NEW YORK – At an automotive conference here on women working at dealerships, it was an evening of stories – some inspiring the attendees, some illustrating the importance of persistence, some highlighting changing times.
Mary Lou Rocco recalls that 20 years ago, when she began working at Volvoville USA in Massapequa, NY, women didn’t work in the service department. Now she is the service manager.
Jane Millman, general manager of Riverhead Dodge in Riverhead, NY, says women, over the years, have been afraid to enter the auto industry because it was always male dominated. Now they are less apprehensive and making a difference.
Suzanne Cochrane of Helms Bros. Inc., a Mercedes-Benz store in Bayside, NY, says she started working there as a young service cashier determined to prove herself.
She now is the dealership’s general manager.
She says women are some of Helms Bros.’ most successful sales people. They work under Jennifer Lang, Helms’ sales manager, who started at the store as a receptionist.
Sheila Meyer, dealer principal at Meyer Chevrolet, says she had opposition from a general manager when she took over the Middle Village, NY, dealership. Now, her sales manager and finance manager are both women.
Those stories from women who work at dealerships were told at a networking event to encourage more women to work at dealerships.
The Greater New York Automobile Dealers Assn. sponsored the forum at the association’s Center for Automotive Education and Training.
It is part of a growing movement to encourage women entering or re-entering the workforce to consider dealership careers. Two reasons spur automotive retailing’s efforts to recruit women.
One is to ease the general shortage of qualified employees at dealerships. There are about 100,000 job openings at U.S. dealerships. Specifically reaching out to women quickly widens the base of prospective employees.
“You read about jobs disappearing in the auto industry, but that’s not the case at dealerships,” says James Willingham, adealer in Long Beach, CA. “There are plenty of dealership jobs and we’re having a tough time filling them.”
The second reason for targeting women for dealership jobs is that they tend to do well in such an environment, particularly when it comes to showing strong communication skills, detail orientation and empathy, attributes that go far in selling cars.
Six women are on the sales team at Park Place Lexus in Plano, TX. They represent a wide range of backgrounds, from estate planning to corporate sales. Some had never sold cars before.
“It’s not a battle of the sexes,” says Sherry Miller, vice president-human resources for the 9-store Park Place Dealerships that sell luxury and ultra-luxury brands including Bentley, Maybach, Mercedes, Porsche, Rolls Royce and Maserati.
“It’s about offering our clients more choices,” she says. “Some people find it easier to relate to a man when buying a car, and some are more comfortable talking to a woman. Their sales figures are indistinguishable.”
Jamie Klein was in sales at a record company before joining Park Place as a Lexus saleswoman seven years ago. She says she gets up in the morning each day with a passion for selling cars.
“My clients appreciate my directness,” says Klein. “I’m willing to go the extra mile to discover their needs. You might say I mother them a little.”
A colleague on the sales floor is Kim Bergman. Before joining Park Place, Bergman confesses her automotive experience consisted of buying cars, driving them and “changing a single tire in my whole life.”
Her car-buying experiences helped her realize she might be good at vehicle selling.
“I had purchased three cars at three different dealerships from salesmen who all fit the used-car guy stereotype,” Bergman says. “I was in corporate sales when a friend of mine convinced me I should be in car sales.”
Nearly five years later, “I couldn’t be happier,” says Bergman, who praises Park Place Lexus for encouraging – and even enforcing – staffers to abide by the Golden Rule.
Miller says, “People don’t think of women in prominent positions in the automobile industry. But there is tremendous potential in our company.”
The same is true at many other dealerships, both small and large, across the country.
Julie Turner, who runs the finance and insurance office at Grimes Motors, is the first woman manager at that Cadillac-Buick-Jeep-dealership in Helena, MT.
“Five years ago, I started working at the dealership selling cars to support my kids,” she says. “Three weeks into it, the owner called me to his office. I thought he was going to fire me. Instead, he said I had the qualities to sell F&I – openness, honesty, caring. I’ve done very well since then.”
Women generally do a good job relating to the dealership customers, both male and female, Turner says. “When you gained their trust, men like to deal with women.”
It’s not just young, attractive women that male dealership customers are drawn to.
“Some of them are comfortable with grandmother-types,” says Turner.
Indeed, says automotive sales veteran Pam Barker. Noting that about 80% of women over age 65 operate an auto, she advocates “hiring a really sharp grandmother to sell cars; someone that people in that age group would be comfortable talking to.”
Barker is a trailblazer. She started selling cars in 1976 for a Chevrolet dealership in Clarkston, MI. “I was 10 years old,” she quips. She went on to work at dealerships for 15 years.
One reason dealerships should hire more women is that women buy a lot of vehicles, she says.
“Women purchase 65%, of new cars, 53% of used cars and influence up to 95% of all vehicle purchases,” says Barker, who now is manager-employee sales and dealer retail sales training for GMAC Educational Services.
Women buy fewer pickup trucks than men. But Barker says that, from what she’s seen, saleswomen often do a better job of selling trucks than salesmen.
“Women selling trucks tend to show every time that they know what they are talking about when it comes to trucks,” she says. “Male sales staffers tend to presume the customer already knows all about trucks. So women make better presenters.”
But although the dealership employment door is opening for women, it is not yet wide open.
“I was in this business 30 years ago, and there were only a handful of us at the time,” Barker says. “It’s sad we haven’t progressed more than we have.”
Mark Schienberg, president of the Greater New York Automobile Dealers Assn., says, “We’re starting to see the door open up for women, with a number of them taking dealership jobs. But it’s not a lot. Dealers say the ones that are on board are working out.”
He says dealers report women in sales tend to follow up better, close sales more effectively, attain higher grosses and chalk up higher customer-satisfaction scores.
