What's on dealers' minds -- and what's not

A small group of Florida dealers gathered last week at a Fort Lauderdale hotel to share best practices.

Automotive News hosted the roundtable in conjunction with Ally Auto. The group swapped best-practices ideas and then talked about some of the challenges auto retailers will face over the next decade and how they might turn those challenges into opportunities.

The sessions were off the record, so I’m not going to offer details of what was said. But what was unsaid intrigued me.

The group kept returning to the same major themes. Finding and recruiting good employees. Setting up a compensation package and career path to keep them. Building service business. Cultivating customer loyalty after the purchase.

What was missing? Nobody talked about how to get customers to come to their dealership or Web site, or how to close the deal.

There was some talk about building the dealership’s brand, say to compete against a heavyweight store a few miles away. But the fundamental issues of marketing and selling were not top of mind for these dealers. Instead, they zeroed in on people and processes.

Part of me wonders if that was a function of where we are in the auto-sales cycle. Sales are still rising. Dealerships may battle for the last five sales of the month, but the first five are walking in the door. When the downturn comes, as it will, dealers’ focus may shift.

But I think the discussion topics also reflected lessons learned in the recession. Dealers were reminded not too many years ago that having the right people and processes is critical to making money in bad times. And now, they know that’s how to make a lot more in good times.

Ignore those, and it doesn’t matter how many deals you close. You risk becoming the butt of the old joke: “We lose $1,000 on every car, but we make it up in volume.”

You can reach James B. Treece at jtreece@crain.com

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