McGrath Powersports creates its own 'university' for in-house training


When dealership training programs reach a certain size and depth, they often adopt the moniker “university.” Dealership University welcomes all dealers. Harley-Davidson University and Yamaha Motor University, of course, cater only to their retailers. McGrath University has taken the concept down another step to the retailer level, becoming a terrific example of in-house training that’s standardized.

The program is the creation of Top 100 dealer McGrath Powersports in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, a 27,500 sq. ft. dealership representing Honda, Kawasaki, Polaris and Yamaha. Mike McGrath founded the store in May 2007 after many years of running an automotive group. He diversified with the help of Jeremy Richardson, his general sales manager, who happened to love power­sports.

Richardson is now general manager of McGrath Powersports. He and other employees began developing the training program for front-line vehicle salespeople — whom the store calls “product consultants” — prior to the 2008 selling season. “We hire up come springtime, and we needed a program that would give our employees a solid curriculum and would allow me to hand it off to different managers throughout our store to assist in the training process,” he says. “So if I did Monday, then my sales manager could do Tuesday and we would be on the same page.”

Richardson borrowed ideas and materials from 1) the training programs used at McGrath’s car stores and 2) powersports training DVDs and manuals once offered by the now-defunct RPM Group: things such as road-to-the-sale steps, phone scripts and word tracks for overcoming objections. “We took the two, combined them, and cleaned them up a little bit,” he says. “We have a little younger demographic applying for jobs like this, so we realized we needed to simplify some steps.”

The goal was to combine procedural and vehicle training. “In building the curriculum, we wanted to focus on the road to the sale and then incorporate the units to learn as well,” Richardson says. The result is a 54-page McGrath University manual that outlines nine days of training by the hour from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. It then gives a more general overview of weeks three and four.

The program uses additional reading materials, but it’s the manual that keeps everybody on track. The first day begins with the store’s motto, mission statement and even “salesperson’s creed,” followed closely by the job description, a meeting with H.R., computer passwords, an overview of the sales process, and so on.

Among these beginning subjects are attire and hygiene. Richardson says standardizing these things can prevent (or at least explain) awkward confrontations later on. “I’ve had those conversations after somebody started,” he says. “So I decided that I’m going to tell someone from the first day that this is what’s expected of them. You’re going to shave. You’re going to bathe. You’re going to brush your teeth, do your hair.” Richardson says new employees often need to be reminded of what constitutes a proper retail environment, especially if they’re coming from construction or factory jobs not requiring such a trim person.

Each day’s training is a mixture of sit-down and stand-up. The trainees are “either going through some of the videos or going through some role playing and then getting some product knowledge on the floor,” Richardson says. “We try to break it up so they’re not sitting in our conference room for eight hours a day. That would be grueling.”

A different sales step and vehicle segment are taught each of the first few days, starting with scooters and dual-sports because of their simplicity. “There’s just not a whole lot to them,” Richardson notes. “So not only can we teach them those units in less time, but they get a feel for how we’re teaching them to do a walk-around and the type of knowledge we want them to have about each unit. When you get into your more complex units, obviously that takes more time.

“If we can bang out some of the easier stuff,” he explains, “we can actually use new hires on the floor a little sooner. If we need to put them on the floor for maybe a busy Saturday, there are some customers they can help because they do know something about those particular units. So not only are they learning a little quicker, but they may be feeling a little more comfortable.”

Every day is capped off with a review, and beginning the second day, the first hour of training is a review. “Some younger individuals are going to retain maybe a quarter of what we taught them yesterday, so it’s important that we go through and revisit what we talked about,” Richardson says, adding that misunderstandings are addressed immediately because each lesson is a building block. “Otherwise, all of a sudden we’ve spent two weeks, and they don’t have all the pieces put together.”

On day four, students are asked to explain everything that has gone before and are given both multiple-choice and role-playing tests. The next day, they begin to shadow other employees. On the eighth day, after a few hours of review, they complete a role-play test of the entire road to the sale, a road that ends with their handing off the customer to a manager for negotiation.

