Customer relationship management has changed the automobile retail industry right along with a multitude of corporate giants. Although lagging in the embracement of CRM compared to other industries, the efforts of dealership teams across the country to more efficiently cultivate new and returning customers has had a profound effect on the industry. Most notably is the sharp decline in lot traffic; because of the Internet trend, buyers are choosing store contact by e-mailing and calling, or in more cases, sales professionals are staying in touch with customers and recapturing them as they enter their buying cycle. This trend is a daunting notion for new comers and the old school methodologies of our industry who are more acutely dependent upon lot traffic. However, my goal is not to recap what has happened in the automobile retail industry, but rather provide a vision for the future of the CRM era.

Impact GroupBefore we continue, it is imperative that you are comfortable with the fundamental differences between management and leadership. Management is about serving processes, while leadership is about influencing people. Managers build rule sets through which their subordinates are forced to follow through a given process. Leaders build desire in people so they, the followers, choose to utilize a given process. In our industry, managers are often concerned with making sure everyone is jumping through the appropriate hoops, while leaders are concerned with growing people who prefer jumping through the right hoops in order to grow.  Leaders create the vision and make it become reality.

To help concrete your understanding of leadership versus management, picture Bill Lumbergh from the movie Office Space, coffee cup in hand, explaining to Peter Gibbons that according to a recent memorandum, Peter is in error and thus in trouble because he failed to attach a cover sheet to his latest TPS report. Instead of focusing on why Peter failed to attach a cover sheet, Bill Lumbergh proceeds to send Peter another copy of the memo. This is management – focused solely on processes. If Bill Lumbergh had only practiced leadership versus management, his goal would have been to help Peter build internal motivation to always attach the appropriate cover sheet while pointing out why it is important. I hope this paints a better picture for you to conceptualize leadership versus management.

So are you ready for your paradigm shift for the day? I hope so because if you can embrace what I discuss in the rest of this article, you will be better and your dealership will be better. Ready… CRM is now CRL. Customer relationship leadership is the future of our business because building value in people will produce the greatest long-term success for everyone involved in your dealership.

Customer Relationship Leadership Fundamentals

Lead Yourself First

One of the most important leadership fundamentals is to lead by example, and it’s a cornerstone at every level of your dealership. This starts by holding yourself to a higher standard. If you are required to spend three hours per week in the business development center, spend five or six. When you receive an e-mail lead, call the prospect immediately to schedule an appointment. When you are shooting the breeze with co-workers, reallocate some of that time to learning more about your products or to increasing your sales skills. Regardless of your position, people will take note.

Leadership Is Not Reserved For Your Boss And Your Boss’s Boss

If you are the boss, your opportunity to lead is obvious. However, if you’re not the boss, it may be more difficult to understand how and where you can lead. In this case, your leadership opportunities will either reside with leading your peers or leading your bosses. In both situations, influence is vital. Be willing to invest in your working relationships and spend time developing friendships throughout your dealership. As you gain emotional influence with your peers, they will respond to your higher standard, and as a result, the bar will be raised.

Because it makes good business sense to engage our employees, what is the most effective way to make this happen? If we can’t use our benefits program to differentiate ourselves, because our program looks so similar to everyone else’s, and if we can’t use our pay plan options, then what lever can we pull, what discipline can we institute, what process can we install to beat our competitors at employee engagement?

Leadership Is Being Creative

Leader vs BossAn example of creativity could be to capture the stories of your best performers in each role.  Start by conducting CRL focus groups with performers who consistently excel on every or at least most performance levels in their position. During these focus groups, listen for stories, vignettes, and detailed examples of why they are so very good at what they do. Record these stories on video, then use them in training classes for the team to see, broadcast them at all-company gatherings, re-cut them for use at job fairs and other recruiting events, and where appropriate, insert them into your advertising campaigns. It is not important that your employees are articulate in describing their successes – in fact, the more unrehearsed they appear, the more compelling they will be. What is important is that you capture their “excellence-in-action” vividly and authentically.

This disciplined study of your top performers will serve a number of purposes. First, it will build an understanding of best practices. Studying internal best practices has received a good deal of play recently, and right that it has. In the ‘90s, many organizations chose to conduct external best practice studies. While some gleaned intelligence from these studies, today most organizations have redirected their focus internally. They have realized that examples of their own employees excelling are more relevant to their employees than examples skimmed from other organizations.

These are just a few of the methodology ideas for creating a more CRL focused store.  The more you push in these directions the more you will reap the benefits.


Chuck Barker

Chuck Barker has been CEO of his two companies, Impact Marketing & Consulting Group, LLC and Impact Summit, LLC, for the last 24 years, both located in Virginia. His experience ranges from an executive with Harris Corporation (16,000 employees) one of Fortune Magazine’s largest companies to the automobile industry where he has performed all executive positions. His companies specialize in growing businesses, dealerships and people. He delivers unparalleled sales & service development programs, management leadership workshop programs and dealer/principal business & profit improvement ideas for automobile dealerships. He has recently published the first comprehensive ‘in-house’ sales training solution program for dealers entitled The Dealership Success Guide.