Every dealership claims to have a great support system for its sales staff, but Friendly Chevrolet Inc. in Springfield, Ill., just spent millions of dollars to prove it.
Last October, the dealership cut the ribbon on a new 30,000-plus square-foot building, complete with new- and used-car showrooms, shiny service bays and a retail display parts department, all in the middle of the new Prairie Crossing Automall in Springfield.
'The salespeople were so excited, they were ready to go even before it was finished,' says Susan Lang- heim, Friendly Chevrolet president. 'I told them we didn't even have computers installed yet, but they said, `We don't care! We'll treat it as an off-site sale.' '
Sales staff retention has been a nonissue at Friendly Chevrolet since the announcement of the new construction. The auto mall is home to Friendly's 85-employee Chevrolet dealership, as well as Honda and Saturn outlets. The city's Ford dealership will move there soon.
The mall is in the midst of Springfield's burgeoning retail hub, adjacent to an interstate highway.
'It's a tremendous convenience for customers,' says Langheim, who keeps an inventory of 500 cars on site. 'They don't have time to drive to dealerships all over town. They like the idea of parking their cars and being able to browse through several dealerships.'
What the customer likes, the sales staff loves. Floor traffic at Friendly Chevrolet has increased 25 percent since the move. Lang-heim also has added amenities that will allow the sales staff to pamper customers, such as a comfortable waiting area with a complimentary cafe and laptop computer hookups.
The new building is the latest example of Friendly's commitment to sales success, but it is not the only one. Langheim believes it is management's responsibility to help get the customers in the door, a philosophy she learned from her father, John Schroeder, who founded the dealership 34 years ago.
'We have to do our part to help our salespeople be successful,' she says. 'That means providing a great environment and letting the public know what we have to offer.'
Getting the word out is Langheim's forte. The dynamic blonde may be central Illinois' most recognizable auto dealer, thanks to her high-energy TV ads. She can be seen almost daily touting Chevrolet cars and trucks, and offering specials to lure shoppers.
Younger car buyers know her from school, softball and the other events that constitute the schedule of an active mother of six children. Older buyers, who bought their first car from her father, remember the teen-ager who began working with her dad at age 15.
In the auto industry, those kinds of connections bring in customers. Not surprisingly, Langheim is viewed as one of the sales staff's most important assets.
At the same time, Langheim does not neglect the traditional methods of sales staff retention.
Friendly Chevrolet provides continuing training in product familiarity and selling skills. While the sales staff works on commission, the dealership frequently guarantees a salary for several months at the beginning of employment to encourage newcomers to persevere through the early, often lean days.
'We take our time with them, and show them how to build a client base,' Langheim says.
Benefits include health, dental and life insurance, health club memberships, paid vacations and a 401(k) plan. Rewards for sales contests include trips to Cancun, Mexico.
Beyond that, Langheim says she simply follows her dad's example: 'You treat people fairly and you don't take any employee for granted.'