How to Catch (and Retain) Great Employees
Most independent tire dealers get into the tire and automotive service business because they enjoy fixing vehicles or selling things. Many probably started working for a larger chain or their father/mother/grandparents and got pretty good at fixing and selling, so they thought, “I’d like to be my own boss doing this.” And they scraped together enough cash, took on enormous debt, and hung their shingle outside.
As their customer base grew, they found they needed help, and they set out to hire the best service techs and salespeople their town had to offer. As business grew, they spent less time doing the things they originally loved and more time managing the “HR” side of the equation. Like other independent dealers who have more than five employees and three bays, they quickly discovered that the “HR” side consumed a great portion of their week.
Handling personnel issues is not glitzy, glamorous, or exciting. It certainly doesn’t result in the rush of adrenaline that a good sale or a successful mechanical diagnosis generates. Some find human resources to be repetitive, and even boring. But knowing how to manage the HR function properly is critical. Let’s look at four major HR areas, which I will call “buckets.”
Bucket No. 1
The first major bucket is your hiring process. Ages ago, you could put a “help wanted” sign outside your store. Someone would eventually inquire, and you’d eyeball them, ask a few questions, and hire them on the spot. Many times they’d start working that day. You would never do that today, I hope. You wouldn’t get a response email from an online job website, and then read it and hire the person, right? When hiring, make sure that you engage in the following practices:
- Go look where the talent is, not where it used to be. So many dealerships are still casting fishing lures in places where good techs and salespeople used to be. Those fishing holes dried up years ago. Stop waiting for a miracle. Go where the talent is today. Good techs are working in other stores, not posting resumes on Indeed. They may not even be working on cars. They could be working in a completely different industry. Passive forms of recruiting where you sit back and let technology find talent are not enough. You need to proactively recruit where employed salespeople and technicians are spending time. Are they aware of you? Do you geo-fence? Do you buy ads on Facebook? Modernize your searches. And update your presentation. Is your store modern-looking or does it look the same as it did 30 years ago? Still have those iPads that you’re afraid to use, sitting in a box in your office? Use them.
- Update your interview questions and process. I’ve covered interviewing in the past, so as a summary: have a planned, written-out interview ahead of time, with questions based specifically on the candidate, including their resume and experience.
The questions written out ahead of time must be based on actual events in the candidate’s professional past. Don’t ask about how they think, how they feel about something, or about hypothetical futures. In other words, avoid questions beginning with, “Where do you see yourself in three years?” or “What would you do if you found money in a customer’s car?” or “How do you feel about doing oil changes?” or “Do you like working on cars?” These and similar questions fail to get at what’s important: Does the interviewee have the needed skill set and right frame of mind?
If you focus on the candidate’s history, his or her attitude toward that skill will show. If you ask a candidate directly about his or her attitude, most will be aware enough to provide an answer that “should” be said. When you ask about recent experience, the candidate will focus on recalling specific details, and his or her attitude will shine through in the answer.
- Select carefully. You cannot choose between option A and nothing. There must be at least two choices for you to select the best. Ideally, recruiting is an ongoing process and you save the resumes and notes of people you have interviewed in the past so you can make comparisons, which will lead you to choosing the best of the possible, not just one option.
If you haven’t kept up with recruiting and interviewing people, you will likely be desperate to fill an open position, which will lead you to put a halo on the very first person who responds to a help wanted ad. Don’t fall down that hole. Hiring is easy. Termination can be difficult and costly. Be difficult up front, ask the tough questions, and maintain your brand’s high standards. Would you let this person work on your mom’s car? Would you let this salesperson present an estimate to your neighbor?
- Perform drug tests and physicals. You owe it to your family and the other people you already employ to protect the assets of your company and prevent someone from destroying everything you’ve built. I can’t tell you how often I’ve seen drugs or alcohol abuse ruin a business. Spend the few dollars it takes to protect your million-dollar baby.
Bucket No. 2
Training is the second bucket. You’ve created help wanted ads that speak to interested candidates, including the current 80-million-plus workforce known as millennials (see sidebar for more). You conducted interviews, asked good questions, and made your choice. Do not do what your grandpa, who started your dealership, did. Grandpa most likely adhered to the adage, “He’ll figure it out or he won’t. We’ll see in a few weeks.” That philosophy no longer serves a purpose. First, you’ll burn through good people quickly, and waste time and resources bringing people into the company. Second, you don’t have spare candidates to burn through in this market, where talent is a rare commodity. You must have an onboarding process — otherwise known as formal training. And that on-boarding process should include these few steps:
- Get the employee up to speed on all that your company has to offer. This is a critical bonding moment that helps endear the employee to the company. Step-by-step, review the benefits, perks, spiffs, manufacturer programs, and how each program works. Tell them the story about how grandpa started the company with $4 in his pocket. Maybe you stormed out of the big box retailer hell-bent on showing them you could do better. Whatever your dealership’s story is, tell it. This is what helps develop the culture of the company.
Walk the employee around your facility. Show him or her where the changing room is, as well as the lunch space, the fire extinguisher, the eye wash station, and the location of the cameras. Spend time with the new employee. Don’t make excuses that you don’t have time. You don’t have time not to do this. You’ve invested significant resources in obtaining this person. Don’t squander it. These are the requirements of running a successful business in the 21st century.
