For more than two decades, staff at Volvo of Edmonton have undergone regular training sessions designed to help women feel respected and more comfortable at the dealership, both in front of and behind the counter.
“One of the first things that I tell staff when we’re in the interview process [is] that there is no one person here who is more valuable than the other,” said General Manager Rebecca Sherman, who has worked at dealerships owned by Dealer Principal Michael Norris for about 20 years. “We expect that to spill over to the customer because we’re all treating every staff member with respect, [whether] it’s their opinions, their thoughts, their ideas.”
The dearth of women in the auto industry is an issue dealers have been grappling with amid technological change that threatens to upend the current retail model. Meanwhile, women drive between 70 to 80 per cent of all consumer purchasing, according to global professional services firm EY.
Sherman said this culture of treating every employee, from the leadership to the service bays and the custodial staff, with respect, is extended to every customer who walks through the door.
“[If a man says] ‘we’re looking for a car for my wife,’ or if the wife says we’re looking for a car for me,’ then as soon as that becomes apparent [our staff will] speak directly to her,” she said. “Some people defer to their husband, or it could be another female, whatever their coupling happens to be. But we try to make sure that we’re speaking to the person that is going to be making that decision.”
Tim Alderson has been delivering this training at Norris’s dealerships for more than two decades, most recently through his own firm, Alderson Consulting. Listening to customer needs and developing relationships, rather than trying to impose an easy fix or one-size-fits-all solution, is key to the success of this concept, he said.
“Lots of salespeople are really outgoing people, which could mean that they are assertive and they want to impose their will on people,” Alderson said. “That’s the exact opposite of what we should be doing. Once the customer is comfortable with our salesperson, then she’s going to seek advice.
“We’ve got to have a little relationship before anybody’s even interested.”
In the service department, advisers are urged to refrain from using industry jargon with customers.
“We always try to make sure that we’re not making somebody feel stupid because they don't understand the verbiage,” Sherman said. “It’s not some earth-shattering idea. It’s just always being conscious of how that other person that's sitting across from you is going to receive that information.”
Alderson also advocated added giving the dealership a pleasant environment through touches like clean floors and comfortable furniture – a setting that would appeal to both genders.
“You can walk into many dealerships and feel like it’s stark and it’s kind of dirty and uncomfortable, and you look around and you can hardly see any women working there,” Alderson said. “And then you go to other places where there are all these little touches and where the place is clean. That affects the culture of the whole place.”
“It doesn’t have to be the most expensive furniture. It just needs to be clean and not ripped and worn out.”
To make a dealership more inclusive as well as implement changes that are effective requires a shift in attitude that starts at the top, Alderson said.
“They’ve got to feel that they have to change because they have no choice,” Alderson said. “They’ve got to be able to articulate and envision what it's going to look like.
“Lots of people are looking for a quick fix to everything. This isn’t a quick fix. This is changing culture.”