Do They 'Get It?'

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EVERY ASSOCIATE IN YOUR DEALERSHIP has a specific, assigned role, right? From the parts counter person to the service advisor, from your business manager to your detail specialist, from the salesperson to the apparel specialist, and even each of your department leaders.

If you're a good dealer, you've invested a fair amount in training to make all staff members the best they can be in their assigned roles. Maybe you've sent them to your manufacturer's training seminars on selling skills, or your 20 group's class on F&I training, or you have shown OEM tapes to your techs regarding the latest technological improvements of the products you sell. Being trained for specific roles allows your people to serve your customers better than your competitor, and to represent your manufacturers as they expect.

But if you're a great dealer, you're also training your key people in more generic (but just as critical) management skills such as leadership, conflict resolution, time management, business writing, strategic planning and presentation skills.

Such was the case with the auto dealer I called on as a Chrysler district manager years ago. He never led his team by fear and intimidation. His management style was more that of a teacher or coach. For example, he had weekly sales meetings where he'd pick a different salesperson to "sell" an ordinary product to the rest of the team. The salesperson had the week to learn about the brand and the product's features and warranty. The rep also devised price-and-feature comparisons with the product's competitors. Then he sold it to his fellow sales associates in 10 minutes. That was specific, functional sales training.

The dealer's key-person training plan also included a series of generic development seminars, typically offered by the American Management Association (AMA), in areas of the business that may not have had anything to do with the individual's specific role.

Along with cross-training, another core training method, this generic training served the dealer quite well. His key people were well-rounded, confident and seemingly able to handle almost any situation with either customers or other associates. They behaved, and performed, well above the average managers of his competitors. Most of this dealer's employees remained loyal to him for many years because of this extra effort and investment. Employee burnout and inter-department friction was reduced. And over the years, as more staff members were trained, each knowing the basic skills of their co-workers and leaders, there was a stronger sense of camaraderie and teamwork.

Now, did all this training pay off every time? No. One solid department manager left to become a dealer himself within a few years. Another was stolen away by a competitor. But those were isolated instances that likely would have happened anyway. At least those individuals spoke well of their former boss. More important, they became good competitors who did nothing but improve the competitive culture in the surrounding marketplace.

Maybe the biggest advantage of all this generic development to the dealer was his personal satisfaction that he was surrounded by key people who "got it." They began to understand basic management principles as he did. They approached problems from a more strategic point of view. They were less "bulls in a china shop" and more effective performers. They even helped reduce the dealer's stress: As more of his people understood leadership and management principles, they became better strategic thinkers and planners. "Now I have allies" was his feeling.

When I worked for Lee Iacocca at Chrysler,I watched as he employed a similar management strategy. Chrysler was going broke in the early '80s, but Iacocca made sure all members of his leadership team, from vice presidents to zone and district managers in the field, took at least a couple of basic management courses each year. That investment in training could have easily been a quick candidate for budget cuts. Instead, it gave his team a measure of hope and confidence that all would be OK — and eventually it was.

So, even though the powersports industry is in a slight downturn, investing in the development of your people can be a plus to your dealership's profits, as other dealers shrink, hide and cut.

I've adopted this great dealer's (and Iacocca's) management philosophy over the years and enjoyed several AMA courses myself. Naturally, there are many training courses available, probably in your area. Search for "management training" on the Web, and see if there's yet another way to improve your dealership's performance.

Clark Vitulli is a Harley-Davidson dealer in St. Augustine, Fla. Contact him via editors@dealernews.com.