BEST PRACTICES

B.C. dealer group improves customer, staff loyalty while taking advantage of scale

Christian Chia says that 10 years ago a prospective customer made 5.5 visits before buying and now it's down to 1.5. Photo credit: Jeremy Cato

Like other companies with sales exceeding $800 million a year, the Open Road Auto Group publishes a detailed annual report. But it doesn’t have to share details about retail, fleet and used-vehicle sales, customer service satisfaction or even website visits.

“We’re a private company and private companies historically keep things private,” says Open Road President Christian Chia.

“But we are very transparent. You can see the good and you can see the lumps. All our customer satisfaction data is there, our growth, our targets, whether we met them or not; it’s all there for everyone to see.”

Chia argues that transparency is essential for success in a stigmatized automotive retail environment, one in which customers perceive retailers to be, in his words, “not great.” Open Road, he argues, is in the business of changing customer perceptions “one guest at a time.”

Of course all retailers say that, but what does that mean in practice at Open Road, with its 18 stores — soon to be 19 — and growing?

“The one factor that makes us a little different is the focus that we put on our people,” says Chia.

“And there are a number of things that we do to engage our people, and we do them quite well.”

Developing talent from within

Among them is Open Road’s Leadership Development Program, a two-year course that involves classroom and project work and job rotation within the group for its 12 students.

The program, assisted by the National Automobile Dealers Association (NADA), certifies its own Open Road graduates. It’s unique and gives the group an edge in succession planning.

Chia says the group also gives first crack at new jobs to the existing 1,000 staff and associates. Hiring and advancing from within helps to reduce turnover.

High turnover “is a terrible problem and it’s very costly,” he says. “We’ve made it easy for our staff to see the potential for career progression within the company; the career path.” Open Road encourages even senior management to look for lateral opportunities within the group. 

“That’s one of the benefits of having scale,” he says. “If you’re a single point or a dual point [outlet], it’s very difficult to do that.” 

The Open Road Group was born in 2000 out of a four-store family business that Chia ran with his siblings. The newest stores, 17 and 18, are Audi and Volkswagen dealerships that sit side-by-side on the Burnaby-Vancouver border. 

The group will keep growing with a Hyundai store planned less than a kilometre away on the site of the former Open Road Audi.

Scale advantage

“What scale gives us is the ability to execute well not just in one area but… look, you need to be good in everything to compete — whether in loyalty, facilities, social marketing, people-planning and training — you need scale for all of those things,” says Chia.

“Top digital talent costs top dollar, and that means scale. Frankly speaking, 18 stores is not enough.”

Successful retailers of the future, he says, will be big but focus on customer and staff loyalty. They’ll also have expertise in “all things digital.” 

Ten years ago, each prospective customer made 5.5 store visits, he says; it’s 1.5 today. Before setting foot in a store, today’s car buyer has done all their research online.

“There are very few touch points that are done in person today, but the ones we do better be good, they better be credible and they better be authentic.”

You can reach Jeremy Cato at jcato@shaw.ca

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