Communicating with purpose

Everywhere I go I hear the same thing.  “We need better communication”.  I can’t think of one client that I have visited in the past five years that doesn’t identify with this statement.  As a dealer principle I routinely observed that miscommunication was the genesis of most of the problems that arose every day. This issue however really isn’t unique to our business.  Every business in every location across the globe struggles with the same thing.

Since poor communication is at the heart of so many of our challenges, I want to investigate why, and what can be done to move toward a solution that actually moves the needle.  Nobody will argue with the notion that the demands from our customer base are increasing.  Every year we are constrained to provide them with unique, targeted products and services that increase their efficiency, and lower their costs.  Usually these solutions require the efforts of multiple people in multiple departments. It’s hard enough to manage these challenges when we communicate well.  When we don’t, it’s almost a certainty that customers will be disappointed.

So why is this such a big deal?  Better communication can’t be that hard, can it?

When I was selling lift trucks in the San Francisco bay area back in the early 80’s, communication was (by every measure) more difficult.  If a customer wanted to speak to me, they would call the dealership.  The sales coordinator would “take a message”.  (Yes, actually putting pen to paper.)  The coordinator would then call a number that would alert a “pager” hooked to my belt.  I would then have to find a PAY PHONE, and call into the office to retrieve my messages. (Dropping quarters, and trying not to let the receiver touch my mouth….ah…good times)

By today’s standards, these methods are akin to smoke signals.  Look at the devices we carry, and the communication tools available now.  We have the luxury of cellphones, tablets, e-mail, voice-mail, FaceTime, Skype, and Google Docs.  Add to that social media like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and LinkedIn, all with their independent versions of instant messaging.  We are awash in COMMUNICATION.  So why is it still our biggest challenge?

I would contend, that we don’t need better communication.  What we ACTUALLY need is enhanced UNDERSTANDING.  This is a new way of looking at our interactions.  Understanding is actually the GOAL of communication.  We can keep throwing devices at the problem, but if we don’t decisively seek to enhance the handoff of information, we will keep running up against the same issues.

In my Industry Onboarding seminars, I devote a fair amount of time to discussing this topic.  My intention is to try and solve the problems before they begin.  The manner in which we communicate is of paramount importance.  So, if your new hires all started with some specific training in “purposeful” interactions, it would only be a matter of time before you could see improvement in this area.

One of the issues that slows our progress is of our own making.  Most dealerships are naturally separated into five unique “profit-centers” (departments).

  • New Equipment
  • Used Equipment
  • Rental Equipment
  • Parts
  • Service

Depending on your market and focus, there could even be more, but most dealers at least have a core of these five departments.  Each department has its own unique revenue and profitability goals.  Each has its own priorities, and commitments.  Personal agendas and interdepartmental needs tend to govern the outcomes of cross-department efforts.  Management compensation programs are many times predicated on the profitability of the individual departments.

This all serves to create what is referred to as a “silo-mentality”.  I am fond of saying that “departmentalization leads to compartmentalization”.  Departmental employees tend to respond to other team members based on the ability keep both sales and profitability “inside their own silo”.   Left unchecked, department-centric thinking creates divisions that begins to tear at the fabric your corporate culture.

While we are reinforcing our silos, here is the fact we routinely forget.   The customer couldn’t care less about our departments.  The customer only cares about himself.  He cares that his truck didn’t start and he has freight to unload.  He cares that the rental unit he ordered shows up on time.  He cares that the part we ordered yesterday actually shows up and gets installed today.

Our departments, mean nothing to him, and they shouldn’t. The customer has choices. Dealers who make it evident that they have any agenda other than the customer’s needs, will quickly be replaced with alternate suppliers.  Customers won’t tolerate the phrase “that’s not my department”.   They EXPECT that we will operate AS A TEAM to get the job done.  Building silos destroys team harmony.  Maintaining silos slows the wheels of progress that your customer is depending on.

So, what are some tools we can use to dismantle the silos?  I encourage dealership employees to re-think their communication processes, especially between departments.  I suggest the use of three specific tools to enhance understanding of the customer’s expectations.

  • The adoption of urgency

When we need something from another department, our request is normally fact based.  Getting the details is imperative. We have to ensure that we order the right part.  The rental unit has to have the proper capacity.  The forks have to be the right length.  We all get this part right (most of the time).  The one thing I see we routinely miss however, is adding the component of urgency.  To properly prioritize customer needs, we must purposefully add this to our communication.   Not everything is an emergency.  Once again, focus on the customer’s needs.  How many times have we ordered something next day air, and had to apologize, and swallow the costs?  Conversely how many times have we put the part on a stock order (to save the customer money) but not realize that he needed that truck up and running tomorrow?   Urgency should be determined at every level, and by every employee that interfaces with a customer.  Dispatchers, road technicians, CSR’s, shop foremen, and salesmen all should be accountable to provide data AND the corresponding urgency when communicating customer needs.

  • The use of Active Listening

Active listening is a communication technique that if properly utilized, will solve a vast majority of mis-communications.  The process involves a “listen-then-reflect” process that slows both communicators down and focuses their attention on enhancing understanding.    It incorporates the phrase “so what I am hearing you say is”….

If your communication REQUIRES you to reflect what you heard, listening is not an option.  You don’t have choice.  I recommend interdepartmental communication to include the following:

  • Accurate and relevant details
  • The customer’s expectation of urgency
  • The requestors role and timeframe
  • The listeners role and timeframe
  • The critical eye

Sometimes using your words, and your ears isn’t enough.  What we see can be just as important as what we hear.  The “critical eye” is a moniker I use for looking BEYOND what’s normal, and finding a flaw that can be remedied long before it ever gets in front of the customer.  It’s in the same vein as “see something – say something”.  Employees should never be excoriated for pointing out what doesn’t seem right.  Being on the lookout should not only be allowed, it should be celebrated!  The critical eye supersedes rank and departments.  If the receptionist at the front desk notices that the machine being loaded on the delivery truck has something hanging down underneath it…. she has every right (moreover the responsibility) to ask about it.   If everyone that works for the dealership adhered to the idea of the “critical eye”, very few customers would ever be disappointed.

No matter how much technology we apply to our processes, we still depend on our eyes, our ears and our words to get the job done.  Technology is important, but it can’t communicate for us.  It’s our responsibility to carry the message and to always engender a higher level of understanding.

Dave Baiocchi is the president of Resonant Dealer Services LLC.  He has spent 37 years in the equipment business as a sales manager, aftermarket director and dealer principal.  Dave now consults with dealerships nationwide to establish and enhance best practices, especially in the area of aftermarket development and performance.  E-mail to contact Dave.

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