Powersports professors: Dealership University takes training one step further

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Here’s a quick quiz. Who receives more official training before jumping into the job, the average powersports salesperson or the average counter worker at McDonald’s? If you guessed the gig in dealership sales, you’ve likely never heard of Mickey D’s highly structured employee training.

How about a job as a Disneyland cast member versus a spot at a dealership parts counter? The mouse wins.

It’s no secret that outside of a dealership’s service area, there’s a dearth of professional training and education for most dealership employees. Some OEMs and aftermarket manufacturers address this with their own brand-specific sales training, but by and large, much of the learning that takes place inside a powersports store is of the on-the-job variety.

Yes, it’s exciting work being immersed daily in the world of one’s passions, but it’s also a gig selling $10,000-to-$20,000 vehicles in an environment — retail — that’s often said to be nearly as difficult as the restaurant business. Especially now. With the industry riding an economic collapse that’s seen a huge drop in sales, you’re looking at a time when training might be the one thing that’ll keep you in the black.

“We’re up against a very tough opponent in this new economy and it’s making it tougher on a business that was already difficult to begin with. Sure we had 14 years of straight growth, so we all like to look back now and act like it used to be easy,” says Rod Stuckey, founder and president of Dealership University. “But the fact is there were very few dealers, even back then, driving Mercedes and stowing cash under the mattress in their offshore yacht. It’s always been a tough business.

“Sure, in years past the market’s been strong enough that some sloppiness could be afforded but not anymore. The way I look at this new economy, this new market is that a dealer attempting to be successful without investing in training, [is] like Lance Armstrong showing up for the Tour de France without training. You’re almost setting yourself up for failure.”

The way Stuckey sees it, the time is right for what could be considered the professionalizing of the powersports industry. There’s a confluence of factors — shrunken economy, changing customer base, dramatic shift in business marketing techniques — that’s forcing dealers to think smarter and more strategically about how they run their dealerships. They may still be enthusiasts, but they better also be very serious about the performance of their businesses.

Just put an ear to the industry, and you can hear talk about the need for better training coming from every corner. The launch of the Dealer Expo Learning Experience in February 2011 at Indy. Tucker Rocky’s using online videos to help increase product knowledge. Distributors urging their reps to be consultative sellers, not order takers. The newly launched Motor sport University offering online, interactive training for various aftermarket brands (it’s currently focused on those owned by the Motorsport Aftermarket Group). And at least one dealership that has built its own training programs.

So what’s the path to success (or survival)? Stuckey and Powersport University general manager Tory Hornsby, believes it’s adopting best practices and systems through training and education, an area of the powersports business he knows well. Stuckey launched Dealership University in 2004 after owning and operating four dealerships in the Atlanta area before selling them to America’s PowerSports.

By turning his focus to providing on-demand, online training, Stuckey took the lessons learned in developing his dealerships’ own operations manuals and pushed his company to the front line of product and sales training for the industry. His company now offers the online courses, training videos, on-site workshops, workbooks and a program that develops private-label curricula for OEMs and aftermarket manufacturers. Dealership University has worked on programs for Kawasaki, KTM, KYMCO, Triumph and Polaris to name a few. Another company he owns, PowersportsMarketing.com, focuses on helping dealers weave their way through the exponential changes in how they market their businesses.

“In the past, the only way to get someone professionally trained was to put them on an airplane. Unfortunately, that’s not always practical because the training isn’t available when you bring the employee aboard or … the expense and the time doesn’t fit into the budget,” Stuckey says. “We thought that bringing training to the dealer would be a huge benefit.” By offering programs on demand, dealers can help instill the desired behaviors in employees right out of the gate, he adds.

“The game has changed exponentially in the past three years. It’s not just about training the team from an operations perspective. There’s also the need for training on how to properly market the dealership to generate sales in addition to increasing the frequency of visits from past and present customers,” he says.

High-tech roadblocks

Right from the get-go, Stuckey knew that Dealership University couldn’t target 100 percent of the country’s dealer body. He was planning to use leading-edge technology to deliver some fairly high-level best business practices. All of this when not only did many dealers not have high-speed Internet access, but some stores didn’t have any computers available outside the parts desk or the management office. This is still a problem with many dealerships, where ancient computers and low-grade technology are the norm, he adds.

