Cutting Keys

Sales and F&I managers can defuse interdepartmental conflict by walking a mile in their co-workers’ shoes.

June 2014, Auto Dealer Today - Feature

by Kelly Wadlinger

“That was the most useless skill you could have possibly learned!” my general manager angrily grumbled. “When, as a salesperson, will you ever need to cut a key?”

He had a point. My job description did not include operating the key machine or even setting foot in the parts department. My GM thought I might be trying to hide from him. In fact, I was preparing to do his job someday.

My dad was a very successful businessman in another industry. When I was growing up, he shared a lot of stories with me about his work. Many were hilarious, some focused on the importance of ethics, and all of them revolved around people.

Personnel Issues
People seemed to be the key to my father’s success; he got some of the most difficult personalities to work with him and excel when others had failed. He emphasized that many of these people had never had a manager actually listen to their concerns or ideas. He believed managing the “unmanageable” really came down to knowing what their day-to-day jobs really entail and not just coming down from the ivory tower with a one-size-fits-all solution.

I wanted to spend time in the parts department. I knew I would need to work with a parts manager someday and, if I had no clue what I was talking about, I would never be as effective as I could be. I certainly never wanted to be accused of living in an ivory tower of my own.

It was for that same reason that I spent a lot of time with my service advisors and techs. I spent time interacting with them on their smoke breaks (despite being a non-smoker) and listening to what they did and the problems they faced. I thought about solutions, too, but of course I had no power to do anything. At that point in my career, the best thing I could do was learn more about their jobs and what motivated them. I knew that, if a customer came in with a blown transmission on a 10-year-old car, the service tech would find me and let me know he had a sale for me.

Once or twice a year, depending on demand, my current company does something so awesome that I really have to hand it to our HR director for putting it together. We have a multitiered management training course that addresses many areas that are vital for developing managers. For most trainees, the most memorable homework assignment and follow-up session is the one in which the student spends a day with a member of another department and then shares their experience with the class.

It is an eye-opening experience. Fixed and variable operations often feel like different planets within the same building. In our course, sales managers learn that the parts guy — whose only job, they think, is to make sure he has the parts their customers need — has a budget and a return allowance and tracks no-sale records and turns. F&I managers get to prove that we are more than overpaid secretaries who type and sign papers. We also calculate loan-to-value ratios and rates, negotiate with multiple banks and try to keep up with a constantly changing legal and regulatory landscape. And maybe — just maybe — we are such sticklers for detail because it’s vital that everything is correct and timely so the proper commissions are paid.

Managers, how well do you know what the other department heads deal with on an everyday basis? Do your employees see the big picture, or do they see their co-workers as adversaries?

Spend an hour today in another department — preferably the one you butt heads with the most — and encourage your staff to do the same.

Once you see their reality, it may alter your perception. You may find them easier to work with, and you might become that special manager who gets the best out of everyone in the store. As Henry Ford once said, “If everyone is moving forward and together, then success takes care of itself.”

By the way, two weeks after my GM complained about my new “useless” skill, a customer walked in the door late one Saturday afternoon. They had lost their only key and the service department was closed. I fired up the key machine and they walked out with two new sets and a small stack of my business cards. Maybe it wasn’t such a waste of my time after all. 

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