Editorial: It’s all about people!

Mar 07, 2013

This article first appeared in The Zweig Letter (ISSN 1068-1310) Issue # 998 Originally published 3/11/2013 Three lessons the design industry can learn from a successful auto dealership. I feel fortunate to be a consultant to the design industry and entrepreneurship professor. I get to meet many cool people – and see success in places and markets where the average person thinks it’s impossible. I love seeing businesses be successful in crowded, mature industries where the market is either stagnant or declining. (Does that sound like the A/E business to anyone?) We did it with our design/construction/development firm (Mark Zweig, Inc.) here in Fayetteville. During the worst housing market in 50 years, we grew every year AND established new standards in terms of price-per-square-foot. We did it by offering a different level of quality and service, along with using traditional design and real materials – and a small segment of the market responded by giving us their business. But that’s not what I want to talk about today. Also here in Fayetteville is the Lewis family. They run a fourth-generation, family-owned enterprise that owns car dealerships. They have three new car stores, two used car lots, and a large body shop, each in separate locations. Over the course of several years, I have purchased many vehicles from them. Their Ford store has been setting new sales records every year since 2009. A big part of that is their charismatic 30-year-old general manager, Matt Lewis. I met him and befriended him several years ago and have been very impressed with how he does things. I had him come speak to my classes this week and thought I would share with you some of his secrets for success. I believe their business practices would serve architects and engineers (and just about any firm) well. Here’s some of what Matt had to say: 1) No one will buy anything from you until they answer three questions. Those are: 1) Do I know this person; 2) Do I like this person; and, 3) Do I trust this person? Think about that. Familiarity breeds trust. When the other person shows genuine interest in you, you’re more likely to like them. And when they provide helpful information, you’re more likely to trust them. They go out of their way to greet people by name when you go in their dealership. Their salespeople are trained to ask questions to establish a relationship. And they do something no other dealers do to build trust. That is, they give you a price they will buy your trade-in for whether or not you buy a vehicle – any vehicle – from them. That avoids the games and disappointments car dealers use everywhere else. They also show any buyer a computer printout of six different financing scenarios for every vehicle they quote a price on. The implications for our business are that we need a strong brand name that is familiar to the clients we’re pursuing. Our principals and project managers need interpersonal skills training so they make people like them more readily. And we need to be willing to discuss costs with clients quickly in a straightforward manner. 2) You have to take care of your internal customers. By “internal customers” Matt is referring to their employees. He said something I have been saying for years. That is that unhappy, pissed-off employees will not be able to sell your services! In a historically high turnover business, they have managed to keep some key people for 20, 30, and even 40 years in a family-owned business (and family-owned enterprises typically have problems with that). The way they do it is by being nice. Matt never beats on or berates anyone. And they train their managers to look at themselves if they’re having performance problems with any of their staff. Has the manager given the employee the necessary training and time to succeed? If not, they must do that before Matt will even entertain their complaints about someone. They also put up many hurdles for any family member who wants to work there as an employee. They won’t hire you until you first work elsewhere to prove yourself. And then all family members have to go through a two-year rotational period where they work in every single department within the business – from accounting to service, from financing to sales to parts, all for non-family managers. Then top managers hold a caucus to decide if the family member can have a job there and if so, what the best place would be. Matt also interviews every single new potential employee they hire to make sure they have the right stuff to succeed. The implications for those of us in the A/E business are that long-term employees who are happy have long-term relationships with their clients. That breeds familiarity and trust and helps you sell more of what you do. And while family business is perhaps not as prevalent in our industry as in some others, if you do employ other family members you’ll be served best by creating some systems to make sure they are valuable contributors who establish their credibility with non-family member employees. Finally, the CEO needs to be involved in hiring. It’s just too critical to abdicate. 3) Last but not least, Matt talked about how his job as the leader is to stay “up.” He said that if he came in and called his people together and talked about how bad the economy was and the car business was and how they all needed to hunker down, everyone there would start looking for a new job. He has to be the most optimistic person there every day, with a smile on his face and a message of hope. “The pie is still there – and while it may be smaller, they can get two pieces.” The implications for us in the A/E business are obvious. Those of us who are leaders cannot fall into despair. We can keep growing by doing better than other firms in so many small ways, but first and foremost by how we treat people inside and outside of the company. While the overall market may be stagnant or on a decline, the market is still huge, and we all have the opportunity to grow just by being better. Mark Zweig is the chairman and CEO of ZweigWhite. Contact him with questions or comments at mzweig@zweigwhite.com.

About Zweig Group

Zweig Group, three times on the Inc. 500/5000 list, is the industry leader and premiere authority in AEC firm management and marketing, the go-to source for data and research, and the leading provider of customized learning and training. Zweig Group exists to help AEC firms succeed in a complicated and challenging marketplace through services that include: Mergers & Acquisitions, Strategic Planning, Valuation, Executive Search, Board of Director Services, Ownership Transition, Marketing & Branding, and Business Development Training. The firm has offices in Dallas and Fayetteville, Arkansas.