For customers and employees alike, the change in culture over the past few years at Bozard Ford-Lincoln in St. Augustine, Fla., has been like a breath of fresh air.
As evidence, Vice President Letti Bozard points to the difference between the store's old quick-lube operation inside the dealership and the new 12-bay Quick Lane maintenance building. In the old shop, customers sat in a waiting area amid racks of new tires and their pungent odor.
But Bozard, 38, whose grandfather founded the dealership in 1949, said that in designing the new building she wanted the atmosphere to be less "like a bus station with smelly tires" and more like a nice customer lounge.
"We had to explain that to the folks at Quick Lane. They were very concerned," she said. "We sell tires. But we don't want to have [customers] sitting next to a bunch of nasty tires while their oil is being changed."
The Bozard approach to the Quick Lane waiting area typifies the dealership's operating practice today, which is to engage customers in conversations and anticipate and fix problems before customers complain. Also as part of the new culture, Bozard tries to turn online reviews on DealerRater -- sometimes a negative for dealerships -- into a marketing and morale-building tool.
Sources for change
The new culture grew out of several developments: Bozard Ford-Lincoln's enrollment in the Ford Consumer Experience Movement three years ago, its recent participation in the Lincoln Dealer Academy, which teaches employees luxury hotel service techniques, and proactive marketing of its reputation.
The Ford Consumer Experience Movement, spearheaded by Ford vice president Elena Ford, is a voluntary global program designed to improve the dealership experience starting with employee and customer feedback. A third-party auditor surveys employees, and the automaker sends coaches monthly to work on problems. Ford dealerships pay about $12,500 to join the program.
The employee feedback was useful, says Jeff King, Bozard Ford-Lincoln's general manager.
"What the surveys showed us is that while our employees were proud of what they were doing, they weren't involved in it," King says. "It was me and Letti and me and Bo [Bozard, 26, Letti's younger brother and store controller] ringing the bell around town."
Not long after his arrival four years ago, King huddled with his top managers and talked with them about motivating employees to take part in local charity fundraising.
"I said: 'If we can raise $10,000 a month for our local community, the people in the community will respond to us," he said. "I didn't mean giving them $10,000 a month but helping them raise it.
"We don't care about putting our name on the wall of a baseball field unless we've got people playing on that field. We won't sponsor a 5k unless it's a 5k we can get a group of employees participating in."
Old building, old culture
Engaging employees is key to the Consumer Experience Movement, King says. But the old culture had been stubbornly ingrained. Bozard Ford-Lincoln had been in its original building in downtown St. Augustine since 1949. It took a move to the outskirts of town in 2007 to start changing things.
"The [downtown] store had a very negative vibe about it. It had been in bad shape for a couple of years," says King, 50, who was hired by the Bozard family in 2010 after a stint as part owner of a local Toyota store. He was also co-founder of the Automotive Broadcasting Network, which provides digital displays inside dealerships.
Before King arrived, the store had lost money 28 months in a row.
"The first thing we had to do is start celebrating some successes," he says. "You can't run a sales organization with a bunch of negative people. We started finding things that were good, and we started celebrating them."
The store was operating in the black in 30 days, King says.
And whenever a customer gave a positive review of an employee, whether in sales, service or finance and insurance, the dealership would post the review prominently or advertise it in the local newspaper.
Focus on DealerRater
With King spearheading the agenda, Bozard Ford-Lincoln got serious about using online reviews to its advantage. King says Bozard decided to zero in on one customer review site.
"We chose DealerRater," he says. "If you want to be tops in reviews, [you need to] pick one of them and dominate it. To get a positive review from a customer, you have to ask for it."
That responsibility falls to the sales or service employee who works directly with the customer. Says King: "Now we have about 2,000 positive online reviews."
It's easy to bury or cover up a bad review, he adds.
"But that doesn't fix the customer and that's bad," King says. "If we get a negative review, everybody steps up in the dealership and fixes it."
Heather MacKinnon, vice president of national accounts for DealerRater, says Bozard's strength is its high level of employee engagement.
"Typically when I work with a dealer, a lot of the employees, particularly on the sales side, are not engaged particularly -- to the point of not being happy," MacKinnon said.
• Moved Quick Lane lounge area away from smelly tires
• Picked 1 online review Web site and tries to dominate it
• Asks customers for positive reviews
• Advertises employee success stories
• Helps local charities raise money
Talking to customers
King says Bozard Ford-Lincoln wants to engage customers in conversations while they're still in the store, rather than calling them later to follow up.
King gives an example. Customers typically spend an average of one hour and 32 minutes in the dealership's service department waiting area. And often, nobody from the dealership says a word to them and they go home, he says.
"Then you call them back 19 times to make sure your survey is right," King says. "We want to know if something's not right and fix it right now. We don't want to wait until you get home and you're all pissed off."
The cultural transformation has helped bring big results: The store that was selling about new 50 vehicles a month in 2010 is now selling about 180. In the old days, Bozard Ford-Lincoln's customers were mostly from St. Augustine. Now they're from all over the Jacksonville area and beyond.
Says King: "We've got people driving from 300, 400, 500 miles away all the time. You can go on our Web site, look at those reviews. Every third, fourth one says, 'I drove in from Miami or Savannah and Tampa.'"
But, he adds, Bozard had to put the right processes in place to handle the new business.
Bozard no longer has to spend money advertising for employees because the word is out that it's a fun place to work.
Says Letti Bozard: "Most people in a car dealership have worked in another car dealership.
"A lot of them come from places that never even talked about culture. We're not just saying this. We're actually going to live it."