Terminology like soothing, feelings, compassion, empathy, unity and family may not be typical words used in a car dealership, especially the service area.
Yet according to three women who are service directors in dealerships around the country, these words describe both their management styles and approach to customer service.
“The challenge in service is retention of customers,” says Regina Salinas, service director at Midlands, Columbia, SC.
“As I build close relationships with my customers, they know I care about more than just fixing their car. I am investing in them, so they will trust me and invest in my department.”
A softer approach to service translates to better bottom-line performance,” says Robbie Long, service director at Liberty Auto City, Libertyville, IL. The dealership controller, Stacy Ellsworth, confirms that.
“We have proven results that the trust we develop with our customers, through our overall presence, works,” Long says.
“Trust translates to retention. It’s a calmer, less-aggressive approach; it’s being a straight shooter and being honest. And immediate follow up has resulted in increased profit for the dealership.”
So how do customers react to a woman in the “garage”? Customer responses vary, from surprise to full acceptance.
Sometimes the surprise begins when the phone rings, Salinas says.
“When a call gets transferred to me in service, if it’s a man on the other end, he asks to speak to the service director,” she says. “When I reply, ‘That would be me, how can I help you?’ he’ll often respond, ‘No, I want to talk to one of the guys.’”
She says the general response to her position from women is, “Wow, a female service director; good for you!” The younger males respond, “Really? Cool!” Older men usually are decidedly undecided about the situation.
“The older male customer sometimes has an issue with me being a woman, but for the most part, it is not a challenge for me in our dealership,” says Lacy Schwab, parts and service director for Porreco, Erie, PA.
Asked if she’d ever lost a customer for being a woman service director, Long says she would not let that happen.
“The art of my job is to be able to identify when someone, usually a man, will not accept my gender in my position,” she says.
“I am smart enough to know when I need to step aside and bring in my dealer principal, when the guest needs a male influence. This disarms the customer. Some guys and a few women need a man, not a woman, in my position.”
Male customers challenge her daily. Because of that, she has to constantly prove herself, she says.
“The difference between a woman and man as a service director is I have to prove every day that I know what I am doing, even after 33 years in the business.”
On the flip side, how do their service technicians – often the epitome of maleness – react to working for a women boss?
Salinas laughs when asked that, then describes her appearance at work: nice dresses, jewelry and makeup.
“Very girly,” she says. But she knows her stuff in the service department, as new technicians and customers soon discover. “Let them doubt me by my appearance, but once I get underneath a car, I know what I am talking about.”
Salinas and Long say mechanics respect them for their hands-on approach to managing the department.
Both women say listening to ideas and feedback from their teams make their departments stronger.
“It’s a team environment,” Long says. “We function as a unit. If anyone gets out of line, I just give them the evil eye like I do with my kids.”
Salinas builds her team by setting clear expectations, having regular meetings and rewarding her technicians for extra effort.
“Recently, I needed my techs to pull some extra hours for a couple of weeks, so I knew their wives and girlfriends were probably not too happy with me,” she recalls.
“I wanted to make sure they knew how grateful I was, so I went out to Bath and Body Works and bought all my techs’ wives and girlfriends gifts,” she says. “I put them in bags with big bows to show my appreciation to each of them.”
A male service manager might not think to do that.
Women in many other types of business are rewarded for fitting into a man’s world, which dealerships, despite significant advancements, largely are.
Long, Salinas and Schwab all have extensive experience in service. They do their jobs the best way they know how: as women. None of them tries to run their department as would a man.
They know they bring different characteristics to their businesses because of their gender, and they leverage that to run their shops successfully.
Although the dealership world statistically has been male-dominated based on employment numbers by gender, women customers make the most car- buying decisions.
Women influence 80% of all vehicle purchases and buy half the vehicles sold in the U.S., according to Ask Patty.com, an automotive website for women.
Yet women customers have not always felt comfortable in the service area of the dealerships.
Asked how women respond to a woman service director, Salinas says, “Many women want to work with a woman service director. They feel vehicle concerns will be explained better to them and they will not be taken advantage of.”
“When a woman walks into Liberty Auto City and sees there is a female service director, controller and 11 other women working in here, they breathe a sigh of relief,” she says.
“When a customer tells me they bought their new vehicle from our dealership because of my service department, I know I’m doing something right.”