Leadership : Those that drive the nail and those that blame the hammer

Brian Canning's first foray into the automotive industry was as a Goodyear service manager in suburban Washington, DC. Over the next several years, he enjoyed a successful management career that ultimately led to his overseeing several stores and then the entire sales region. Currently, Canning works as a leadership and management coach with the Automotive Management Institute (ATI), where he interacts with shop owners and managers in the automotive service and tire industries. He adds that he is a passionate student of leadership in all of its forms.

See http://www.motorage.com/Take+the+Lead

Acknowledging that it is one heck of a lot easier for me to sit in judgment a thousand miles away from a client’s shop and complain about what might or might not be happening and why but having stood behind that counter, having dealt with customers and having interacted with technicians most of my adult life, I hate to see a shop owner or a service manager settle for anything less than excellence. And settle is exactly the right word.

I once worked for a larger company that had thirty-five branch locations scattered across three states. We generated 30 million dollars in annual sales and had strong market share in all of the markets we sold in. It was a quality company, though they tended to be much more expensive than the competition, they were the guys to beat. We had the customers. Our success was the result of a very aggressive business plan, very high expectations and a corporate mentality that we were the best. From the President and CEO on down, we all talked the talk but more importantly, walked the walk. We were the best. Ask us why we were more expensive, we were happy to talk about value and were anxious to overcome any and all objections. We were that good.

I would assure you that we hired very carefully, trained thoroughly and continually, rewarded excellence and reinforced superior performance. Everybody was accountable to clearly defined standards of excellence, and you know what, we delivered excellence every single day. The President of this company, who was a CPA completely unfamiliar with the traditional automotive world, often laughed at the success he brought to the company, explaining that he hadn’t realized that he was asking for anything unusual. His ignorance of what the industry said was possible allowed him to ask for something much more. In this case ignorance truly was bliss.

If you are not asking your people for excellence, I can promise they will never deliver it. A bigger problem is in our not asking our people for anything and our willingness to accept the result. As an owner, as a leader, you have the opportunity to set the agenda, to determine where we will go and how we will do things. How can you complain about the quality of work your guys are turning out, if you are not asking them for better? How can you complain about how productive your technicians are, if you are not demanding more? On the other hand, if you try asking your people for good, they might give you great; ask for great, they might give you extraordinary. What you are asking for might just be the key.

Nobody knows better than I do that people can disappoint and let you down but in dealing with people that is a risk you will always need to take. As a leader you will always have the opportunity to correct misbehaviors later but until you are asking, your people cannot deliver. And until you ask for better you are stuck with what you are currently getting. Are you willing to settle for that?

I have clients, business owners, who live and breathe quality in everything that they do. They demand their technicians be productive and they get it. Not only do they get it but they suffer very little turnover in demanding much more than the average shop does. How could this be? These same owners set standards and have procedures in place that demand our customers receive extraordinary service and among other things this requires we show an interest in our customers, that we are friendly and helpful and that we go to great lengths to make sure our customers are very happy and very content. They place huge demands on the Service Managers and Service Advisors.

You guessed it, we suffer virtually no turnover and in every measurable way we are exceeding the lofty expectations we have set before these guys. They are taking excellence and going one better. Now the kicker: In every case these clients are charging a premium, often more than the dealers in their various markets and their lots are full, their margins are high, they are booking weeks in advance and people are tripping over themselves to get in their doors.      

As an industry we would seem very reluctant to demand better or ask for excellence. We assume that our employees are not willing or capable of the extraordinary and without a second thought, we consign our dreams and vision to disappointing mediocrity. Not because our people are unwilling to perform, because we won’t even ask them to show up for the game. Just as they can disappoint, people can surprise you but not unless you are asking them for something better. Not if you don’t make the attempt to have them see what you see and want what you want. The bitter temptation here will be to blame your people. The sad truth is in your failure to ask. Leadership is all in the asking.

My wife and I have a favorite restaurant we go to. It is very expensive and way out of our way. We are happy to pay and more than willing to make the drive. Where do your customers go when they want to pay too much?

Ó Copyright Brian Canning 2007

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