The team at the Jacksonville, Fla.-based Nimnicht Chevrolet earned General Motor's 2014 Dealer of the Year Award.

The team at the Jacksonville, Fla.-based Nimnicht Chevrolet earned General Motor's 2014 Dealer of the Year Award. 

I’ve collaborated with more than 400 dealers during the past 25 years. To say that I have seen the good, the bad and the ugly during my travels would be an understatement, and my most significant discovery so far is that exceptionally great automobile dealers do five key things differently than all the others. Let’s take a closer look at each of the qualities or strategies award-winning dealers embrace.

1. Leaders Are Servants

With all due respect to their positive intentions, manufacturers are neglectful in terms of providing any meaningful learning opportunities (other than product training) to their dealers. It just doesn’t happen.

Consequently, when it comes to things like organizational development, leadership training and human resource management, for example, most dealers are content to manage their business in ways that are detrimental to long-term profitability.

Award-winning dealers understand that it all begins with leadership, and not the top-down type. As retired U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Karl Horst, a senior leadership executive at the Dimmitt Automotive Group in Clearwater, Fla., explains, in the 21st century, commonsense leadership is concentric in nature, not hierarchical.

“Employees are called upon to lead in their own way and to serve one another in the accomplishment of the dealership’s mission,” Horst says.

That’s a great insight, but very few dealers get it. The majority of them are plagued with top-down management, high turnover, and disengaged workers. They also have difficulty recruiting Millennials who seek more engagement in the workplace, as the demands of a multigenerational workforce have made leading with a servant’s heart an essential operational asset. 

The management team at the Tampa, Fla.-based Dimmitt Automotive Group.

The management team at the Tampa, Fla.-based Dimmitt Automotive Group. 

2. Information Is King

No one does a bad job because they have too much information. Unfortunately, the reality is that the information highway in most dealerships is a one-way street with many potholes.

Dealers with a sustainable competitive advantage clearly discern that communication is to an organization what blood is to the body. Information is the lifeblood of a dealership and sharing it at every opportunity breathes energy into the business.

At the Proctor dealership group in Tallahassee, Fla., information-sharing has taken on a whole new look. Executive Director of Operations Pamela Grimes and her leadership team collaborated with Mankato, Minn.-based PDP Auto, a division of PDP Solutions, to adopt a communication platform that allows employees at three separate locations to access important dealership information with a click of their mouse or with a swipe of their handheld device or strategically placed kiosk.

“With the speed of business today, delivering key information to employees in a timely manner is critical for keeping them in touch with and supportive of our business goals,” Grimes notes.

Gone are the days when workplace updates were typed into a monthly employee newsletter and stuffed in an envelope with their paychecks. You can keep staff members apprised of goals, customer satisfaction information and store news on a daily basis. 

3. Trust Is Key

If only we could purchase trust, workplaces would be so much healthier. Unfortunately, trust isn’t for sale; it has to be nurtured.

The fact of the matter is that, without trust, all meaningful relationships are eventually doomed to destruction. When your employees don’t trust their managers, they become disengaged. When they don’t trust one another, departmental performance is less than optimal. And when customers don’t trust your business, they go elsewhere.

Walk into any automobile dealership today and ask the HR department (if they have one) what training they offer in trust-building, or what they do to recruit and hire trustworthy job applicants.

Trust starts at the top, and for the Nimnicht dealership group in Jacksonville, Fla., Billie Nimnicht III leads his team. Most importantly, he understands the importance of creating and growing a trustworthy workplace. In order to help managers foster trusting relationships, the group employs 360-degree feedback tools and other assessments so that dealership leaders keep a clear focus on their strengths and challenges.

“Trust is the backbone of a healthy and vibrant organization,” Nimnicht says. “In addition, when our customers observe that our employees collaborate and work well together, that inspires them to do business with us.”

4. Emotional Intelligence Matters

Let’s be honest: You didn’t learn about emotional intelligence when you went to school. All those tests and exams you took were directed toward measuring your IQ, not your EQ. But the emotional quotient of a dealership has as much to do with its long-term profitability as anything else. And in a customer-focused organization, it matters even more.

In “Emotional Intelligence 2.0” (TalentSmart, 2009), Dr. Travis Bradberry and Dr. Jean Greaves suggested that the link between EQ and earnings is so direct that every point increase in EQ adds $1,300 to an annual salary. Unfortunately, in my experience, very few dealers provide any type of assessment or training in the area of emotional intelligence.

There are a lot of surveys and meetings that happen in the dealership, but the attention paid to behaving like an emotionally intelligent person and organization is virtually nonexistent in the automotive training landscape. As a result of this neglect, the symptoms of high employee turnover and customer defections, for example, raise their ugly heads while management is left to wonder why people aren’t happy.

The reality is that dealerships, like most companies, have two kinds of toxic employees: The first group is childishly unaware of how their negative behavior impacts their coworkers, while the second group takes a special joy in creating chaos and pushing other people’s buttons. Award-winning dealers have a zero-tolerance policy for that level of culture poison and, when they encounter it, ownership is quick to eradicate it.

5. You Need a Sustainable Competitive Advantage

High-performing sales and F&I professionals aren’t heroes on the last day of the month and zeroes on the first day of the next month. Success for them doesn’t look like the results of a bad cardiogram. And to be certain, no manufacturer’s representative delivers them a plaque for trying hard every once in a while or finishing the year in second place.

No, at award-winning dealerships, a sustainable competitive advantage is a way of life. You must relentlessly follow these steps to make it happen day after day, week after week, month after month and year after year:

  • Get the right people on the bus with creative recruiting, selecting, hiring and training initiatives.
  • Create a buying process that is customer-driven, not dealership-driven.
  • Implement and religiously adhere to non-negotiable internal and external customer service standards.
  • Be driven to serve the needs of their community.
  • Design marketing initiatives that tap into the needs, wants and desires of your customers.
  • Select leaders and managers based on their competence, commitment and compassion while embracing the principles of servant leadership.

There’s no question that award-winning dealers behave differently. They serve one another as well as their customers. Their communication platform engages team members. Trust forms the cornerstone of the team’s leadership character in an emotionally intelligent culture. It sounds simple enough, but it takes effort and commitment, and the absence of any one of the five key success factors will impede your ability to earn and maintain long-term success in your market.

Tom McQueen is a Facilitator with Ardent Learning, Inc. and works with the NissanSERV program. Contact him at [email protected].