- Set aside a few hours a day to focus on training. “But this is more time spent away from making money,” you might think. Your new employee is an investment. You may miss a few leads or sales while focusing on a new hire. But that is far less costly than letting an ill-prepared employee fumble around for years trying to figure it out on his or her own. Ours is not a simple industry. You’ve been doing it a long time, which makes it feel simple. But trust me, to a new hire, that point-of-sale system that you mastered years ago is a super-complicated tool that seemingly takes a thousand keystrokes and mouse clicks to produce the right invoice at the right margins. Watch the new person perform an oil change or brake job. Just watch. You’ll be amazed at what you see, either positively or negatively — the latter, especially, if you didn’t conduct a good interview.
Training a new employee properly can take months. It seems like a lot of time, but the reality is it isn’t, and I’ll tell you why.
Humans can only absorb so much information at a time. Overload goes in one ear and out the other. Training should be limited, focused, and progressive. Teach in blocks, or break skills down to the component level. And very importantly, don’t move onto the next skill until the person has mastered the current one. This may inadvertently tell the employee that what they are doing now is acceptable. If you think training this way takes too long, I will argue that training the wrong way not only takes years, but it can cost you dearly in mistakes.
Bucket No. 3
The third bucket is career path transparency. Create milestones. You don’t need a ticker tape parade down Main Street every time a wiper blade is sold, but make sure you celebrate success.
First alignment performed (with printout!) by themselves? Announce it and applaud. Complete a manufacturer’s e-learning course? Announce it at the next meeting and celebrate.
The more positive reinforcement associated with completing steps, the more likely the employee will continue acquiring a skill. However, praise must be genuine and from the heart. Honestly congratulate employees on their success. Make eye contact and smile. Clap. It’s not rocket science, right?
Conversely, do not tolerate employee aversion to required training. Employees who refuse to take required training must be shown the consequences of their actions. No merit raises, no spiff eligibility, or any other equal-tiered punishment is required after an employee refuses to comply after having been given a few chances to make the effort.
Allowing the employee — any employee, not just new hires — to continue without penalty sends a strong message that training, growth and skill building are always optional. Employees usually choose the path of least resistance.
Establish hand-in-hand financial and HR-related rewards. Examples include: for every ASE certification you complete, you get a $xx.xx increase in base pay, and for certain ASEs you get a promotion (example: from general service to maintenance/repair tech to diagnostic tech to lead tech to master tech.)
On the sales side, it could be a progression from service advisor to professional service advisor to assistant manager to service manager to store manager. It doesn’t have to be complicated; in fact, the less complicated, the better. Yet it must be spelled out, and employees need to understand that increased pay is a reward for following the path laid out by the owner and management. It’s simple, yet sophisticated.
Bucket No. 4
Discipline is the fourth bucket. Over the years of working with tire dealership owners and managers, I have found this area to be the single biggest challenge affecting the work environment.
Too often, the issue of employee discipline is avoided at first, with various reasons, like “I’m just too busy,” or “The employee’s skill set is too valuable to risk challenging their attitude,” or “It’s not a big deal,” and others. But little things have a cumulative effect.
It’s like a clogged artery. A few French fries here and there are not a big deal, but a few years of eating fries with every meal and your arteries clog and you could be a candidate for a heart attack.
The best recipe for employee discipline is addressing issues right away. Many times, a simple statement will be enough, such as, “I have to let you know that this behavior is unacceptable around here. Just don’t do it again, and we are fine.”
Then shake hands and maybe engage in a follow-up conversation once and again (everyone has their hot buttons) and it will never build. But when ignored, the beast grows.
And the consequences and emotional toll of a later conversation can become very dramatic. Soon enough, the employee could realize that he or she now has the owner over a barrel. The owner can’t lose the skill the employee brings to the table but can’t stand the employee’s bad behavior or attitude — and neither can the other employees. If the owner continues to allow the bad behavior, the good employees leave, and a doom cycle starts to appear. What should you do if you let bad behavior go on too long?
- First address the actual problem, which is you have let it go on too long. Tell the employee, “I’ve allowed this to go on far too long, it’s taken a toll on the business, and I must address it at this point.” This is now a problem you share. They caused it, but you allowed it.
- Work toward an amicable solution. “Since we both are at fault here, I want to work with you to solve the problem,” you can say, followed by, “Here’s the main guideline: The behavior (showing up late, going home early, yelling, belittling coworkers, bad-mouthing management behind our backs — whatever) has to change, and rewards are only given out for continued success, not for just changing.” Also, avoid giving employees raises just because they cease behaving badly. Otherwise, you incentivize them to return to their old ways.
- There must be negative consequences for not doing it right. This isn’t always termination. It’s taking away spiff/bonus eligibility, taking away perks like scheduling preferences, or whatever you deem to be effective. And emphasize that the consequences will escalate when no apparent attempt to change is noticed. However, when an employee is honestly making an effort to change, you must positively reinforce the attempt every time. “Thank you for pulling that car in right away,” or “Hey, I know it got crazy today, so thanks for keeping your cool. It didn’t go unnoticed.”
In addition, there must be something that you, as an owner or manager, can do. Since you were both part of the problem, have the employee think of something that you can change.
It could take the form of communicating with the employee more frequently or helping with some other issues. The only rule here is you can’t take responsibility for the behavior off the employee’s shoulder. It’s the employee’s burden to carry. As management, you can only offer to assist and support — not do it for them.
Those are the four buckets of managing people in today’s environment. Get wickedly proactive in seeking talent, interview hard, connect early, train heavily, and hold people accountable — while showing them how they can advance and gain personally from doing things the way you want them done. ■
(See the charts below for additional information.)
Dennis McCarron is a partner at Cardinal Brokers Inc., the leading brokers in the tire and automotive industry (www.cardinalbrokers.com). To contact McCarron, email him at email@example.com.