Courtesy of iStock.

Courtesy of iStock. 

As I opened my garage door one morning to get the newspaper, a neighbor accosted me with, “Hey Tom, don’t you work with those conniving automobile dealers?”

Motivating that comment was an unpleasant experience the neighbor’s wife had at a dealership. Apparently, her salesperson had arranged a service appointment to get a part and for a warranty repair. When she arrived at the service drive, her assigned advisor informed her that the part was never ordered and she would have to come back another time.

Upon returning home, my neighbor’s wife called the dealership to express her dissatisfaction. The salesperson told her that the service advisor probably didn’t note the appointment on his calendar, and that the parts department was “notorious for screwing things up.”

The blame game my neighbor encountered is typical in a dealership that is being strangled by departmental silos. Employees, each thinking their department is the chosen one in the dealership, routinely mock and ridicule the efforts of their coworkers in other departments. In effect, they become saboteurs that destroy the business mission of the organization.

Breaking from Tradition

The traditional automobile dealership structure is fertile ground for silos. Sales, service, parts, F&I, Internet, and accounting all perceive themselves as being quintessential to the dealership’s success. Without their particular department being viewed as the most important and the center of attention, how could any of the others even think of surviving?

When departmental silos strangle the growth and development of a dealership, the signs are blatantly obvious:

  • There is no defined vision, mission, values, or expected behaviors.
  • Managers don’t understand what leadership means.
  • Process improvement isn’t a part of the dealership’s culture.
  • Turnover rates exceed industry average.
  • Coaching for performance improvement is virtually non-existent.
  • Customer concerns and complaints are poorly handled.
  • Employee engagement is minimal due to an ineffective communication system.

It’s no surprise that automobile dealerships lead corporate America as an industry plagued by the silo mentality. Just sit in on a leadership team meeting (if they even have one) and you’ll understand why.

During a recent consulting engagement, I wanted to experience firsthand how the CEO of a dealership group encouraged interdepartmental collaboration among his managers. At his monthly leadership team meeting, he instructed the 20 or so participants to each take a turn reading parts of a motivational article to the group. This elementary school reading exercise was followed by managers presenting reports on their department’s monthly results. The meeting was then adjourned.

The CEO never asked for anyone’s input, other than their month-end numbers. He then left them with a series of tasks he wanted accomplished prior to their next session.

The brutal truth is that if the dealer principal, CEO, or general manager doesn’t know how to lead, it’s unreasonable to expect managers to be solely responsible for creating a climate of teamwork.

Change the Script                                                                   

So what can a dealership do in order to ensure that the silo mentality doesn’t cripple employee morale, thereby resulting in high turnover and a gradual but steady decline in customer satisfaction scores and bottom-line profitability? Here are five recommendations:

1. Get the right people on the bus starting at the top: When your senior leaders are clueless about how to lead the growth and development of a positive work environment, it’s unrealistic to expect middle managers and employees to be all that enthusiastic about interdepartmental cooperation.

2. Employ an annual 360-degree feedback process for all managers: Use the results of the evaluations to develop professional growth and development plans for leadership team members that are focused on enhancing teamwork and collaboration.

3. Improve internal communications at the dealership: Dealerships continue to expand their budgets for marketing to and communicating with customers. The sad reality is that next to nothing is invested in marketing to and communicating with their employees.

Nobody does a worse job because they have too much information. Keeping employees informed with an internal communications platform is one of the key factors in ensuring that departmental silos aren’t germinating in your dealership.

Keep in mind that this is the first time in history when five generations of Americans can be found working side-by-side in the workplace. Therefore, implementing an internal communications system that relates to a cross-section of multi-generational communication requirements is imperative for achieving a dealership’s business goals.

4. Eliminate departmental silos through the use of PIT Crews: A PIT (process improvement team) crew is a cross-functional group of coworkers representing various departments of the dealership. Individuals assigned to the PIT crew meet to consider a problem, challenge, or opportunity. They then make recommendations to the leadership team for improvements.

The PIT crew meets once a week and follows a defined process for arriving at specific recommendations.  With different topics, PIT crew membership rotates so that every dealership employee has an opportunity to participate. Not only does this foster employee engagement, it gives employees a sense of ownership in the direction of the business.

When a dealership commits itself to the power of employing the PIT crew process, the entire dynamic of the dealership culture is enriched. PIT crews create an internal energy that strengthens common ground. And when they see their recommendations implemented by management, the will to cooperate and collaborate becomes even stronger.

Bobbie Bonavia, a trusted and respected automotive human resources consultant in the Tampa, Fla., area, had this to say: “Hard-won wisdom tells us that outselling the dealership down the street doesn’t earn you a sustainable competitive advantage in your market. Long-term profitability is internally driven. Hire the right people, create an environment that engages their minds and hearts, and give daily affirmation to the principle that teamwork drives success. Those are the keys to prevent departmental silos from destroying your business.”

Tom McQueen is a more than 20-year industry veteran. He serves as’s automotive industry expert. Contact him at [email protected].