Stuckey believes he’s positioned himself as a leader in e-learning for when the industry — from every aftermarket member of the MIC to most dealers — catches up. He’s also looking to tap into the current generation’s need for instant gratification by offering a variety of resources that are available right now. These include different curricula for sales and F&I, P&A and service, featuring such courses as systemic selling, buying strategies, inventory control, merchandising, and service selling.

For many of these areas, dealers can adopt the materials and incorporate them into their store’s operations.

“We have what we call the Million Dollar Resource vault and collection of system tools. We have job descriptions, training checklists, employee evaluation tools and operations manuals that are in Word and Excel,” he explains. “Take them, put your dealership logo on them and modify them with things unique to your dealership.”

To do this on a large scale, Dealership University uses a software application called a Learning Management System, or LMS, which is the same platform used by colleges and universities and allows the training programs to be organized, administered and tracked.

While e-learning has been the main focus of the business since it started, Stuckey says he believes in a blended approach to education, one that includes live training in addition to ongoing instruction.

“My father and I operated four dealerships in the Atlanta area. Because we had four dealerships at any given time, one store could be run absentee owner,” he says. “We put operational policies and procedures into a series of departmentalized dealership operations manuals and kind of found out the hard way that just because you have your systems in writing, it’s really difficult to quantify which employees have completed what training.

“We also learned the hard way that retention from just reading or referencing a manual is minimal. We really knew at that point we had to take our training a step further. We knew it needed to have repetition, testing, and most importantly, it needed to be ongoing. That’s when we began taking our operations manuals and putting them into online training courses and certification programs that were 100 percent trackable,” he says.

And the products seem to resonate with some dealers, especially those who value training as an essential part of running a dealership. One such person is Steve Littlefield, the owner of Central Texas Powersports, a Top 100 store in Georgetown, Texas.

Littlefield says he’s had a pretty good track record using the Dealership University and PowersportsMarketing.com tools, adding that he uses the sales, service writer and P&A sales training programs with the majority of his employees. And while he knows that now, more than ever, customers demand a good sales process, he’s been using structured training programs for years.

“We just can’t get enough training. It’s really good to continuously train and watch and study the videos and handbooks,” he says. “But you get into the daily grind and you forget the sales process because when you’re in the middle of it, it’s easy to forget how to take control of the sale. There are steps in the sales process to get it back to where you’re in control of the sale.” Trickle-down training

So if training and education are the keys to success, where does one start? At the top with the dealer principal, says Hornsby, Dealership U’s general manager and Stuckey’s longtime colleague.

“It needs to be a priority from upper management in the dealership,” Hornsby says. “That’s a huge challenge because if he or she doesn’t care, it flows downhill. … You can’t hold your employees accountable for best practices if dealer principals and management don’t know what they are.”

Another reason this sort of management-driven focus is successful, he adds, is that if the owner is engaged and involved in the learning process, it becomes part of the dealership culture. Training is focused on learning that must then be put into action, and this is something that needs to be tracked and quantified.

“Behavior modification is extremely difficult, and our natural tendency is to revert back to old ways when we have no accountability. Without the dealer principal’s involvement it’s very unlikely that there is any accountability,” he says. “Without accountability, newfound knowledge, no matter how impactful it could be to the bottom line, is wasted.”

Dealers must also understand that training and education is an ongoing process and, as such, needs to focus on keeping themselves and their employees up to speed.

At a time when store staff and expenses are being cut, this can be a challenge. Dealers contacted by Dealernews for this story say that while they’ve used Dealership University and other training programs and independent 20 groups in the past, the current economy and reduced manpower have forced most of them to scale back on spending.

However, if a dealer wants to position his or her store for when business returns, cutting back in the essential areas might not be the best course of action, Stuckey says. They need to focus on high-level management operations (see sidebar), on developing systems, on best practices, on better marketing skills, and on what Stuckey calls SWAPP: Selling skills, Work habits, Attitude, Product knowledge, and Phone and web skills. All things important for store employees.

“You have to have quantification in your dealership. What gets measured gets done,” Stuckey says. “If you look at the dealers who are still surviving, who are even thriving in this market, those are the guys who are running the business like a business. It doesn’t mean you can’t have fun, and it doesn’t mean you can’t be passionate about it. It means you’ve got to look at this thing like a business and make logical decisions based on factual data rather than emotional decisions based on perceptions.”

This story originally appeared in the Dealernews November 2010 issue.