Just out of high school, her dad took a young Carolyn Cross in hand to her first job, at a car dealership. That typing job started a life-long career she loves. Today, she is dealer operator of three Sonic Automotive dealerships in Texas. One of them, Lone Star Chevrolet, is the nation’s number one Chevy dealership. We spoke recently to her about her life, the stores she operates, and how she handles this business’ challenges.
Click here to read Carolyn’s full interview with Dealer magazine.
Tell us about Carolyn Cross
I am the dealer operator for three Sonic Automotive stores: Lone Star Chevrolet, Lone Star Ford and Ron Craft Chevrolet-Cadillac in and around Houston. Lone Star Chevrolet is the number one Chevrolet store in the country. We have been a GM Dealer-of-the-Year for more than 10 years. Last year Lone Star Chevrolet won the south Texas Better Business Bureau’s BBB Pinnacle Award, one of just three dealerships ever to win this honor.
I started my role as a dealer operator in 1989 as a GM for Ron Craft Chevrolet-Cadillac in Baytown, TX. The store had been selling roughly 60 new and 20 used cars a month. That dealership today consistently sells 150 new and 120 used a month.
My first job in this business was in 1967, right out of high school. Dad said, “We don’t have money for college, so what do you want to do?” I liked cars and told him so. He knew the used car manager at Southwest Lincoln-Mercury in Houston, so he took me there, literally, by hand. I started there, typing new car stock cards. The staff soon noticed I couldn’t type. So I was moved to assistant service cashier and I worked as receptionist part time. From there I moved up through billing clerk, title clerk, and accounts receivable.
In 1972, Chick Smith Ford hired me to be their office manager. I moved up to controller, a position I held for 11 years. I joined Haskins Chevrolet in 1984 as fleet manager and then as truck sales manager. I then joined Ron Craft, which had been purchased by Sonic in 1998.
In 2003, I moved to Lone Star, which had become a Sonic store the prior year. In 2006 Sonic placed me as GM for Ron Craft as well, and when Sonic acquired Lone Star Ford in 2010, I picked it up as well. I now oversee these three stores.
I love the car business. It was the greatest blessing to have been as young as I was at the time and fall into something I loved so much. I eat, sleep, and breathe the car business, and I am truly blessed for that.
What strategy helped turn Ron Craft around?
If I could bottle it, I could sell some books and make a lot of money. Really though, there is no magic to this business, no secrets. Working hard every day and hiring the right people though is paramount. I’m often asked how I successfully operate three stores, when some people can’t run one. My answer is a simple one — I don’t run them—the people do. As long as you have the right people, you can do just about anything.
You focus then on…?
I spend my time on advertising and training our sales managers and associates. These weekly meetings are I’m-going-to-teach-you-something sessions. These sessions focus on character building and developing productive attitudes. My content is based on my reading of leadership books by authors like John Maxwell, Tom Peters and Brian Tracy. I have read 456 books by these men and others writing on leadership issues.
You’d think I’d read a lot about sales training as well, but I don’t. When I started as dealer operator, I noticed that an individual couldn’t sell a car if he or she doesn’t feel well or has problems distracting them. I thought if I could teach them how to control themselves, if I could give them that motivation and they could feel better about themselves and their world, then they would sell cars.
It can be a challenge to link specific outcomes to training endeavors like this, but sales production is certainly one sign. Lone Star Chevrolet is 29 acres; we have 1,100 new cars in stock and about 250 or 300 used. We retail monthly 350 to 357 new cars and 250 used. We also do another 250 to 300 a month through our fleet sales. The only way to achieve results like these is to sell more cars! We started out 27th in the country and are the nation’s number one Chevy store!
Your training focus is more soft than hard.
You mean, I don’t train on how to do a vehicle walk-around? No, I don’t train on those sorts of important skills; that’s the stores’ sales managers’ jobs. My focus is at a higher level. Because, frankly, people like to ignore their home life and everything else in this business, so I focus on helping them right size their focus. If their home life stinks, they’re not going to sell cars. I think of the training I do as a full-body press; I’m out to improve the whole person.
