Jane LaSalle, director of agent training and marketing for American Dealer Services (ADS) in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., didn’t come to the industry in the usual way. In fact, she originally planned on a career in music and theater. She worked part time in high school at a car dealership, and it “got in my blood” she noted. At the time, she was still pursuing theater as a career option. She even went on tour with Barry Manilow, but realized, from that experience, that wasn’t what she wanted to do with her life. She went back into the car business, and the rest, as they say, is history.
“[Touring with Manilow] actually helped me in my career,” she noted. “Training in theater actually ‘set the stage’ for my career in sales. It helped me with the necessary tools: the ability to accept the word “no.” A sense of fearlessness and shyness is not in my vocabulary. It gave me the ability to engage with people on a level a lot of others can’t, and gave me the tools to perform. It’s a fun job.”From learning to “block” a scene on the stage, to applying that in the automotive industry, she now directs ADS with her philosophy of “putting the pieces together” and offer the best to their dealers. She noted that one thing that sets them apart from some other agencies is that they empower every one of their people to make decisions about stepping in and helping a dealer with a claim — no matter how small it might seem. “Empowering employees to take a hands-on approach to handling claims issues allows them to step up and do the right thing, participating in the process if need be — they don’t have to wait for executive approval, which also sets us aside from a lot of agencies. We’ve trained our people enough, and they’re honest enough, and their reputations are [solid] enough, we respect them enough to go with their decision.”
What that means for dealers, she noted, is that they know they’ll never have to worry about any product they use from ADS. The company goes to great lengths — sometimes spending up to a year researching and evaluating products before adding them to their lineup — to make sure the products are high quality. She noted that one of her duties is to research new products, some of which come from her dealers mentioning something they’ve heard of, other times things she’s seen at industry events, or been directly pitched.
Her goal, she noted, is to not only have her top recommended products, but several other, equally good products as backups, for dealers who want something slightly different, or in case a problem develops somewhere along the line. Some of the criteria she looks for when she begins the process include:
- Do they have a reputation in the trade news?
- How long has the company been around?
- How long has the product been around?
- Who is backing it?
- What type of licensing are they using?
- How many states is it offered in?
“The background might take two to three months or more,” LaSalle noted. “Sometimes it might take three months, and I might tell dealers I wouldn’t recommend it, doesn’t have longevity, I can’t see it, etc. But if I get past that, then I look into it even closer and talk with their marketing rep, I ask things like, ‘Is it environmentally safe?’ or ‘Am I going to have to invest in the company?’ It takes a lot of what-ifs. What am I needing for my dealer, that I’m going to sign off on and back 100%? I can’t damage that relationship with my dealer, so the product has to work.”
However, if something does comes up, or there is a dispute with a claim, ADS will, she noted, even kick in the difference to make sure they’ve made things right. “We don’t want to just be another warranty peddler,” LaSalle said. “Customer satisfaction, knowledge, etc. set us apart.”Building the Business
When it comes to growing their dealer base, LaSalle is just as diligent, and thinks just as long-term as she does when choosing a product. It’s not, she advised, a quick game; it’s a business of building relationships.
“In simplest form,” she noted, “ we walk in without any pretense to let a dealer know we’re in their market area. We go in not to take any business away from whoever has it, but to let them know there’s something different out there. It’s on a non-confrontational basis. It may not happen tomorrow or the next day, but if we keep at it, and keep our face at the front, it will happen. For example, we send Christmas cards to every handshake we’ve given to say ‘Thanks for letting me say hi.’ We want to gain a relationship from a handshake. Sooner or later, it drops, and they’re calling you and saying ‘Hey, I remember you, will you sit down and talk to me?’”
She noted that, at the core, it’s all about simply building up a level of trust. It might, she noted, only start with one or two products to test the waters, but being in for the long term is the best strategy she’s found. Longevity, and building a reputation for honesty, as well as a high level of product knowledge, are key to growing the business.
“Someone coming in needs to know they aren’t going to walk in the door of a dealership and close the business,” she said. “It takes endurance, and a handshake over and over again. Walk in, be pleasant, and on your way to where you’re going, leave a card. One day you’ll get that call, and it will be sound — that’s the best day. That’s the day you need to be proud of, and build [your] reputation on.”