Fast track Featured

8:00pm EDT May 26, 2007

W.W.B.D.

Bert Boeckmann’s wife first heard it on one of the sales floors at Galpin Motors Inc. a while back, as a salesman was relaying an issue to his manager.

“Well, W.W.B.D.?” the manager said in response.

Boeckmann’s wife stopped and asked the manager what the abbreviation stood for.

“What would Bert do?” the manager replied. “When we’re not sure what to do, we always stop and ask, ‘What would Bert do?’”

Later on, Boeckmann’s wife told him about the exchange. Boeckmann, a 55-year veteran of the auto sales industry in Los Angeles, found the manager’s words both humorous and telling.

“I think it’s probably the fact that I’ve been here 50-plus years and the example I’ve set,” Boeckmann says. “I think it does permeate our business. It’s a reason we’ve set sales records no one else has.”

From starting out at Galpin as a salesman in 1953, to taking over as president in 1963, to becoming the majority owner in 1964 and sole owner in 1968, Boeckmann has made customer service and well-trained employees the calling cards of Galpin, a company that has grown to become the top dog among California car dealers with more than $700 million in annual sales, including well-known auto brands such as Ford, Volvo, Honda and Saturn.

He has done it by creating and closely maintaining a company culture that begins with detailed training both in the classroom and at the dealership, training that is constantly honed through meetings and other interaction between management and employees.

After more than half a century, Boeckmann says he’s learned that having a winning culture is not about secret formulas. It’s about common sense, knowing what you want to value as a company and communicating that to your employees.

A servant’s attitude

As Galpin has grown, keeping every employee on the same page has become a monumental task. The company now employs about 1,200 people, and all of them have to embrace the same values.

Boeckmann says keeping the message simple has become very important. With that in mind, he has distilled the overarching mindset he wants his employees to exhibit down to a four-word directive:

“Have a servant’s attitude.”

Boeckmann says that you can never lose sight of the reason why you are in business, and it’s not just to sell your product or service. It’s to take care of the people who use your product or service.

“We have no reason to be here unless we serve our customers the way they deserve to be treated,” he says. “A lot of people say, ‘I don’t want to be a servant,’ but that’s not what we’re talking about. We’re here for a paycheck, but if you’re working just for a paycheck, you might not be serving the customer the way you should. But if you are serving the customer the way you should, you’ll definitely get a paycheck.”

Boeckmann trains Galpin employees, particularly those who interface with customers, to be sticklers for detail. It goes beyond doing what the customer expects you to do and reaches another level of anticipating what might go wrong during and after the purchase process, and doing whatever possible to eliminate inconvenience for customers.

Boeckmann says Galpin was among the first to make loaner cars available for customers having their cars serviced. As society has become more fast-paced, Galpin has taken steps to reduce the time necessary to make a car purchase, such as appraising trade-ins while a customer shops.

“We try to reflect a real joy in serving our customers and taking away the fear and dread of the buying process. That’s really what we train for.”

Boeckmann says that if you want a culture of service to sink in, you have to immerse your employees in it by setting an example from the top down every day. Along with that, regular training sessions can help to reinforce the lessons you are teaching.

“In the training, we reinforce our ethics, which is really no more than being honest and transparent with the customer,” he says. “That’s really the key. Everything we train for, everything we do, is built around the customer.”

Boeckmann says developing great customer service is really rooted in making your customers believe that you are genuinely interested in the experience they are having with your company. An interaction that might be purely transactional to you, might be an experience that has an emotional impact on a customer, and that is something you should always remember and cascade throughout your organization.

“You not only want to treat people in the way you want to be treated, but if you can, to go beyond that and do something that is of a greater benefit to the customer. If there is a problem, we want to take care of it. We want them to feel that we are interested in whatever experience they are going to have with us.”

Effective communication

Every week, Boeckmann and his two sons, who also help run the business, meet with Galpin’s entire sales staff. They do the same with the company’s managers, usually during lunch.

The meetings are an opportunity for everyone to get in a room and meet face to face, the communication method Boeckmann prefers above all others. Boeckmann and his sons announce upcoming events and review what the company is trying to accomplish. Managers and salespeople are given an opportunity to provide feedback and voice their own concerns.

