In The Box with Ben Burton

Ben Burton

Recently named one of Automotive News’ “40 Under 40,” Ben Burton has also been called “a natural leader, mentor, and go getter” who “can turn any negative situation into a money-making, positive experience.” Here he shares his secrets for how dealers can reshape the industry into one with a reputation for creating excellent customer experiences.

ben Burton

Ben Burton
GM of Parkside Kia, Knoxville, TN..

What is the one thing that dealers can do to ensure long-standing success?

Evolve. To evolve is to change, and not just change for the sake of change. The word implies you change in a positive manner to adapt and flourish in your environment. To adapt to the ever-changing climate of buyers, we must evolve and stay present and provide beneficial products and services that customers want. Concurrently, we must treat customers with respect, and not like a number. Serving people is our livelihood! Someone once asked me if I was a “customer advocate.” I said, “Absolutely! Without customers, we are all out of business!”

Are dealerships really different from buying services like Carvana?

YES! We are true experts! We do this every day, whether it’s an online auction getting units or a sight-unseen appraisal. We do everything they can do, but we do it better and with personalization.

I’m aware there has been a seemingly constant stream of articles, blog posts, surveys, news blurbs, and ‘fake’ news headlines with one consistency – John Q. Public does not trust, much less love, car dealerships. Frankly, we are to blame for making the public nervous about us. In addition, collectively we have allowed the likes of Carvana, Vroom, Fair, and CarMax, to name just a few, convince the public that dealerships are bad! There is simply no comparison to the personalization and care that can be given through a dealership. We must actively seek to change the buyer’s perception by sincerely changing the way we have done business. A reputation, once tarnished, takes twice the time to repair.

Why do customers feel that dealerships provide a negative experience?

A buyer’s perception is their reality. However they feel is how they will relay their experience to everyone, and on every forum. Whether you made a profit, which is not a bad word, or lost the farm, it doesn’t matter to their ideology. It’s a very self-centered experience for them because we are offering a service. Knowing this, start making it about them from the beginning. Start doing what those other guys do (Carmax, Carvana, Vroom) – extended test drives, sight-unseen appraisals, prequalification links on your websites – and do it even better. Why can’t you deliver the car to a customer and find a way to make it even more special?

How else can dealers stand out, and interact with customers the way they want?

Be accessible to your customers. Text them (legally, of course!). Be so detailed that you can match the language they use and ask them about their kid’s baseball game when they walk through your door later. Interact with the buyers on social media platforms. Do advertising that draws your customers to you, but portrays true possibilities – meaning do not stack rebates that are bogus! If you offer a lifetime warranty, then honor it! Offer a product or service that is worth it and deliver on it! If your “why buy” is “I’m here for you,” but you duck out every time the customer needs something, look for an army of keyboard warriors to bring you to task! Do not let it happen to you; be the one percent that personalizes the experience and follows through. Focus on the customer experience. Be consistent, process-driven, and transparent. Take the time to explain the math to the customers if they need it. Do not allow your finance department to make customers wait. Make sure your salespeople introduce the customer to the service department. Find ways to make them forget they are at a dealership. Pay attention to details, from the moment of first contact to infinity, and build lifetime and legacy customers. Do not be average. Do not be a part of the 44% of dealers, according to the NADA stat, that will close by 2028.

How can dealers reach customers on their terms?

We must look at buying patterns, or for an even deeper level, customer search patterns. How are our customers buying? How do they want to be contacted, dealt with, and ultimately, followed up with? Do they want a choice drink upon arrival? Do they want a generous smile, a firm handshake, and a cookie? Do they want a kiosk that lets them look at your inventory and request a product advisor when needed? They tell you the answer; you simply have to pay attention and do the research. Use the tools you are paying so much for, know your market, and ask your clients how they want to buy.

What is an area of improvement for many stores right now?

Most dealers live on the “hope” program. I “hope” our customer is coming for that appointment. I “hope” our salespeople are following up. I “hope” our managers are attending to our customers. I “hope” our controllers are watching our money. I “hope” our General Managers are actually doing the jobs I pay them to do. Start knowing! Know your team has the dealership’s best interests in mind, and will take care of your customers. Never wonder if your people are doing what you ask, and always inspect what you expect. Be proactive and accessible. Be present and involved. Lead by example and always be willing to get your hands dirty. Do not be a boss; become a leader that people love to follow. Always be true to yourself and your team, and they will follow you! Make your team part of your family and treat them as such. Happy employees will always make your customers happy.

What has been a factor in your personal success?

Heather, my wife, has been my absolute rock. She’s held our family together through some very tense times and moved eight people through six states. She’s become a very sought-after graphic designer, content writer, and SEO specialist. She’s done all of this while taking care of and educating our four little monsters.

Also, when I’m faced with a situation that I’ve not experienced before, I ask for help. Our industry, although extremely competitive, is packed full of people with an amazing willingness to help one another. However, we are not mind readers. We are car guys/gals, so you must reach out and ask for the help you need. No one knows everything, so I’ve learned to put pride aside and go to those who know more.

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