“A lot of dealers tell me they’d love to hire more women,” Schienberg says.
However some dealers are reluctant to hire women because they never have, and some women are reluctant to work at dealerships because they see it as a man’s world.
“Once people take the chance, the stereotypes will fall away,” Schienberg predicts.
Women make up only 7% of employees at dealerships, says Barker, citing various industry statistics. Most women working at dealerships hold office jobs. About 16% are F&I managers, 7% general managers, 4.9% owners, 4.2% new-vehicle sales staffers and 2.2% used-vehicle sales personnel.
“Yet surveys indicate 50% of both male and female customers say they would rather deal with a female,” says Barker. “Those are strong numbers that scream that we need to get more women in dealerships.”
She says one reason for the low female employment numbers is the perception that dealerships are male bastions. It deters many women from applying within. One woman told Barker: “A lot of women don’t want to work around a bunch of guys.”
Some male employees can make women co-workers feel decidedly unwelcome at dealerships.
Barker says it is management’s responsibility to provide a non-hostile work environment for all workers.
“General managers and dealers should know what is happening on the floor; it’s your floor,” she says. “If something is wrong, shut it down. But I’m not big on the idea that it has to be special for females. If it’s special, it should be special for everyone.”
Turner says, “Some guys will try to run you off, but you just have to be – I don’t want to say tough – but firm.”
Overall though, she says she’s been treated well. She recalls one incident where a male colleague acted inappropriately towards her. “I told him, ‘If it happens again, I’m going to the dealer.’ It didn’t happen again.”
Barker says she made it a point to walk away if a male co-worker told a dirty joke at the dealerships where she worked.
Regardless of gender, it’s often tough working at a dealership. “We hear ‘no’ a lot, and still have to turn around and do it again the next day,” Barker says.
But, she says, for the determined set, the work offers a wide variety of careers that are satisfying and rewarding.
The New York dealer association’s career event for women tried to highlight that.
“Responsible, hard-working individuals will find great opportunities and a myriad of careers available at area auto dealerships,” says Meyer, the association’s first female chairman.
Looking for New Hires In All the Right Places
Finding qualified women to work at a dealership may require some outside recruiting or it may simply be a matter of looking around your own store, Barker says.
“A candidate could be in your own backyard, someone like a receptionist or warranty clerk who is already familiar with the dealership business,” she says.
Such women could be ready for a promotion to a position on the sales floor, the finance and insurance office or elsewhere within the dealership.
“It may be someone you hadn’t thought about, even though you know a lot about them already,” Barker says.
Otherwise, she recommends dealers be on the lookout for prospective women employees in all walks of life.
There, you may find “the perfect person to work at your dealership, but chances are they are not going to be knocking on your door,” Barker says. “You need to approach them.”
“Perhaps it is a store sales clerk who is helpful and friendly,” she says. “That’s just the type of person you need. Plus, they’re already working nights and weekends, which some dealerships must staff.
“Or maybe it is a good waitress. That’s someone who interacts, handles problems and is an intermediary between customers and the kitchen staff. She’s someone who works with the public so, in a lot of respects, you are already there.”
Finally, Barker advises dealers scouting for new hires to “always carry your business cards.”
Women Consumers Major Force
Women have become a major consumer force, a fact that has gone unnoticed in some quarters.
“A lot of people don’t realize how powerful women are as consumers,” says automotive consultant Lauren Fix.
She cites data indicating women make 50% of vehicle purchases and affect more than 80% of purchase decisions.
“Increasingly, women are the new consumers,” says Pam Christensen, a management supervisor for Campbell-Ewald, an advertising agency with major automotive accounts. “Why? Because they are better educated and better paid than before. Their median income has gone up 63% in 30 years. One-third of wives earn more than their husbands.”
ACDelco Marketing Director Nancy McLean says: “Women are at the heart of most families and of many businesses. Women talk to each other, network and have a lot of power. So it’s important to make businesses attractive to women.”
Convenience is important to women customers, but not as important as trust, says Fix. “Trust is most important to them. That and communication.”
Women represent 65% of customers who take vehicles in for service and repairs, says Christensen.
She says most women surveyed (66%) cite courteous and friendly service as a prime consideration for car repair and maintenance work. That is followed by a clear explanation of services performed (64%), fair price (61%) and clean and comfortable surroundings (59%).
“It’s a matter of focusing on customer needs and understanding their expectations,” Christensen says. “It doesn’t require a major capital outlay, but it sometimes requires a change in thinking.”
Whether they are buying a vehicle or getting one serviced, a common complaint from women is that “they feel talked down to,” says Kimberly Lukas, an ACDelco marketing specialist.
Auto-repair personnel should take the time to explain to women what was done to fix their vehicles, she says. “They don’t need to be told how to repair it, but women like to have information.”
Christensen says one way to provide that, as well as foster customer trust and loyalty, is to sponsor car-care seminars for women. She recommends 60- to 90-minute sessions covering basic vehicle knowledge. Make them fun and give gift bags to participants, she says.
Citing modern demographics, Christensen says that if 50% of a vehicle service facility’s customers aren’t women, “you’re doing something wrong.”
Men tend to view car buying as a competition and relish in the give and take of price negotiations, but women don’t, says Mike Wethington, CEO of Outsell LCC, an Internet marketing firm, citing a company study on purchasing habits.
“Women are more interested in relationship building,” he says. “And one of their greatest pain points is the feeling that they are not being treated fairly by a salesperson.”
Wethington says there are “profound differences” between the way women and men buy cars, but he advises dealerships to “view customers not as men or women but as unique individuals with different needs.”