“When you work for Galpin, whether it’s Galpin Ford, Lincoln-Mercury, Volvo, Aston Martin, Mazda, Saturn, Honda, you’re working for Galpin and you need to adhere to the Galpin philosophy,” he says. “So every week, I am with our salesmen, seeing what issues they have.”

Boeckmann values face-to-face communication the most because it is the method that offers the most immediate feedback. While it can be time-consuming and not always practical, he says in-person communication should be how you operate whenever possible.

“In face-to-face communication, you’re looking at the other person and you can tell an awful lot,” he says. We communicate better when we see facial expressions. I can tell if you understand what I am saying, if you’re a little bit perplexed or if you have a question just by looking at you.”

Though the 76-year-old Boeckmann says he finds e-mail and other forms of Internet communication annoying at times, he also says it is a valuable tool that should not be overlooked, particularly when it comes to internal communication.

“It’s still a tremendous way to communicate. It’s a tremendous way for the assistants in our business to communicate with each other.”

Galpin uses e-mail as one of the staples of its communication with customers. Whenever someone purchases a car, the associate handling the sale asks for an e-mail address, which serves as a way to not only notify customers of upcoming promotions, but also as a way to get feedback on their experience with Galpin.

Customer feedback is an important part of the communication formula in any business. Boeckmann says it serves two main purposes: To improve the customer experience and to educate employees on how to do their jobs better.

“We solicit feedback when we sell a car, we ask the customer upfront if there is anything they’re unhappy with,” he says. “We also follow up by telephone for every service visit.”

If you want to have a company that has successful, long-term relationships with customers, you need to learn to see every piece of customer feedback, positive or negative, as an opportunity to improve.

Handling dissatisfied customers is one of the most difficult areas in which to train an employee, but Boeckmann says it’s well worth the training time.

“A lot of our people talk among themselves and they say, ‘I really don’t want to call an unhappy customer,’” he says. “But I tell them, ‘Wait, that’s an opportunity, not a negative.’”

He says employees who work in an environment where open communication is valued are employees that are more likely to communicate well with customers. A dissatisfied customer who has his or her problem addressed in a timely fashion could very well become a satisfied customer, and one who sticks with your company because you took care of them.

“It may take a little time and a little patience, but if a customer comes in to see me with a problem, our secretaries have a joke about how long it will take before we’re all laughing,” he says. “If you handle it right, they can end up as even more loyal customers than they were before. You not only didn’t lose them, they are a stronger customer than they were before.”

The importance of recognition

You can prepare employees for their jobs, give them the tools to succeed and communicate with them every day. But it’s only part of the battle.

Once employees have taken all the ammunition you’ve given them and turned it into something that benefits the company, Boeckmann says you must recognize what they’ve done, or they won’t repeat it.

“Regardless of who you are, you’d like to know you’re doing the job the way the people you work for want the job done,” he says. “All of us like to be recognized if we’re trying very hard to accomplish something and are successful at it.”

He says that if you want to reward employees for going above and beyond the call of duty, you must first define what the call of duty is, then acknowledge when someone does more than that.

“It’s important that the person knows what their job is. Any time they do their job very successfully or exceed what we would expect, it’s important to recognize them, particularly in front of others.”

At Galpin, employees are awarded a pin for their anniversaries of employment every five years. Salespeople receive recognition rings for meeting certain sales objectives.

Boeckmann says it’s not really about the material gifts. The gifts are symbolic of management’s gratitude for a job well done. That is what employees are seeking above all — even if a monetary gift does help to sweeten the pot.

“If a guy does something that made a lot of money for the company and they thank him, that would be nice. If they give him some kind of financial reward to go with that, it would be very nice. But there might have been some circumstance where he treated a customer very well and they wrote back a glowing letter, and he certainly wouldn’t have expected a $20 bill included with that.”

But the best kind of recognition to Boeckmann is the kind that signifies that a company is going to have a strong customer base for a long time. All the individual recognition Galpin gives to its employees is aimed at encouraging them to provide a level of service that keeps customers — the lifeblood of any business — coming back.

“When I walked into my office recently, there was a letter sitting on my desk that had just arrived,” he says. “It said, ‘We’re still with you 41 years and 24 cars later.’ That’s really where our focus is and where we come from.”

HOW TO REACH: Galpin Motors Inc., www.galpin.com