People asked us, ‘How can you afford to do that?’ Our reaction has always been, ‘How can we not afford to do this?’

P.J. Caletti’s approach to ensuring customer retention is making guests smile—it’s the foundation of the culture at Erin Park Lexus Toyota-Scion—and, more importantly, it’s working.

Don’t tell me. Show me.

It’s the credo P.J. Caletti ascribes to in his personal and professional lives.

So when his dealership was looking at ways to create a great guest experience, he knew they had to go beyond aspirations and slogans, and make changes with intention and direction. “It’s not that we felt we were doing a bad job—we weren’t,” says Caletti of the dealership located in Mississauga, Ont. “But we wanted to be more intentional about doing a great job.”

The key was to understand how to deliver on this promise. “A lot of companies have cool mission statements or goals or a rally cry,” he says. But, he explains, what is said, and how employees interpret it, can be very different. “So, with a dealership of 200 people, we had to take away that ambiguity and remove the opportunity [for our employees] to misinterpret what it was we wanted to accomplish.”

That meant taking inspiration from another company they felt delivered great guest experiences. (Hint: It’s in Orlando.) “We engaged with this company at a tremendous expense, and took our entire leadership team of 22 to train at their location. People asked us, ‘How can you afford to do that?’ Our reaction has always been, ‘How can we not afford to do this?’”

The lessons learned were priceless, he says. “Essentially, it was: Have you defined your culture? Is it in writing? Is it easily understandable? Is it something you can measure?” There’s more to it than that, notes Caletti, “but we had to ask ourselves, ‘Is that what we feel like what we do? Or is it absolutely what we do?’”

For those who know Caletti, this approach to doing business probably comes as no surprise. One of only three Canadians named a “40 Under 40” by Automotive News, Caletti, 37, joined the Erin Park dealerships that his father had bought, in 2002. Two years later, he was named sales manager. In 2009, after nearly doubling the dealership’s new and used retail sales, he was named general manager. Last year, he was one of three Canadians chosen by Toyota for a cultural immersion program in Japan, a direct result of his working relationship with the factory and his volunteer activities on various training committees.

“People always talked about KPIs and reports, and it’s funny, because I’m a get-in-the-trenches kind of guy,” says Caletti, who believes a leader’s time is best spent immersed in the guest experience. “I can analyze all the reports in the world, and I’m not suggesting we don’t—we devote an unbelievable amount of attention to the performance of our financial statement—but it’s how you get to those results.”

One way is a smile. The Erin Park happy face is everywhere in the showroom. The campaign is no accident, and the logic was simple, says Caletti. “People understand what a smile means—there is no misunderstanding.” The happy face also appears on Erin Park’s website. “This culture doesn’t just apply to our physical showroom. We asked ourselves, ‘Can we do a better job of greeting our guests? Are they getting the information they need? Is it easy to find?’ We wanted to create the same experience virtually.”

With Erin Park’s Toyota and Lexus dealerships on track to have their biggest year yet in terms of volume and sales, this culture of intentional guest service is paying dividends not only with the bottom line and reputation—Erin Park is in the top 14 percent of DealerRater dealer reviews—but also with Caletti’s team. But there was a learning curve.

“We knew that people are not used to following the kind of details we were prescribing. We knew it would be difficult. But can you have the best product adviser on the planet who sells the most cars but is abusive to his team? Is that a great team member? In the past, because you valued the volume, you may have said, ‘OK, it’s not right, but let’s see what we can do to smooth things out.’ But now, we place a high value on how guests are treated and on defining who the guest is to whom.”

Guests aren’t only the people walking through the lot, explains Caletti, who refers to his team as internal guests. “To our licensing department, their guest is not just the person buying the car at the front door; their guest is also the product adviser. What are you doing to create a guest experience for the guest you’re working with? It was helping them to understand who their guest was.”

Put simply, he says, the goal is the intent to return and the intent to refer. “With guests coming to the door to buy a car, you’re hoping they continue to do business with you and that they tell others to come do business with you. When you’re talking about your internal guests, you’re hoping they continue to do business with you as a productive member of the team and you’re hoping they’ll tell others who are like them to come be a part of our family as well.”

What the culture isn’t, is a lack of accountability, says Caletti. “When something has gone wrong, there’s still an accountability component, and because it is so well defined, it’s much easier to say, ‘Here are the things we trained you on. Help me to understand that interaction because it had a poor outcome. Why don’t we work together to find out where that fell apart?’ As opposed to, ‘Hey, come here! Why did that happen? Here’s what you’re going to do in the future.’”

Caletti says he’s noticed how his internal guests are treating their colleagues in different departments. “We don’t have to tell people to be nice—it’s happening.”

When asked if this approach should be applied to other businesses, Caletti is quick to say he would never tell another dealership how to operate.

“I am not saying these are the commandments of how a dealership should be run. This is what we have found works best for us. And, certainly, as much as I would hope people learn from me, I hope they understand I continue to endeavor to learn from them.”

Spoken like a true leader.

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One Response to “The Happiest Car Dealership on Earth”
  1. It was a great day when we at Strategy Mob shot this with Victor. Always a pleasure talking to PJ about the dealer landscape. He is a great positive energy to be around. ‘Til next time PJ.


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