VANCOUVER — When a 40-year auto sales and leasing veteran decides to open a dealership in one of the most expensive urban centres in Canada, it takes both ingenuity and chutzpah.
Blair Hall, who launched Ensign Pacific Chrysler-Dodge-Jeep-Ram in Vancouver about two years ago, has a good measure of both.
To compete on price with suburban dealers, Hall reduces costs by carefully managing inventory. To protect and build his store’s image, he employs reputation management through aggressive monitoring of social media and a commitment to respond quickly to any complaints.
In Vancouver, he said, “property values are 10 times more than it would be anywhere else, and taxes are five times more.” Yet customers expect to pay not a penny more for sales or service.
“These are all huge challenges,” he said.
WORD-OF-MOUTH GOES DIGITAL
With today’s potential buyers scanning online reviews, reputation management is vital, especially as a new dealership struggles for traction.
Ignoring online comments is “a form of brand negligence that will catch up to you,” said Doug Lacombe, president of Calgary-based Communicatto, a social-media company. “We all know that word-of-mouth is either the best or worst form of advertising.
“Now, word-of-mouth has gone digital.”
Younger buyers in particular are also less motivated to buy, Lacombe said.
“The faintest hint of negativity online will drive them away.”
Hall, who is president of Ensign Pacific, doesn’t ask customers to post positive reviews online because readers are skeptical of glowing praise, he said. Still, customers have written that sales staff “really listened to our needs” and that service staff are “honest and very helpful.”
One employee constantly monitors social media and either responds directly or flags management to online complaints. That reflects a best practice, Lacombe said; to quickly acknowledge a complaint and then offer to “make it right.”
Online alertness complements the dealership’s culture of “empathy” for the customer, said Hall, who for decades has run a successful vehicle-leasing business in the heart of Vancouver. To manage inventory, he watches economic-outlook trends, adjusts for the season and stays tuned in to his market.
“You can get pulled by what the country is selling,” he said. “We’re not the same as somebody even 20 miles away.”
For example, highly optioned full-size pickups are hot sellers in Canada, generally. But in downtown Vancouver, specifically, buyers prefer less-expensive, smaller and more fuel-efficient trucks because, in many cases, they are used for contracting work. Hall carries few of the more-expensive vehicles.
Time of year is also crucial. In the slow January-February season, Hall drops his inventory well below the normal 125 new vehicles he carries at other times.
VALUE OF LISTENING
Hall learned his customer-service chops over a career that began in 1972, when he got a summer job as a service adviser at the former BowMac dealership on West Broadway, in what was then Vancouver’s automobile row. Through positions in service, the body shop and sales, he learned the value of listening to customers.
Hall bought the leasing arm of BowMac with two partners in 1982 and later operated Mitsubishi and Nissan dealerships before taking on Chrysler.
The nascent Vancouver dealership has about 30 employees and sold about 225 new vehicles and 200 used in 2018. Growth hinges on finding the right staff, Hall said.
“We have to find people with a customer-service orientation. They have to have a lot of empathy for the customer. “You have to interview a lot people to find that one person.”
DIVERSITY AND TRAINING
Cultural and gender diversity also help. More than half of the staff at the dealership are of Asian descent, a reflection of Vancouver’s population. Hall also recently added two women to the service department, not for their technical knowledge but because “they have great attitudes. ... They don’t talk down to people.”
Sales staff, too, are hired for their ability to ease the experience for anxious buyers, Hall said. Even highly experienced salespeople are given training “in how we want things done,” he said.
Staff members are taught that buyers are coming in with a “problem” —a need to get a new or better car — and the goal is to help them solve it without pressure tactics.
Honesty is the perfect antidote to the distrust many customers feel, Hall said.
“In the auto-sales business, we have two strikes against us when we go up to bat,” he said. “You can’t afford a third. You just have to treat people exactly the way you would want to be treated.”