You know that stand-up-and-cheer moment when the curtain drops on that concert you’ve been waiting forever to see? That’s the same feeling that auto dealers want to inspire in their customers when they hand over the keys to their customers’ new rides. But sometimes, the way a dealership does business can sour that experience. Ashlee Church, general manager (GM) of Volkswagen of Marion in southern Illinois, is trying to turn around those negative stereotypes of auto dealers and change the face — or rather, faces — of the industry.
In this interview, learn more about Ashlee’s views on:
1:00: Electric vehicles (EVs)
4:47: How to create a tight-knit staff at a dealership
8:20: How to encourage diversity at your dealership
13:30: Combatting negative stereotypes: compensation structure, pricing transparency and the customer experience.
Dealerships comprise several different departments — fixed operations, detail, marketing, administrative, service and more — which often get siloed, inspiring a sense of competition and hierarchy instead of the camaraderie and teamwork needed to row the company in the same direction. But at Volkswagen of Marion, Church has set up a culture to change all that.
“One thing that is very important to me is that our leaders work interdepartmentally to unify our teams. And that is something that we remind them of all the time. And that we are one business moving in one direction even though we’re all different businesses that operate within one,” Church explains. “You have to show that example to your team that not one department matters. So, as a GM, it’s very important to me that my service manager knows that he is just as important as the person who manages my new and my used car inventory. It’s important that our technicians know that they’re valued and appreciated and that the salespeople aren’t more important than the technicians or the people who work in detail.”
Another one of Volkswagen of Marion’s core values is transparency with the customer.
“I believe that the price that a consumer sees on our website is the price that they should be able to come in and transact on the vehicle,” Church asserts. “But we are in a world of competition. We are in a world of the third parties driving who is listed first by the price that the vehicle is. And we are now even seeing this has even moved from new cars and moved into the used car side of things as well, where now we’re even seeing people not list their reconditioning costs and the price of their cars on some of the third-party websites. And then they’ll come in and they’ll say, well, there’s a $1,500 reconditioning fee. So yes, I had the cheapest Volkswagen Jetta certified pre-owned in the market, but there’s another $1,500 fee tacked onto that. We don’t engage in those consumer tactics. We want to make sure that we have a transparent approach.”
With this mindset, Volkswagen of Marion focuses on hiring the type of sales rep who goes out of his or her way to clarify aspects of the car and pricing to customers upfront on the phone and not blindside them with new markups when they arrive on the lot.
Man! I Feel Like We Need a Woman
Another of Church’s passions is bringing more diversity in dealerships, and she’s committed to making Volkswagen of Marion a model of what that can look like — and how positively it affects the customer experience.
Fifty percent of Volkswagen of Marion’s sales floor staff are women. Having this female presence, she says, allows women and families especially to come into the dealership and feel like they belong. While a woman doesn’t have to work with a woman to buy a car, just being able to see them around is reassuring.
But how does Church manage to get such a diverse staff?
“I actually don’t tell my male managers that they have to hire women. I don’t think that that would go over all that well,” she clarifies. “And do the women working in the dealership really want to feel like they were hired just because Ashlee said that we were going to hire more women? I don’t believe that they would want that to be the case either.
“When I have a job opening though, what I encourage my team to do and my managers to do, or actually I require it, is I require them to interview a diverse candidate pool. And so, if they have done all of their interviews and they’re ready to make a job offer, but they’ve interviewed all people who have the same background, who look alike, who may all be men, I am not going to give the final hiring approval for that position until we go back and interview a more diverse pool of candidates.”
Of course, stereotypes still run high in the automotive industry, and you can’t always be assured of a diverse applicant pool when putting up a job posting. But Church notes that sometimes, one little change can make the difference.
“We had an opening for an express service advisor, and almost all the applicants for that position were men. We changed the job title to express customer service liaison, posted the exact same job posting, exact same compensation, exact same job duties and went from a job ad that generated almost all male applicants to a job ad that generated a majority of female applicants. And then you get the opportunity to talk to a wider range of people. And from that we ended up hiring a woman for the position,” Church says.
But it’s not just about hiring women — it’s about retaining them too. While people assume the reason women don’t join the industry are that they never considered a job in a dealership before or they need flexible hours, those are actually only the second and third most popular reasons. Church notes that the number one reason women are turned off is due to unattractive work environments (or a perceived unattractive environment). Often, this comes down to company culture: crude jokes behind closed doors, lewd looks at women or conversational topics that aren’t inclusive of them (think football). In addition, women also want to take care of their customers, and if that isn’t part of a dealership’s culture, then they’re not going to stick around.
Ashlee Church is an inspiration to all women in the industry. She is the Vehicle Care RockStar lifting others up onto the dealership stage with her and showing that they too can join the band.