With an average dealership head count of 70 people, that means a 10-point increase in turnover costs the average dealership more than $500,000 in gross profit annually. Multiplied by NADA's count of roughly 16,500 dealerships in the U.S., it's an $8 billion-plus problem, Kraybill said.
That means a dealership that can improve its turnover will gain a significant profit edge on its competitors.
Here are some hiring practices to avoid.
• Hiring someone without proper vetting for a sales position just to “fill the seat” quickly
• Hiring someone after only 1 interview by a single manager
• Failing to have a list of reasons to work for the dealership
• Overselling the position — for instance, telling a sales position applicant that it's easy to make $100,000 a year
• Not doing a background check or checking references
• Keeping applicants waiting past the appointed interview time
• Not worrying about impressing the recruit
• Hiring a training class of 10 applicants for just 2 or 3 open positions
Source: ESI Trends; dealers
Improving the people side of automotive retail is the last great return on investment available to dealers, said Adam Robinson, CEO of Hireology, a hiring software provider and consultant. The difference between a mediocre dealership and a great dealership is the strength of its people, he said.
"Most dealerships have a better process for buying office supplies than they do for hiring people," Robinson said. "It's already hard enough to be a dealer. Dealers can't control cheap private-equity dollars consolidating stores. They can't control interest rates, recalls, regulators. They can't control ride-sharing or nondealer models. The only thing they have 100 percent control of anymore is who they put on their payroll."
Dealers generally say they're happy with about half of their employees. If they can make better hires and improve that satisfaction rate to even just 60 or 70 percent, "It is a huge opportunity," Robinson said.
Some of the bigger dealership groups have hired analytical scientists to study the hiring problem, Robinson said. Many groups have been experimenting with new approaches for years. AutoNation Inc., the country's largest new-car retailer, last fall began switching its stores to a new compensation plan offering base wages plus bonuses. Reducing the churn of sales associates is one of the goals, AutoNation CEO Mike Jackson said.
The hope is that the new approach "should slow down the turnover and attract a different kind of person," said Jackson, who is timing the plan's rollout to coincide with a switch to one-price selling on used vehicles. "If you can move away from needing negotiation skills, that would be a huge plus. Then you have a different type of individual in this job."
With the change, AutoNation stores can focus more on hiring the type of person better versed at meeting the customer's needs vs. just negotiating the best deal for the store. If a career path also is laid out for those hires, more are likely to stay at the company rather than jump to a rival store.
The potential for improving sales and customer satisfaction through better hires has more automakers paying attention to dealership staffing as well.
Hireology is working with Kia and BMW to offer hiring services to dealers representing those brands. Ford, Toyota, Mercedes-Benz and Porsche also have worked with their dealers to improve hiring, training and retention. Mercedes, for instance, conducts brand training for dealership employees and also has asked dealers to do employee surveys and respond to feedback to reduce turnover.
But dealership hiring is ultimately a dealer problem, and it's up to dealers to solve it.
The grim news: Despite the added focus on hiring practices, the track record of retailers actually has worsened. Five-year trends from the Dealership Workforce Study generally are going in the wrong direction, Kraybill said.
Annualized turnover for all dealership positions is up. The median tenure for employees in all positions has fallen. One- and three-year retention rates continue to drop.
Dealers also are paying employees more as the labor market has tightened but auto sales expanded. In 2015, the last year for which data are available, the average dealership payroll rose nearly 8 percent to $3.8 million, according to NADA. Actual head count was up 4.3 percent.
Many dealers report not being able to find people for all the positions they have available. Rick Evans, a Toyota dealer in Fort Wayne, Ind., says he's had five to 10 positions consistently open at his store. It's an industrywide problem, he said.
"To get really good quality people who are qualified for the positions is a challenge, and it's getting worse rather than better," Evans said.
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