Erikka Tiffani Wells, general sales manager at Walser Polar Chevrolet in White Bear Lake, Minnesota discusses ways to ensure dealers are building and fostering a work environment that is inclusive for both staff and shoppers.
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Emma Hancock: Hi everyone. Welcome back to the All Ears podcast. I'm Emma Hancock, host, and strategist at Automotive News. This podcast is sponsored by Ally Financial and produced by the Automotive News Content Studio. In each episode, we explore topics that are important to leaders in automotive retailing. Our guests include experts in their field from Ally, plus dealers from around the country, and we cover tips and explore insights that can help dealerships successfully navigate the transformational changes taking place in our industry. And speaking of transformational changes, let's get into our topic for today: diversity, equity and inclusion. It's a focus across most industries, and it's also top of mind for consumers. Retail automotive has traditionally struggled with diversity and inclusion. According to Automotive News, women, for example, make up more than 60% of car buyers and influence more than 80% of purchases, but they represent only about one fifth of dealership employees. That being said, over the last few years, many dealerships have worked hard to recruit and engage a diverse workforce and implement inclusive practices. Today, we'll be discussing ways to ensure dealers are building and fostering a work environment that is inclusive for both staff and shoppers. Not only is it the right thing to do as an employer, it's also a good thing for customers and for business. Our guest today is Erikka Tiffani Wells, general sales manager at Walser Polar Chevrolet in White Bear Lake, Minnesota. Welcome, Erikka. Thanks for being here.
Erikka Wells: Thank you for having me. I'm so excited.
Emma Hancock: I'm so excited to talk to you about this. So, Erikka, let's dig in a little more into why building an inclusive dealership culture is so important. It may be the right thing to do, but is there clear evidence that makes business sense as well, in your opinion?
Erikka Wells: Well, if I had to answer that, I'd say yes, I am the business sense. I am the proof. I got into automotive kind of not the traditional way. And it was important because the leaders that have kind of helped me along the way allowed me to have a voice and that voice was particularly important as we developed changes within the dealership environment. I'll never forget my first general manager brought me on board and they were getting ready to change the CRM. I'm running the BDC at the time and it's this big change, big implementation and they're having all these meetings, it's all the corporate directors and the GM, the dealer principal, but the BDC manager who's actually going to be using the CRM is not in the room. And finally, after about a week and a half of the implementation, he says, "Why don't we have Erikka in the room? Why don't we have her voice as part of this conversation?" They bring me in. I'm telling them the different things that are going to happen with the BDC and how these leads are going to come in, how the CRM is going to make it work or not work. And my voice was able to bring some direction to what we were doing. And from then on, I became a voice in the dealership that was important, where before that I had not been invited into meetings, I had not been at the table for these conversations. Yet it was going to be my department who was going to be the ones that had to execute this. And so, I think it's important when we think about the inclusivity of the conversations that we're having in the change of the dealer world, who are we trying to talk to? What are the other voices within the dealership that are important to bring to these conversations?
Emma Hancock: It's almost like without the voice and the face there, you can't build that culture which goes right into my next question. I want to ask you now about dealership culture. Do you believe strong culture is built from the ground up or do you believe it's set by ownership and dealership leaders?
Erikka Wells: It's a little bit of both, but I would say owners and leaders are the key components. If the dealer principals, actions, and words aren't in alignment with what he says he believes or she believes, if you're not actually participating in some of these initiatives, a lot of times we can check the box and we can have video training or we can have these groups, but do they participate? Do they show up? Are they as passionate about it as they are about other initiatives? Because if you ask the dealer principal or the general manager to get involved with E.V., they're there, they're front and center. They're the ones talking about the budget and how much money we're going to spend. Well, how much money are you putting into your ERG? How much money are you putting into these programs that you say are important to you? A lot of times what happens this gets left to be an H.R. issue. It's something that happens, and you do a class when you first start and you learn about bias, and then we take one every six months. But that's not really what this looks like. And dealers to me that are really progressive in this area have community events, support groups within their organization, even if it's a small group with three or four people. Walser, for example, right now where I'm at, they have WOW: Women of Walser. It's something that they do quarterly where the women leadership get together, we have breakfast, we talk about some of the challenges that are specific to us. They have another ERG called AHA, which is an Asian community of Hmong community that's big in our dealerships and what they do is they say, how do we bring these cultures together and have conversations that are important and inclusive, where the leadership team comes out and supports these groups as allies. The allyship is so important to making sure that these opportunities are actually implemented and that they stay strong and they're not something that people roll their eyes at because they say, "you’re telling me to go, but are you there? Are you as passionate about it as you say you are in your actions as you are in your words?"
