Denise Jones admitted she was skeptical. She had a stereotype - not an especially flattering one - of a new-car dealership and its staff and she took it with her the day she first visited Kuni Cadillac-BMW in Beaver-ton, Ore.
It disappeared as soon as she entered the showroom.
'My first impression was a jaw dropper,' says Jones, who recently celebrated her first anniversary with the company. 'The environment was completely businesslike. The floors were spotless; people were dressed professionally. It was a good atmosphere.'
Jones, a former pediatric nurse, with experience in hospital administration and a flair for program development, had been invited to have lunch with Kuni managers. They knew of her abilities and wanted to talk with her about an idea in a seedling stage.
The Kuni people suspected there was a better way to treat their luxury-vehicle repeat customers than asking them to begin the entire lease renewal or purchase procedure from square one.
'We want to go to them and save them time. We want to personalize service,' they said. 'Can you help?'
'You've gotta be nuts,' Jones thought at first. She knew nothing about cars, and she had never thought of herself in the dealership business. But, she says, she was excited by the open yet businesslike manner of the Kuni people and was curious about their loyalty to the company.
Today Jones is director of the Kuni Corporate Advantage Program, a successful venture she developed as an automotive outsider. And, like hundreds of other Kuni employees in four states, she loves her work and respects the company.
Under the leadership of CEO Wayne Kuni and President Sean Kuni, the firm is known for its open-door policies, competitive pay, opportunities for advancement and progressive management.
'This company is very people-focused,' says Michaelle Davis, director of human resources. 'Employees can talk openly with managers. Sean has high visibility and introduces himself to staff by his first name. Sales managers' offices have no doors.'
The underlying philosophy is that employee enthusiasm creates customer enthusiasm.
Buying or leasing a Cadillac, BMW, Lexus, Land Rover, Buick, Pontiac, GMC or Volkswagen from a Kuni dealership in Oregon, Washington, California or Colorado may be easier than landing a spot on the 500-person employee roster. Davis says she always has plenty of applicants for openings.
'We look for people with strong character,' she says. 'I ask all candidates the same questions. We do personality profiles. Managers are trained to interview candidates.'
Davis, with a graduate degree in psychology, says the prospect who says he or she doesn't have any weaknesses is putting up an image rather than being honest.
'I don't hire people who are just looking for a job,' she says.
Once on the Kuni team, employees get regular job reviews. They are encouraged to talk about problems with their managers. If they are interested in advancing within the department or possibly switching to another, they talk about it with their managers, Davis says.
Even the boss gets into the act. Sean Kuni meets quarterly with new employees.
'We meet in his office,' says Davis. 'He talks about the history of the dealership, expectations and the opportunities at Kuni. He asks them to communicate with their managers, to make their desires known.'
By the same token, employees are apprised of any shortcomings. Managers have been trained to coach staff members, to strengthen their skills.
'We feel it's very important to let employees know of expectations,' says Davis. 'A person might not be selling to his or her potential. The sales manager consistently coaches the sales executives to keep them aware of current goals.'
Denise Jones says she isn't certain how many deliveries she is responsible for through the Corporate Advantage Program. She says the original plan was for her to handle all aspects of that unusual sales approach - Kuni trained her to do so. They soon discovered, especially with BMW products, that knowledgeable salespeople were better equipped to explain vehicle features and answer customer questions.
'I can sit down with a customer in his or her office, do a spreadsheet on my laptop and show them cost comparisons between our products and the competition, and answer financial questions,' says Jones. 'I can have a test vehicle brought to the customer, who may even take it home overnight.
'That gives them a chance to drive without having a salesperson along,' she says. They can talk more openly about likes and dislikes.
High-end customers appreciate personal service and convenience. 'They are willing to pay a fair price for the product,' Jones says. 'If they can get that along with premium service, they are yours.'
The Kuni operation tends to treat its employees as well as its customers. Davis says the company's benefits package is not unusual. It offers health insurance with a top health maintenance organization (in Oregon), has 401(k) plans, vacations of up to three weeks after five years.
But it isn't only certain jobs that qualify for bonuses. High Customer Satisfaction Index numbers will generate extra income for all employees, even those involved in vehicle prep - obviously a key area as those people are among the last to handle a car or truck before it is delivered to the customer.
Davis says she and other managers also are aware of the burn-out positions - those with repetitive tasks. Internal moves are always available to employees who show an interest and aptitude and will take the necessary training.
'The Corporate Advantage Program is accomplishing what I had envisioned,' says Jones. 'My role is different than anticipated.
'We keep the program moldable,' she says. 'I've never enjoyed working with a management group as much as this. Communication is excellent. It's easy to get things done.'