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A Modern Staffing Strategy for Modern Automotive Retail

During the pandemic, automotive dealerships had to learn how to adapt and sell to an audience that was no longer on their lots. While the retail sales and service operations pivoted  to stay afloat and then ultimately thrive in a digital driven post pandemic market, many dealers did not adjust their staffing strategies accordingly. As a result, almost every dealer in the U.S. is having a difficult time sourcing the modern talent they need today.

The modern automotive worker looks and acts very differently than they did just 10 years ago. Their expectations around the hiring process reflect the current labor market, meaning that they know their skills and time are worth more than it was pre-pandemic. 

To find hiring success at your dealership, consider these lessons that we’ve learned and seen many successful dealers put into practice.

One employee, many hats

One of the greatest lessons that dealerships learned during the pandemic was that they didn’t need as many bodies in the dealership as they previously thought. And as some dealers were forced to close their doors or otherwise restrict business, many dealerships were forced to consolidate — and use employees who could function in potentially all of these roles.

Dealerships no longer need just a service advisor or just a salesperson; they need workers who can wear multiple hats as they guide customers through the vehicle buying and ownership process. And we’ve all seen the data on how much consumers enjoy the buying process more when they interact with the same person through the whole vehicle shopping and buying journey. That means your dealership needs to hire employees who can do it all, from answering the phone in the service department to listing all of the bells and whistles on the latest model vehicle upon delivery.

Selling cars has changed — and so has hiring. Instead of trying to hire multiple people to fill many specialized roles in different departments to make the sales process run smoothly, dealers should consider hiring one person to do it all. The simplest way to do that is by creating hybrid type roles to lump skills and knowledge together that your ideal candidate would possess. If a job seeker applies and doesn’t meet all of the requirements, don’t count them out just yet; consider if they’d be willing or able to learn the skills they’re lacking. They could very well be the best hire you make all year. 

A diverse team gives customers — and applicants — what they want to see

Forget birds of a feather flocking together. In retail, generally, it’s pretty well known that customers relate better to people who look or operate like them. Just look at your typical Apple store. It’s filled with employees from a variety of professional and socioeconomic backgrounds. That was an intentional move by Apple when they established their brick and mortar presence. As an industry, we do so much to roll out the red carpet for our customers and meet them where they are in the sales or service experience. And yet,  the unfortunate stereotype of a pushy, male salesperson on the prowl to take advantage of a hopeful car buyer still plagues dealers. Let’s be honest, regardless of pundits and certain online businesses that perpetuate that stereotype, no one wants to buy from that guy.

So, the point is diversity matters — it’s something that applicants and customers have come to expect from any place of business. Just like your dealership quickly adapted to meet customers where they were during the pandemic, you need to get out of your comfort zone(s) when it comes to recruiting and hiring new employees — simply because it’s the right thing to do. Plus, it’ll be really difficult to make anyone with a different race, ethnicity, or work background feel welcome on your team if there’s no one else like them around. Your dealership’s employee roster needs to be a reflection of the community you operate in. People expect to deal with people who are like them.

If you don’t know where to begin incorporating diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts into your hiring process, there are training programs and consultants available to help you. When you hire outside of your normal circle or wheelhouse, you’re not only bringing fresh blood to the dealership; you’re also recruiting new ways of thinking, innovative solutions, and opening yourself up to new cultures. Trust me, the investment will be worth it.

You can’t get where you want to go by doing what you’ve always done

Relying on the same advertising and retailing methods during the pandemic would’ve spelled disaster for your dealership. That’s why dealers did what they always do – they rolled up their sleeves and made the necessary changes to survive. And, shortly thereafter, those changes gave way to record profits.  So, why would the ways we hired and onboarded new staff before the pandemic be immune from change too?  

One example that comes to mind right away is how we source new dealership talent via job boards.  Think of job boards, such as Indeed and ZipRecruiter, like third party lead sites where we list our inventory. While we know not to over rely (and spend) on third party lead sites, because dealers can attract and convert first party leads better, dealers still over-rely and over spend on job boards. Just as it is with third party lead sites, we must view job boards more as one part of the solution and not the total solution.  Besides, the majority of today’s top talent, especially technicians, don’t exclusively search job boards for their next position. They expect employers to meet them where they are through a mix of recruitment ads, in person and virtual events and more. 

Additionally, your hiring managers need to keep in mind that this new wave of candidates aren’t the same type of employees you would have hired 20 years ago, though — and things that would’ve “been fine” then are very much taboo now. Take, for instance, your workplace culture. It might have been expected that sales personnel were cutthroat and ready to beat the internal competition at any cost.. This type of toxic workplace culture is not one that Gen Z or millennials will tolerate. If you really want to make a difference in your automotive hiring and improve retention, you need to be brutally honest with the current state of your workplace and put in the work to enhance the culture however you can. Some dealers have done this really, really well but I can guarantee it was really, really difficult to get started. And that’s OK. Start small and good things will happen. As Damian Mills, CEO of Mills Auto Group, proclaimed at Automotive News’ Retail Forum earlier this year, “Small hinges move big doors.”

Suggested changes to modernize your automotive hiring methods

Create a stellar candidate experience

You want — no, need — to make your candidate’s hiring experience as great as it is to buy a vehicle from and have it serviced at your dealership. And when it comes to technicians, there’s not an abundance of qualified applicants to choose from; in fact, there is a deficit of 68,000 technicians currently and the competition to hire them is only going to get stiffer. Having a great candidate experience makes all the difference when it comes to converting a recent applicant into your latest hire.  It’s no different than converting sales and service leads through a stellar guest experience.

To get started, ask yourself, “How does my candidate experience stack up against my customer experience?” The next foundational and easy step to craft a great candidate experience is to tighten your hiring timeline overall. Whether your dealership chooses to implement a 24-hour response time to initial applicant interest or sets your sights on cutting your time-to-hire down to less than 14 days, you have made the first step to adding top talent to your team across all of your open roles.

Market your employer brand to your ideal candidate

Now’s the time to use your marketing know-how to reach your ideal candidate. As I mentioned earlier, you can’t keep doing the same things and expect a different result. Your dealership needs to connect online with candidates via your career site and also in-person if you want to make the hires you need. Your career site is where you can boast about your dealership and how great it is to work there; use testimonials from your best employees or highlight community outreach efforts to emphasize your employer brand. Speaking of outreach, if it isn’t standard practice already, task hiring managers or your veteran sales and service staff to engage with potential candidates online (e.g. your social channels), attend career fairs,or engage with local colleges and high schools.   The payoff of having the best representatives of your business’s culture engage with prospective job seekers will be worth the time they miss from the floor and the lane.

Look to your MVPs for your best pool of applicants

Your best candidate source is one that you’re likely not even fully accessing. Even if you have an employee referral program running in the background at your dealership (a.k.a., not producing the results you need), you need to squeeze more from it. 

On average, referred candidates are hired faster, stay longer, and are more engaged on the job than a run of the mill job seeker — making this network of candidates one you need to tap into. Our recent applicant survey revealed that if a job has been vetted by a friend, millennials and Gen Z, in particular,  are more likely to try to apply. With the recent advancements to recruiting technology, there’s more ways than ever to unlock the power and potential of employee referrals as your next great talent source. 

Of course, the future success of automotive retailers will hinge largely on the technology that will enable them to meet consumers’ rapidly evolving expectations. However, the people behind these modernized retail tools and transactions are equally important.  So, whether it’s dialing in the hard and soft skills necessary for your future staff, bolstering DE&I efforts, or creating a stronger, authentic culture, all dealers doubling down on the future of modern retail must simultaneously place the same bets on a modern talent strategy.

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