his people by “being a product of the product.”

Part of that tactic and the last part of his approach involves gamifying the training. Like the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), Elieff has a belt for what he calls the USC: Ultimate Sales Champs. It allows a sales person to win the belt and hang it on their desk as a type of trophy. The company also hands out awards — and we are not talking about participation awards.

“When people are in a game, they don’t get sucked into little games like gossip and dramas in the office,” said Elieff. “We create a bigger game inside of our business so that everyone feels like a player, so that everyone can win.”

And right now, amid the pandemic, everyone can use a win.

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