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Lift Off! Taking Leadership to the Next Dimension

September 2006, F&I and Showroom - Feature

by Jimmy Atkinson - Also by this author

It has been said that the only constant in life is change. If that is the case, why do we find change so difficult? It seems wired into our nature that change should be resisted, and it starts early in life. What happens when you switch babies from the bottle to food or take a trip and disrupt their schedule? They cry and scream. Fast forward 20, 30 or 40 years and watch adults exhibit the same type of behavior when you implement a new training program, sales process or adopt new business strategies. It may be better hidden, but they are screaming just the same.

So how do you effectively change your business and create sustainable results without having your people put up stop signs? How do you go from a “start, wait a few weeks and stop” approach to an executable strategy that moves people to change their behaviors, attitudes and activities? While there are no easy answers, here are some proven strategies to ensure your latest initiative has a fighting chance of survival.

Leading the Initiative

The first key is to get your leadership on board and willing to accept your change. If your top managers resist, whether vocally or passively, you will never drive the results through the organization. Begin by getting your top leaders together, one at a time, and lay out your reasons for implementing change and how they will be impacted and rewarded. You must instill within them the desire to lead the charge and promote the change through your organization. What are their objections? Are they valid? Can you persuade them? All of these questions must be answered and overcome because if your leadership team isn’t behind you and the program, it is dead upon arrival. Creating one consistent message to deliver to your team is paramount in the change process.

I recently worked with a dealership group that has an internal conflict in how the sales process should flow and how F&I should make their presentations to customers. There are two key leaders underneath the dealer principal running different stores. The break in their support for a unified process is evident and creates conflict within the company. People are choosing sides and lining up behind one or the other. This is destructive to the dealership’s goals and is causing sales and profits to suffer. It’s been said that any system will work if you follow that system. While that may be an over-simplification, the lack of decisiveness and leadership provided by the dealer principal will result in thousands of dollars in lost income.

Launching the Change

One of the most powerful ways to visualize the word “launch” is to picture a space shuttle lifting off the pad in Florida, cutting through the crystal blue sky and turning slightly onto its back as it rises. Next, the fuel tanks fall away and the shuttle begins its orbit of the earth. Every time I see this incredible sight, it gives me goose bumps. Your new program needs its own launch and it needs to be visual and dramatic. While you can’t duplicate the power of a shuttle launch, you can create passion in your people through a clear, consistent and visual message.

Your first meeting with your team is vitally important. All of the leaders are on board, present and expressing their commitment to the program. Make it an event, create posters and other collateral to hand out and keep the new program in the forefront of their minds. Take the ad budget for one weekend and use it to have your ad agency put together a presentation to help you win over your team.

After 23 years of working in and with automobile, RV and powersports dealerships, the most common occurrence is a “start and stop” program. The dealer is committed, announces the change, and then six to eight weeks later, it has fizzled. This happens because everyone else is not on board and fights the change. You must create enough momentum in your launch to begin to offset this negative response that naturally occurs within team members.

Advertise and Reward the Early Victories

You have the leaders on board and have made a dramatic launch. Now comes the hard part: daily implementation and maintaining momentum. One key is to really praise the early victories. When people make progress and have small wins, sing their praises. Announce it to the entire store, hand out bonuses and use them as a positive example.

Your leadership team must gather these success stories and share them with the team on an ongoing basis. Broadcasting through e-mail, meeting announcements and creating a “victory wall” to display progress are all ways to keep the team engaged.

One of the most powerful ways to motivate people is through recognition. Spend time each day finding examples of the behavior you want people to demonstrate and praise them for it. By reinforcing the positive examples, it continues to send the subtle message that your change is important to you and that you’re committed to its success. Also, if people are resisting and holding up progress, pull them aside one at a time and confront their behavior. Make sure they understand how committed you are to the change.

Stay on Course, Reward the Doers

Great leaders have a drive for execution and getting things done. This lively energy causes people to follow and adopt the winning strategies. Key elements that are often overlooked when a new initiative is implemented are the conflicts and bottlenecks that the change may cause. The role of the dealer here is to explore these areas and help his or her team develop solutions. Staying the course while you tweak and improve your new initiative will ensure your people stay on board as well.

Additionally, you must link pay to performance in order to reward the people who are living the change and getting results. While most dealership employees are commission-based, that isn’t enough to deliver the financial results you want. If it were, your store would be operating in the highest percentile every month. As you lay out your change, develop the metrics and measurements that you will use to determine whether the program is a success and reward people for meeting these goals. Post the results in a visible place and make sure all of your leaders promote the results and successes every day.

Positive Reinforcement Works Best

I read somewhere that fear will cause change but won’t sustain it. I think that is proven in dealerships all the time. Most change initiatives fail because they are bad ideas. Most don’t fail because they are announced with a “this is not an option” mantra and then allowed to die because no one maintained the commitment to their success. I always joke with groups at conventions that while they are there filling their minds with knowledge and ideas to improve their store, the folks at the dealership are holding an “emergency huddle” behind the dealership and developing their plan for resistance to the changes they know you will bring back. It doesn’t matter what the change is or how valuable it would be to them personally as well as the dealership. We’re all like that baby taken off the bottle, screaming seems like a better option than eating!

Jimmy Atkinson is vice president of sales and marketing for Assurant Solutions Automotive Division. He is a 23- year veteran of the automotive industry and one of the leading authorities on leadership, sales and F&I, having spoken at seven NADA conventions and multiple other industry functions and groups. You can reach Jimmy at

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