Also on the eighth day students often spend part of their lunch break shopping at a competitor to critique the salesperson. Says Richardson: “A hundred percent of the time they come back to me and say something like ‘Holy cow, that person didn’t say hello. I waited on the floor for five minutes before anybody addressed me, and their first question was “Can I help you?”’ “So it gives them a real-world opportunity to see the way not to do it,” Richardson says. “And it gives us the opportunity to reiterate what we’ve been training — why it’s important that we get with folks immediately. … Customers need to know they’re important to us.”

Day nine is a wrap-up of initial training. Students complete any outstanding OEM-specific testing and continue their phone training, role playing, and studying of word tracks. Once they’re done, they “earn their drawer,” a place for their belongings and work-related items. After they make their first sale, they buy the entire sales team pizza. “It’s kind of a right of passage,” Richardson says. “In the car industry you used to get your tie cut. For us, it’s you have to buy the rest of the team pizza — because a lot of the time the rest of the team is assisting you with their knowledge. It’s a little bit of team building.”

Weeks three and four, which are on a looser time schedule, contain further training and testing on more sophisticated sales strategies and word tracks.

The benefits of standardizing

This is just a rough outline of the program. The actual training is highly detailed, taking into account every process used at McGrath Powersports.

Product consultants, for example, fill out trade-in forms with customers before formal appraisals. “The minute the manager comes out, typically people start to take a little different focus,” Richardson says. “So this gives the sales consultants an opportunity to gain a little more rapport with the customer.”

Even experienced new hires must enroll in McGrath University. “If you play football for 10 years for the Browns and then you run over to the Steelers, I’m sure the Steelers have got a different offence,” Richardson says. But that’s not to say he doesn’t respect experience. “We try to tailor the way we’re speaking to them,” he adds.

McGrath Powersports has separate training programs for new hires in parts and service. These programs emphasize the RPM Group videos, but there’s also one-on-one product and LightspeedNXT training. Richardson, for example, recently hired a new parts specialist who first watched the videos, then spent a day with him on helmets, then another day on jackets. McGrath University is more intense and structured because the sales department fluctuates the most. “You are hiring 5-to-1 product consultants versus about any other position,” says Richardson, who’s never done a cost analysis of how much money it takes to train each employee. “I haven’t because training is absolutely necessary. We can’t expect to be the type of a store we want to without quality trained professionals on our floor. But the cost is pretty minimal when you really look at the time we invest,” he says, reiterating that the manual allows the managers to fill in for each other as trainers.

The ongoing program also serves the store’s 30 current employees. “We will put them in the training for a day or two just to give them a refresher,” Richardson says. “Or if somebody is struggling in an area, the programs give them an opportunity to revisit it.” McGrath Powersports also has daily huddles and hourlong training on Saturdays. It even hosts a book club.

McGrath University often weeds out unfit employees before they ever interact with a customer. About 10 percent of students drop out. “Those are typically people who came in with no retail experience,” Richardson says. “They’ve come to understand that their personalities just don’t suit well to the retail world. A lot of times that happens pretty quickly.”

You might assume that McGrath University’s structured training, with every sales step written down, has lead to a conservative environment not conducive to change. But you’d be wrong. The program is not restrictive but freeing. Precisely because everything is written down, procedures can be tweaked and changes quickly disseminated to staff.

Take, for example, the store’s recent decision to remove closing from a sales consultant’s responsibility, a decision partly made to speed up the training process. “Obviously the toughest part — and the scariest part as well — of being a sales­person is presenting final numbers to somebody,” Richardson says. “So now managers do all that.”

Finally, formal in-house training helps ensure employees comply with various regulations. Back when sales consultants closed sales, for example, they were taught how to spread payments without illegally packing them. Another compliance-related lesson is still relevant: the minimum age requirements for ATV use.

This story originally appeared in the Dealernews November 2010 issue.