Ray Skillman Auto Group was on a mission in the spring of 2014 to hire more college graduates to help build out a new team of product specialists for the 10-dealership company in Indianapolis.
But a meeting with officials from a local university foreshadowed just how tough it would be to persuade young people to come work at a car dealership.
"They told us, 'We don't want our graduates getting into automotive retail,'" recalls Michael Marlin, director of Skillman's product specialist division. "That about floored us. But that is the perception."
It was a bias that Marlin would have to overcome to help fulfill dealer Ray Skillman's vision of replacing traditional sales consultants with salary-based product specialists. It's an emerging model that some other dealerships have adopted to put customers at ease. The idea: Specialists can focus on how the infotainment system and safety features work, for example, rather than on hitting a monthly number.
That change was radical enough. But it also called for an overhaul of Skillman's recruiting process, which essentially had consisted of classifieds and online listings or word-of-mouth. The group beefed up its social media presence and built a new landing page on its website for product-specialist recruiting. Marlin and colleagues fanned out to job fairs and college career days.
The biggest changes were made to the interview process. Skillman hired Hireology, a Chicago consultancy that helps dealerships recruit and hire. The firm encourages dealers to adopt a rigorous interview process that can be applied consistently across applicants, CEO Adam Robinson says. The approach is similar to that of an insurance underwriter, he says.
"An underwriter asks the same 25 questions every time so that they know how much risk they're bringing to the table -- it's not like they forget to ask if there is a teen driver in the house," Robinson says. "The hiring process is exactly the same math. A refined process will yield predictable results."
First, Skillman's applicants are required to fill out an assessment test. After that, they're interviewed over the phone and then again in person with Marlin. If they get that far, they'll have one more interview with the general manager of the individual dealership.
"By the end, we have a much better sense of who they are" than under the previous process, which typically was limited to one interview, Marlin said. "And they start the job with a better understanding of what we want."
Two years later, Skillman employs 52 product specialists. Ten of them are women, a higher percentage than before. And the group has higher percentages of college graduates and military veterans.
The specialists work with about 40 team leaders, who take the handoff once the customer makes a decision on what to buy. That total number of 92 staffers is higher than the group previously employed in sales. But the extra fixed cost of the specialists -- at a starting salary of $35,000 -- improves the customer experience and fosters loyalty, Marlin says.
It certainly helped improve Skillman's employee turnover rates in the sales department, one of the most vexing personnel problems in automotive retail. The average turnover at U.S. dealerships among salespeople was 72 percent, according to a 2015 National Automobile Dealers Association study. At Skillman, sales turnover is less than 20 percent, Marlin said, down from more than 50 percent before the new model was adopted.
Stephen Fort, 26, was among Skillman's first specialist hires and has since been promoted to team leader. He had worked for four years at Buckle, a clothing retailer, and never had envisioned himself working at a car dealership. But the idea of helping people with their vehicle purchases -- without having to worry about commission -- was intriguing.
"I was probably like a lot of people in thinking that I didn't want to pressure people into buying a car and go through the feast or famine every month," Fort says. "The new program takes all that away. You can see right away that customers let their guard down when they realize you're not trying to cram a sale down their throat."