The automotive market has enjoyed quite a few quarters of growth after bouncing back from the 2008 recession, but like all cycles, economic experts and manufacturers’ research show that the market might be cooling down. Dealers who prepare for a slowing market when things are still hot are much better prepared than those who think the good times will never end. Down markets show how a dealership is actually performing, and display where the flaws are that get covered up when sales are booming.
Over the next few issues of AutoSuccess, we’ll be asking our Dealer Panel how they prepare for a market that might be cooling down to maintain profits, employee preparedness, market share and momentum.
AutoSuccess: How does hiring and training change between a hot market and one that isn’t as strong?
Andrew DiFeo, GM of Hyundai of St. Augustine: Even in a down market there are businesses that can make it an “up market” for themselves. Yes, there are macrotrends that can affect the business, but internally, if you’ve got the right people and processes in place already, you can actually thrive in a down market. As far as hiring goes, nothing really changes, and for training, we always try to be consistent whether the market is up or down to make sure our skills are honed to grow no matter what the market is doing.
Chris Saraceno, VP and Partner of Kelly Automotive Group: It doesn’t! Recruiting and training are both never ending. It’s like a professional sports team — we believe you never stop recruiting and you never stop training. One positive aspect of a down market is that you actually have more time to train; if you have a lot of traffic coming in, you may have less time to do training. With more training, you can make the most of the leads coming in to grow your market share and build your customer base.
Kimberly Cardinal Piscatelli, Vice President and Partner of Cardinal Honda: Hiring and training must be constant, no matter the market. As a preferred employer, it is possible to have more candidates than positions available — a waiting list to join the team! It’s the team that dictates the business volume, not the other way around. Hire right, train constantly and take care of your team. When you develop a culture that rewards loyalty and longevity, this will be a question you will never have to ask yourself.
Mike Good, GM of Street Toyota: A “strong market” often reflects the quality and effectiveness of your people. In our opinion, hiring and training doesn’t change due to market conditions. The widespread practice of loading the floor with “green peas” to handle the bursts of “selling season” traffic seems short sighted. It creates instability while birthing long-lasting reputation issues. For years, we have concentrated on hiring the highest grade of salespeople as possible without regard to market conditions. We like to say, “We measure twice and cut once.” We are blessed to have a mature, seasoned sales staff with exceptionally low turnover. Each of our 30 sales consultants sells an average of anywhere from 12 to 35 units monthly, and incomes are volume proportional. We offer a variety of continuing education opportunities and high-quality training because we value our sales staff and invest liberally in them. As the seasonality and quality of business increases, we rely on our existing staff’s talent and elasticity to handle the amplified opportunities. They enjoy the challenge and opportunity and we enjoy the results. It took years to develop this type and capability of sales professionals and has proven well worth the overall effort.
AS: How do your dealership’s marketing efforts change when leads are harder to come by?
AD: Our marketing efforts changed several years ago to place a big emphasis on customer retention. We’ve already done the hard part of building up a big customer base through conquest, which allows us to maintain sales no matter what the overall market is doing. We really focus on our customer retention activities, whether it be through internal phone calls, direct mail pieces or emails to our guests. We concentrate on maintaining contact with our customer base and treating them well.
CS: During slower times, we can review what we’re currently doing and see what’s working and what’s not. In the Website layout, for example, we adjust our call-to-action tags based on Website page activity. If we see more activity on one page, we may use that information to adjust other pages. We also talk to our staff about pushing referrals and talking to the sales consultants who have been with us for a long time about prospecting on their own using social media. There are times when we will have training on how to market themselves because we believe it is everyone’s job to help market and drive traffic in when the market is down, when leads are hard to come by.
KCP: Certainly, all marketing plans are under tighter scrutiny when the leads are harder to come by. Am I doing everything I can to drive business? What is my competition doing? Even in the best of times, marketing plans must be continually evaluated along with their effectiveness as measured by ROI. Without careful ROI analysis, throwing more money into marketing doesn’t always translate into more leads. Our overall strategy? Stay the course. Stay in your lane. Market to your customers. Full steam ahead. Walt Disney said it best when he said, “I’ve heard there’s going to be a recession. I’ve decided not to participate.”
MG: Our strategy is to maximize marketing and lead generation efforts no matter the market conditions or lead flow. Additionally, it’s believed industry wide that Internet leads are decreasing while click-to-call telephone traffic is increasing. Our records validate that. It’s easier for the customer to connect by phone as opposed to filling out lead information. This makes phone-up processes critical in converting the inquiry into a meaningful information exchange. Traditional leads are still important though. Higher-value leads are generally a product of our Website, our social media efforts, local community marketing and our OEM’s national promotions. To complete a high market penetration, we do utilize Auto Trader, Cars.com, Car Gurus and other similar services. Marketing to our customer base in a more traditional fashion has proven to be efficient. Certain tasteful, non-gimmick-laden communication pieces soliciting a potential vehicle upgrade have proven a high ROI value.
Next issue, we’ll discuss how our Dealer Panel uses their service drive to maintain overall dealership profits, and how the changing demands of the consumer are changing the ways their dealerships do business.