Lexus of Bellevue, Wash., cultivates nontraditional workforce

on Sep5

Trainer Tawnee Kinnebrew, left, works with sales team members Jessica Wilson, center, and Deborah Song.

When Lexus of Bellevue went all in on the one-price model it had been moving toward for years, it also modernized its hiring model for a sales experience worthy of the Internet age.

That meant not only pursuing a younger and more diverse staff, but also adjusting to a retail environment shaped by Amazon and Nordstrom in terms of customer expectations.

“Mostly I want to hire attitude, because I think the rest is all something that you can teach somebody,” said Erika Olson, the Seattle-area dealership’s 32-year-old sales director.

That means a lot of training — including on Sundays — and rewarding team players, who are often difficult to find in the traditionally cutthroat environment of car sales.

During the interview process, she said, “I’ve met a lot of salespeople who say, ‘Well I pulled 20 cars last month,’ and you ask them how their dealership did and they either a) don’t know or b) really just don’t care.”

“Most of our salespeople want to win within their own metrics but also really want to see the dealership win,” she said.

Lexus of Bellevue has advantages over traditional dealerships in attracting workers uncomfortable with the hard sell.

As part of the Lexus Plus program it signed up for a year ago, everything in the dealership is on a one-price model, and each customer deals with one salesperson from when they walk in the door all the way through the F&I process.

General Manager Jason Vena, 37, said the dealership started moving toward a limited one-price strategy with no separate finance manager about four years ago, before adopting the full Lexus Plus program.

“This is about the customer experience and the employee experience, and they are synonymous,” Vena said. “The employee has the same fears coming into work at a car dealership as the customer has buying at a car dealership. If you can treat your employee like you treat your customers, I think you can create a better environment.”

That means creating a level of flexibility not usually associated with the long hours and aggressive haggling at traditional dealerships.

“What we started to notice with some of these salespeople is when they were in front of customers, they were very successful because they had a very genuine outlook about selling cars,” he said.

“The personality trait they didn’t have is they weren’t necessarily concerned if they sold five cars or 10 cars,” he said. “Their budget needs were maybe different than the traditional car salesperson. Their work/life mix was maybe a little bit different.”

Vena said that if a salesperson at his dealership is selling at 40 percent of customer encounters and hitting other metrics, they’re basically OK.

The payoff for that nontraditional attitude is getting nontraditional salespeople: younger, more educated and more diverse. They range in age from 19 to 69.

And the bottom line is that the new approach is working at the store, which moves about 200 new cars a month. Some salespeople sell four or five vehicles, others sell 15 or 20.

The dealership has its highest customer satisfaction scores in 25 years, has about doubled average F&I revenue per vehicle and bumped used-car sales to 120 cars a month from about 90 a month last year, Vena said.

“We’re not kidding ourselves here,” said Vena. “Not many of the kids I grew up with said, ‘I want to be in the car business when I grow up.’ Nor did I. So we’re cultivating a group of people that had no intent to be in this business.”

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