If American Suzuki Motor Corp. took out a personal ad tomorrow, it might read like this:
Small import brand with lots of ambition seeks salespeople for a long-term relationship. Will wine you, dine you, treat you right. Can you trust someone who has made some mistakes in the past? Looking for the real thing, not a six-month fling.
Pushing to boost its U.S. market share, American Suzuki has been courting the favor of its sales force in a big way. It has launched a half dozen new programs, ranging from a new magazine for salespeople to a new department dedicated to sales training.
The goal: Make sellers think of Suzuki as a viable, dynamic franchise with which they'll want to stay. This is from the company that fought slumping sales and lingering concerns about alleged rollover tendencies in the early 1990s.
It also is an effort to fight a problem common among small brands: salespeople who cut their teeth selling a make such as Suzuki and then leave after a few months to sell Fords or Toyotas.
'You're only as good as your front-line troops,' said Jim Bagan, managing partner at Roger Bearsley Suzuki South in Austin, Texas, and a member of Suzuki's National Dealer Advisory Council. 'A lot of the dealer body frustration that we have felt over the years is that we weren't able to retain the type of people in the stores that we needed.'
Now, under the leadership of Rick Suzuki, the company is trying to triple its market share to 1 percent (about 160,000 vehicles) over the next few years. The plan includes increasing the number of dealers from 281 in 1998 to more than 400 in 2000. Now there are 330.
To get those salespeople to stay put, Suzuki has rolled out a series of spiffs and training tools:
The creation in May of a new department of sales development. This was among the first big moves made by Rick Suzuki when he took over as president of American Suzuki. This department is responsible for making salespeople excited about Suzuki, and giving dealers tools to make selling easier. Included in the department is Alan Bethke, American Suzuki's first-ever national sales training manager.
The launch in June of a revamped certification and incentive program, called Suzuki Automotive Leadership Elite, or SALE, program. It encourages salespeople to become Suzuki certified so they can earn extra perks for selling cars. A certified seller who sells 30 cars, for example, will get a marble business card holder and already will have earned a set of business cards, an engraved pen and a framed certificate from Suzuki along the way.
Prizes are sent out every three or four months. Last year, salespeople had to wait for a lump prize at the end of the year. 'We didn't get a lot of mileage out of that, if you know what I mean,' Bethke said. More than 1,500 sellers have become certified since the revamped program was introduced.
The launch in November of Road Warriors, a monthly magazine aimed at salespeople. It will include articles on selling and the success stories of salespeople around the country. 'It will have a real kind of cutting edge to it,' Bethke said. 'We're talking about the stuff salespeople want to hear about here. It's not your corporate mumbo jumbo.'
Improved pocket information guides that compare Suzuki products to competitors with a section outlining key Suzuki advantages. The guides were trimmed to one-third of last year's size by cutting out pictures and gushy 'ad copy' salespeople don't need, Bethke said. Suzuki also plans to get the guides out in October instead of late December and then issue updated guides halfway through the model year.
A $100 bonus for each car sold, paid by American Suzuki. This goes on top of cash incentives offered by dealers.
An upcoming training video will cover the full line of Suzuki automobiles. Until now, videos were only made for specific model launches, such as the Grand Vitara.
Bethke said these programs are working in tandem with a new national advertising presence that will help draw more customers into Suzuki showrooms. National advertising was virtually nonexistent before the Grand Vitara launch in 1998. The latest effort is a three-year, $35 million sponsorship of college football's Heisman trophy.
American Suzuki does not have statistics on the retention rate of salespeople. Rising sales will help. Suzuki sales in the first 10 months of 1999 were 41,414, up 28 percent compared to the same period last year.
But salespeople say they can see a difference in the way Suzuki treats them.
'We see the Suzuki people around here a lot more often now,' said Kevin Ulmer, a salesman at Heller Ford-Mitsubishi-Suzuki in Escondido, Calif. 'We're constantly being updated.
'Let's put it this way; when I first came here, I don't remember many Suzukis being sold. In the last year, we've probably at least tripled to quadrupled what we did.'
In early October, Neal Jeffries moved from a Chrysler dealership to sell Suzukis at Firkins Suzuki in Bradenton, Fla. He said it makes sense that a smaller company such as Suzuki would do more to attract and keep quality salespeople.
'If you have to work harder, then you work harder,' he said. 'They're spiffing us left and right.'
At a training program just after he started selling Suzukis, for example, Jeffries went home with a Suzuki watch, some extra cash and a stomach full of free food. He turned down the T-shirt.
'They want to stay in contact with the dealers and keep them pumped up,' he said. 'It was a very refreshing program.'
Jim Bagan, the Texas dealer, said the extra attention, coupled with the national advertising and the hot-selling Vitara line, have made it easier for his five salespeople to buy into Suzuki as a viable franchise.
'Instead of moving up to maybe the easier product to sell ... they'll stay home with Suzuki and keep cultivating their customer base there,' he said. 'In the last year, we've been able to stabilize the sales force.
'I have not had a salesman leave the Suzuki store in eight months. That's no small feat.'