Emma Hancock: So it's ongoing, it's day to day.
Erikka Wells: Absolutely.
Emma Hancock: And like you said, the people running the store need to be walking the walk. This is a question I think you're going to have some great advice on. Let's talk about specific strategies and ideas that dealerships can put in place with their own workforce, and you've just touched on that to build a more inclusive culture. What do you see that's out there that's working?
Erikka Wells: One thing that we're doing at Walser that I am particularly proud of and I'm excited to be a part of because it's new to me and I've been in the business for almost 20 years, and this is the first time I've kind of seen it implemented like this. But it's called Huddles. And so have these Huddles every single day with every department manager. You bring one from service, one from parts, one from F&I, one from the H.R. department, one from the tag and title department, the front desk receptionist. You bring these groups of people together that are all from different departments. We're often still segregated. We're often not able to have conversations and not being able to see the nuances and why things aren't working and when we meet just for 15, 20 minutes every day to bring things on the table and we go around the room and everybody gets an opportunity to speak. And so, when you think of challenges that are happening, there are different groups that will sometimes sit back. They stay quiet. "I'm not a senior person in the room. Maybe I don't have tenure. Maybe I just started six months ago. I don't feel like my voice and my opinion matters. “But when you open up the huddle and every week, every day, we have these 15 minute conversations where we're bringing things to the table that are important for change, you're allowing people's voices to be heard that are not normally heard. We create steering committees whenever we're doing some big initiative at the dealership level where we again bring conversations, and these aren't always from managers. I ended up having a dealer principal one time, ask me how he wanted to change the F&I pay plan to make it more productive and more profitable. And he said, what kind of plan should we get? I said, why don't you ask the managers? Ask the ones that the plan's going to affect. What would they do if they got to create their own pay plan, one that they thought was going to be productive? Why are we not listening to the voices of our employees and not listening to the people that are in these positions who have the best feedback at all? It could be surveys, anonymous surveys. We do a poll survey every three months where our employees are encouraged to give feedback that's honest and transparent without any kind of retribution that something would happen. What do you really feel? What are some of the blind spots that you think are happening at the dealership in your department and allowed to have a conversation about what's important to them without feeling like they're going to be judged by it? One thing that was funny, someone said, "if you really want to find out what's going on with your employees, ask their spouse." You ask their partner; you ask their spouse. They're going to tell you the truth because whatever we go home and talk about is probably what we want to say at the dealership level, but we don't feel all the time that the conversations are going to be heard, that they're going to be listened to and more importantly, that they're going to be acted upon.
Emma Hancock: I mean, it's so important what you said about bringing together people who aren't necessarily always in the same room, breaking down the hierarchy, basically getting rid of it for that main purpose and making everyone feel like they can share and working at a store in your scenario that wants to hear and wants to change and make it a better work environment. You can have a store that that's doing great numbers, but how are people feeling inside? Are they feeling confident? Are they feeling safe?
Erikka Wells: Exactly. Are they engaged? Are they connected? Do they feel like their voices and opinions matter? Because when they don't feel like that, then they do separate themselves and as they separate themselves from what's happening in the core values of the dealership world, they're separating themselves from the customer because they don't really believe in what they're saying. It becomes very transactional, but when you're passionate about the values of the dealership you're working for and what they're pushing. It comes from a place of inside. It comes from who you are. You're not just reading off a script or word tracks. When you say, I believe this is the best place to buy a car and here's why. You can hear it in their voice because it's actually true. And if we want our employees to have that type of feeling and passion about where they work, we must be talking to them and finding out do they really feel that way.
Emma Hancock: Well, we're almost at the end here Erikka and I wanted to get back to why this all makes sense for the business. And you're really covering that even in your last statement. Why it makes business sense beyond just putting the right team and internal culture in place. What customer facing tactics can dealerships implement in order to reach and serve a broader, more diverse, and more inclusive customer base?
