Commentary: The Life of an Automobile Retailer

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Photo by Randy Stern

What is it like to be a car dealership?

Automotive retailing is a huge business in the USA. It was built on the idea of introducing the public to the automobile. Our Historiography showed how this expanded as a one-stop shop for customers to buy, service and support their vehicles. They have since grown to places where community events happen and an oasis full of amenities for those waiting for service to be completed. They have also expanded into boutiques, where owners and enthusiasts can stock up on goodies to tell the world how much they love their car brand.

Once you get out of a metropolitan area, the car dealership is just one of those small town businesses that serve the public, just like the bank or the antique store or the beauty salon. They seem like a shadow of the big metropolitan dealership, but they serve the same purpose – sell, service and support their customer's vehicles.

Is that all they do? It is certainly the core of the business of being an automotive retailer. Things are not as simple as one thinks anymore in this business. You do not just open up the service department door at 7:30AM on a Monday and think that every customer would just want an oil change. Nor do you think that the one cream puff on the lot will move by the time you close the doors for the day. It is a lot more complicated than that.

The systems used to track inventory and communicate to people are both simple and complicated at the same time. They are also beautiful and ugly simultaneously. But, they work in order to ensure that what is on the lot is properly inventoried for customers to find the right vehicle they need.

Financing is not as simple as it once was. It is no longer a call to a preferred lender to find out whether a buyer qualifies for a loan. There are more integrated systems where multiple lenders have to respond from a single request.

Most dealers have them: the F&I – Finance and Insurance – person. That person usually guides the customer through on the most painful process of the car buying experience: The paperwork. There are newer systems that creates electronic forms that make the paperwork process simpler. Still, the buyer has to navigate through the process before the keys are handed over to their new ride. It could be painful or pleasurable. Still, it is a necessary function within the life of a dealership.

The service area could be anything. Dealers try to keep them clean, tidy and neat. This is done to help raise the confidence of its customers. An old school service area may also speak to experience – one where the floor has been scrubbed for forty years or more and showing its age. Lighting that could be upgraded, but works well with those working in the shop. Still, you want to make sure that the customer's vehicle is in good hands whether they are waiting in the lounge or at their jobsite.

Parts counters run in tow speeds also. Some are truly parts counters, where they stock everything from oil filters to new body panels. Don’t ask them for a t-shirt or a cap. Save that for when you see a merchandise boutique. Some manufacturers can steer you to their website to get them, if you do not see them around the parts counter. It is good to see that some dealerships have become destinations whether enthusiasts, owners and prospective customers can congregate towards brand loyalty.

The heart of the dealership will always be outside of the building. Its precious inventory of new and pre-owned vehicles are made to attract customers online or on the property. Though the internet has eased the pain of looking for the “right one,” we like to run through the lot to see what catches our eye.

Perhaps I am simplifying the life of a dealership a bit too thinly. As much as they follow general business rules and acumen, they are very complex to the customer. Only a few businesses can be as complex in terms of the purchasing experience is concerned. A customer does not simply select a vehicle, pay a cashier and take it home like a laptop or a bed spread.

However, the dealership is wondrous work in motion. Every part of the business works as one cog connecting to another. A service technician will tell you that a cog is only as good as another to work fluidly. These cogs also extend to the marketing and social media efforts put on by the dealership. How do we know you exist? What do we want to know about you? These are questions that are asked every day by both the dealership and the customer. They are answered with a vision of what the dealer portrays to its public. It is a vision that brings both the customer and dealership together. This is truly poetry in motion.

They are also a necessary piece of commerce designed in order for the automotive business to be successful as a whole. A majority of people I know really do not enjoy the car buying experience. They also cringe at the service experience. However, you who work in this industry see it as not just a living, but being a part of a lucrative business that drives the economy on both a local and national level.

The diverse group of men and women that work at a dealership are equal partners in the local economy with the rest of us. Their reputations are transmitted through the customer experience. Yet, it is a complex relationship that has one goal in mind – loyalty. Dealerships earn loyalty form their customers, as much as they earn loyalty from the OEMs and suppliers that service the business. Everyone wants to see happy customers return for service, parts, even a replacement vehicle. If a problem persist, the opportunity to retain a customer’s loyalty will depend on how well they resolve the issue.

These are business tenets customers might not see all the time. They are necessary for the life of the dealership. Consider that the next time you visit one.

It is a privilege to know many people involved in the automotive retail business. Our discussions, exchange of ideas, disagreements…and agreements…make this work worth doing every day. You are general managers, salespeople, service technicians, detailers, parts runners, service advisors, F&I people, IT people…even receptionists. You all participate in the great cycle of commerce that drives this economy. You could be part of a large dealership organization spanning across the country, or just the small town lot miles away from any metropolitan area.

I salute you. I appreciate your efforts. Keep up the good work! Enjoy your Labor Day Weekend!

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