Mutual consideration: It's a code of conduct that works

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I learned a valuable life lesson about 30 years ago, one that became more important to me as I grew both in age and in personal experiences. I was 26 when I applied for a flat-rate mechanic’s position at the now defunct Camelback Honda, previously located in central Phoenix. I interviewed with service manager John Sarno, a New York native about 40 years old, who looked nothing like a biker. Sarno had slick black hair and a mustache, and wore dress shoes, casual slacks and a button-down shirt. It was disconcerting at first, but his knowledge of the motorcycle business was impressive, so I paid him due respect.

I interviewed for about 20 minutes until there was just one more crucial question he had to ask. My answer would decide more than just whether or not I would roll my tool cabinet into Sarno’s dealership on Monday; it would set a code of conduct that directed our interactions going forward. Sarno asked me, “Will you promise to take care of me if I take care of you?”

I remember my initial thought being, who does this guy think he is, the Godfather?

But, being that I needed the job, I politely asked, “What do you mean?” Sarno explained, “You’re a commissioned mechanic, but there may be times when I need you to take care of something off the clock, so I won’t be able to pay you.”

“Then how will you take care of me?” I asked. “Don’t worry. I will,” Sarno replied.

It only took three days to test our handshake agreement. Sarno came to me with a job that would take about an hour to complete. When I asked for the repair order he said, “Just do the work and I’ll take care of you later.” I can remember time moving very slowly as I waited for Sarno to make good on his end of the deal. And he did. The next day, he gave me two first services that I could make easy money on. The arrangement had worked. And, as time went on I developed a profound respect for Sarno who, with a simple code of conduct, controlled the relationships he had with his techs, our customers and the other departments.

A TWO-WAY STREET
In speaking of other departments, it’s common knowledge that there aren’t many dealerships where the parts and service departments have a great relationship. The personalities at Camelback Honda were probably no different than yours. Our techs were pretty much antisocial people who hated paperwork, and our parts staff nit-picked every detail. Our parts manager at the time was Dennis Evans, a guy who took his job responsibilities very, very seriously. If my R.O. didn’t list all the parts I used on the job, he’d blow up — sometimes by physically throwing the R.O. back at me. And, if I dared enter his parts storage area without permission, he’d chase me out while spewing derogatory remarks.

Sarno ran block for me when I got sideways with Evans. He’d promise Evans that I’d do better next time and made the commitment to “owe Evans one” in payment for my misdeeds. Then Sarno reminded me that he had taken care of me and now I needed to take care of him, which might mean doing a side job at a discount to appease a customer. The code worked 95 percent of the time. If it didn’t, it was because an individual didn’t respect the code. After three strikes, Sarno let him go — this included staff, customers and reps. Don’t respect the code? You weren’t part of Sarno’s world.

BUSINESS RELATIONSHIPS 101
Take care of me and I’ll take care of you is a code of conduct that inspires productive relationships with managers, co-workers, customers and the reps of manufacturers and distributors. The code is simple: Get the commitment that the other person will take care of you if you take care of them. When you ask for a favor, promise the other person that you will take care of them in the future (and make sure you do.) When you do a favor, point out this was an example of taking care of them, so they are aware of your extra effort. If the other person fails to take care of you, remind them of the agreement and let them know you expect them to do better next time.

If the other person does not follow the code of conduct, stop providing the favors until they respond appropriately — or cut them from the herd.

I know this code of conduct works, and more than that, it reduces the personal stress that comes from situations where we’re doing favors and getting little or nothing in return. Personally, I’ll go to great effort to meet and exceed the expectations of the students and clients I serve. Although, when an individual fails to return favors in kind — which can simply be mutual respect and consideration — I reduce or discontinue the extras I provide until the relationship gets back on track. Plus, rather than feeling helpless and stressing out over the situation, I take control of the situation by exercising my right not to go the extra mile when it’s not being appreciated.

It’s my opinion that managers should make this code of conduct part of their M.O. They’ll reduce their personal stress levels and their department will become more productive.

This story originally appeared in the Dealernews October 2011 issue.