Erikka Wells: Well, it's interesting because I think through the pandemic, we all learned a lesson in having diversity of the vehicles that we have. You had dealerships that have $50,000 vehicles now selling ten and $12,000 vehicles because they didn't have a choice. But what was interesting is that when we think about our inventory and when we think about the idea of having different vehicles brings a different type of audience and customer base to us, it makes sense. That's easy. Nobody would go and order brand new vehicles and order all blue. It just wouldn't make sense or all the same trim level. We intentionally know that by diversifying our inventory and what we have at the dealership to offer, we're going to get different clientele that are going to come in. Families and students and seniors are all going to be attracted to different vehicles for different reasons. The same thing is with your employees. The type of employees that you have are going to be able to talk about the dealership and say, I work there and say, oh, you work at a dealership. I never thought that that was a job that made sense for me. But if you work there, then I could work there. They'll see themselves in that. So, one, we got to have representation. It's important to have leadership at the store that looks like your community base. We had a front desk receptionist that we found out spoke sign language or she was skilled at sign language, and we had a customer that came in one day. And for her to just be able to greet him, we all ran like, oh, our reception as she speaks sign language, and we ran and grabbed her, and she came and just greeted him and said hello. And he started writing things down and he said that was important to me, that I was seen, and I was heard here.
And there's a dealership I know of that has they actually promote that they have 20 different languages spoken at their dealership. How important is that? We know it from the top just saying, hey, just being able to speak my language, even if I do speak English, knowing that someone has a way to make me feel comfortable is so important. You think about restaurants, and I have four children, so when I go to a restaurant, I'm always wondering, is it kid friendly? And so, for me when I think about kid friendly, do they have highchairs? Do they have a kid’s menu? When you think of inclusivity at a restaurant, it just makes sense for you. If you have a restaurant that wants to have more families, you're going to make the environment feel open and inclusive of that group of people that you're trying to attract. The dealership is no different, we opened up a brand new dealership when I lived in Atlanta, and they wanted to hire more women technicians. And as we're building this brand new facility from the ground up, I said, what about the women's locker room? And they were like, well, what do you mean? Wait a minute. You told me you wanted to have more women working as techs in the repair shop, but where's their locker room? Well, they can go use the bathroom in the front. So, you're telling me you want a technician to go work in the customer bathroom and change clothes there because you don't want to create a locker room? And it's those small nuances. It's those small pieces that actually create to the culture that you want. So, I would say put your employees on the website, get rid of the stock photos, put them on the chat bubble. Make sure that it looks like who you actually have hired there. And after you put your pictures up and put got rid of all the stock photos, you still feel like it's not diverse, then you have to ask yourself why and what are we doing and what can we be doing differently?
Emma Hancock: You're so right. I mean, it's so funny because you can be looking at the site and then you see that chat bot come up with someone who's like a stock photo person with a very stock name, and it all falls down. But I love, just what you're saying about even the little things like the locker room example, like having little things like having you mentioned having four kids, having kids seats in the test drive vehicles just to make it more welcoming for families, all these little things that probably aren't that out of the box. But is anybody doing them?
Erikka Wells: No, you're absolutely right. To your point about the car seats, it's interesting because they all have a set of golf clubs that you can put it in the trunk to make sure golf clubs fit. Yes, but how nice would it be to be able to have several different car seats and say, hey, listen, if you want to get this in and out, let me demonstrate for you. Let me show you. We had a customer who was looking for a vehicle that was going to be able to fit a wheelchair in and out. I mean, these are the things that we can think of. So, someone can say, even if that doesn't apply to me, I can appreciate that your dealership took the time to make sure the environment felt like it's for someone that might be close to me. And then they start talking about it and they market it for you. People will take a picture and they'll put it on their Snapchat and their TikTok and say, wow, this dealership actually has a place in an environment that doesn't feel stoic and doesn't feel cold. It feels warm and welcoming, which is what we all say we want.
Emma Hancock: Yeah, completely. Well, Erikka, you've given so many insights into a topic that is truly ongoing and can only get better and better. I think we're seeing that even with our own conversation. You've covered the benefits of creating an inclusive dealership culture, how to create that inclusive culture. And like you said, it can start with a lot of small things that can become big things when people then take the time to promote it, as well as some specific tactics to help everyone get a better understanding of how to make it happen and take that first step. Thank you so much for your time today.
Erikka Wells: Thank you. It's been a pleasure.
Emma Hancock: And that is it for this episode of the All Ears podcast. I hope everyone found this helpful. I certainly did. On behalf of Ally Financial and the Automotive News Content Studio, thanks for listening and bye for now.
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