State of independence

What is the state of play in the world of the independent car dealer? Motor Trade Insider puts some feelers out and discovers that business, for some, is certainly improving but, as ever, it’s the old fashioned values that are proving the most effective in charting a course through troubled waters.

Like many of us who have been in the trade longer than we care to think about there is one thing above all else in my opinion that unites us against the newcomers. We have stayed the course over a period of time in an industry that has seen huge and fundamental changes. For those of us that have managed to stay that course and are still here Twenty Five odd years later, and dare I say profitable, we surely must be doing something right, no matter what the press and motoring journalists may tell us.

New concepts and ideas on how best to shift product and give second to none customer service have been rolled out in one form or another year on year since time immemorial. The big player franchise dealerships spend fortunes on customer profiling, team building workshops and weekends, marketing and focus groups, not to mention the high tech Buildings and infrastructure costs and yet many still perform poorly when it comes down to actually keeping their customers happy. One only has to look at the independent surveys regarding customer satisfaction to realise this. That’s not to say the Independents get it right all the time, many don’t, but speaking for my own operation I can only say that we like to think we try harder than most.

There’s not one particular issue that springs to mind, cheerful knowledgeable staff, good product, the right stock, sensible business practice, excellent after sales service, and not forgetting value for money. All play their part in both the franchise and independent sector, however, the independents that use their own money and rely not just on the industry guides such as Glasses or CAP, but on years of experience and knowledge of the business as a whole, tend to fare better.

For example, customers rightly take it for granted that when it comes to the part of the process of getting their part exchange valued, the salesperson they are dealing with is qualified and able to complete that process with a realistic figure applicable to their vehicle, based on condition, mileage, specification etc. But as MTI’s own research shows (and our experience with ex-franchise staff) this is clearly not the case, many have simply no idea how to value correctly, with all the adjustments that are constantly needed when appraising used vehicles, and some have no idea whatsoever how to use a guide correctly. Any fool can quote a price to “Do the Deal” but will it be the correct one for both the customer and employer?

As I have said time and time again, it takes years (literally) to really know this business, you can’t learn it from courses, or training manuals, or customer profiling, no matter how well intentioned, all those things put together will inform and guide you but nothing sharpens the mind more than knowing it’s your money and livelihood on the line. Make a mistake and its going to cost you directly and dearly, and in these very uncertain times any independents worth their salt better be willing to learn and adjust to the market conditions on a weekly basis, because that’s how fast things are changing at present and have been for quite some while now.

As far as being busy is concerned we are one of the lucky ones. As we are only too aware, the latter part of last year saw many dealers buckle under the strain of an unprecedented change in the market place bought on by the sudden and unexpected (although we should have seen it coming) financial turmoil. When business fell off the scale and we saw profits plunge to lows the likes of which I had never seen. We knew it was time to act, we took advantage of the sudden demise of the less fit competition as prime retail sites became suddenly available, over that terrible three or four month period many prime retail sites up and down the country suddenly became empty, we procured one such prime, but now empty site, on a busy BP Fuel Station right on a main thoroughfare and less than ten minutes from a busy M25 exit. We are still in the process of building its reputation as the last tenant left a not insignificant trail of destruction behind him as his once booming business imploded. Bad management? Finances out of control? Or was it simply that they just got used to it being all so easy and didn’t fix the roof when the sun was shining? Who knows, but one thing’s for sure, we won’t be making the same mistakes.

Over half way through 2009 and things (for us anyway) are looking up, we are busier than ever with new customers showing interest on a daily basis, good stock is still as hard as ever to find, more so with the current fall in new car sales, but hopefully the Government scrappage scheme has gone some way to redress this.

For us, and many other independents, it’s the four to eight year old stock that’s the hardest to find. 02 plate to 55 with good history, right colour, right spec, and right price will sell itself.
It is out there, but you’ve got to travel further and work harder to find it, and when you do, you better make sure you give the customer the absolute best value and service you can, because in these times more than ever, if you don’t, you can bet your life somebody else will!

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