Driving change Featured

7:00pm EDT January 26, 2010

When Scott Willett took over leading Willett Honda South from his father, he had his fair share of problems to deal with.

“He had gone through several general managers, and it had some horrible customer service scores — in fact, some of the worst in the country,” says Willett, who owns the dealership. “That took a long time to turn around.”

The dealership, which had $74.4 million in 2008 sales revenue, eventually changed. By focusing on customer service and having solid people in place, the organization won the President’s Award in 2008, which is Honda’s highest award given to dealers.

“There were 10 dealers that got a perfect score on that out of over 1,000 dealers, and we were one of those 10,” Willett says. “That was a big accomplishment for us. We’ve been working on that for 10 years. I took over the store in 2000 … so that gives you an idea how long it took to get that turned around.”

Smart Business spoke with Willett about how to lead a turnaround in your business.

Get the right people internally. It starts primarily with the top down. I have interest in the dealership, so I take a lot bigger interest in my customers, and once the dealer takes an interest in the customer, then you have to relay that down to the people below you and get the right people that agree with your philosophy in business. That was the biggest thing was just getting the right people and training those people on how to handle problems and how to prevent problems. It’s a lot easier to prevent forest fires than put them out. Generally, I try to bring everybody up within. It gives the people who come on board an incentive to do well because they know that at some point in time, hopefully they can work their way up in management.

Hire other good people. It’s hard to teach an old dog new tricks, so to speak, so I’d try to get someone with a real open mind who’s willing to learn new things, that believes in the same principles as I do. My father was very successful in the car business, and he got that way by fulfilling promises to customers and not taking advantage of a customer and treating them right. It’s important that they have those same philosophies and then work with them and have the patience to have them gel.

An interview, there shouldn’t just be one. There needs to be a couple, and you ask a lot of questions. A lot of times in an interview, it’s the [person doing the hiring] talking about the business and trying to sell the prospective employee on why to come there. My philosophy is to ask questions of that perspective employee and just listen to their answers. It doesn’t take long to figure out what a person’s made of if you ask the right questions, like, ‘What’s your business philosophy on a customer, or how would you go about selling this individual, or what are your strengths or weaknesses?’ and they’ll pretty much tell you, and a lot of times they’ll try to tell you things, but generally, you can see through a lot of that.

Gather ideas from employees. Listen to your employees and get them incentives to come to you with their ideas rather than have them be scared of either being ridiculed for that idea or scared to bring it up for fear of it being rejected.

You’d be absolutely shocked at what great ideas employees can bring to the table if you just ask them. The auto industry has been impacted probably more than other industries, other than homebuilding, in the United States. We had to come up with some real creative ways of reducing expenses and increasing profits to be able to survive the environment.

For example, we have about 75 employees, and I would probably venture to say we have about 30 computers in the dealership. None of those computers turned off at night. It’s a simple program that you can install or activate on the computer for everything to turn off after a certain hour. That can save us thousands of dollars a year, but believe it or not, it took an employee to come up with that idea. There’s little things that can add up.

Get employee reaction and come up with an incentive based program where they don’t just shoot from the hip, and they put some serious thought into what the dealership or what they can do or what the department can do to increase revenue or decrease expenses.

For example, it might be a cost-saving idea that somebody comes up with, and we have a bonus that whatever that saves us, we’ll give the employee 50 percent of the savings for the first month. For example, if they come up with an idea that can save us $1,000 a month, that employee would get $500 that month as an incentive for coming up with the idea.

Improve customer service. Take the time to hire somebody to do a quick phone survey to get the customer’s perspective on how the experience went and then to track that. You can’t expect what you don’t inspect. We get the surveys, we track the surveys, and when we see something below the standards we feel a customer deserves, then we drill into it.

You can hire somebody for probably $8, $9 an hour to make phone calls, and you’ll get enough people to respond to your survey that you get an idea of what’s going on. Then just have meetings and identify problems and make procedures to correct the problem.

Let’s say, for example, the customer picks up their car in service. Was it picked up on time? Did they have to wait five minutes? 10 minutes? We track that, so if we get one per month, more than likely that was an individual problem, but if it’s more like two or three, that’s a procedural problem and we try to drill into that right away.

How to reach: Willett Honda South, (778) 968-1500 or www.willetthondasouth.com