All this has a practical application, for sure. My training tries to communicate how to deal right with customers by projecting and applying a helpful, upbeat attitude and demeanor. If we look and feel good, a customer who encounters one of us won’t leave feeling worse than when they walked in.
I try to break some of the bad habits that car sales people can have. I hope to convince them their personal problems don’t have any room in their customers’ meetings with Lone Star Chevrolet. I want them to think about what their customers really want and what they feel being with us. If a person would rather have a root canal than buy a car, when you can change that perception, then you’ve changed that person’s world.
Here’s an example. One time I looked out the window onto the lot and noticed light-reflector umbrellas and a photographer. I walked out and said, “What are we doing?” The sales associate’s name was Gerald Martin and the customer said, “I’m taking Gerald’s picture to go in my family album. I’ve got my mother and my grandparents and the rest of my family in it, and now I have my car salesman.” You just don’t hear that happening often.
These characteristics would seem to be largely innate qualities. How do you find people having them?
We do all we can to hire the right people. The premise is if you don’t, none of the training is going to work. I look for attitude in those we’re considering. We can train about the car, we can train about how to do walk-arounds, we can train about a sales process, but if the associate doesn’t have the right attitude to begin with, training is probably not going to be productive. Those we employ have to fit into this culture of taking care of the customer; it is not just something we say, but something that we live, eat, sleep, and breathe. If they don’t want to buy in to that culture, then they’re probably not going to make it here.
What is your advertising strategy?
Our philosophy is to stay consistent with advertising, in the bad as well as good times. I know of no other way to keep our name in the market. For us, this means a steady buy on TV and radio. We also reach customers through e-mailers and Internet newsletters, and our e-commerce manager Joe Healy does a great job with our digital marketing.
We are also a female friendly dealership. That means our associates, working in sales, service and parts, and our body shop, understand what a woman seeks and how to work with her in a very unthreatening manner.
This business still has the aura of being a male-dominated business. We do get many female shoppers here and they tell us in surveys, letters and e-mails about how comfortable they are shopping with Lone Star Chevrolet and the other stores. We try to make the store look — I don’t want to say “feminine,” because that’s not it; the store features live plants and orchids, and we have candles around, and the bathrooms are spit-shine clean. I can’t tell you how many times women have stopped and said, “OK, there’s a woman running this place.” Unfortunately, the GM facilities changes require us to give up these personalized accents customers tell us they really value.
To the question, “How do you gauge ROI?” for being a female friendly dealership, I’m not sure you can. I will just tell you that a dealer cannot ignore that part of the population that makes 85 percent of the buying decisions when it comes to auto purchases. As part of our efforts in this area, we make note on our website of where women shoppers can engage in programs and events like Breast Cancer Awareness, read up on auto-related topics, and otherwise understand we care about them and their vehicle shopping process.
You must have a number of women sales associates.
We have 64 sales people. Unfortunately, only four of those are women. It has been very hard to attract them – or to attract just about any younger individuals – to this business any more. I guess I understand, probably, more than anybody, that this business is intensive. The rejection factor is huge and the hours are unattractive, but in turn, the sales associates who persevere are extremely successful.
What providers have been important to the dealership’s success?
We’re happy with eLead for our CRM and NetTrak from ADP for lead management, and we use @utoRevenue for database mining to identify sales opportunities. We use ActivEngage for Live Chat, and we recently launched a service-only website through DealerOn to help us build service volume and profits. We also use Aspen Marketing for customer communications.
To change gears, you’ve had remarkable success with the recent Ford acquisition.
I attribute that turnaround — if I had to sum it up — to our success at changing that store’s culture. It takes an enormous amount of energy to change a culture. To some people, the way we used to do it is good enough. Enough said!
How is this strategy different from your other stores?
It’s not, really. I would describe our overall strategy as 100 percent customer-oriented. We strive for an open and transparent relationship with customers. Customers walk into a dealership fearful because they aren’t sure how they’ll be treated. As an industry, we tend to take customers into interior offices darkened by mini-blinds so customers aren’t sure of what’s going on.
Our dealerships have no walls between sales desks. They sit in the open, like a bank lobby, at a table and if a particular associate wants to start lying to a customer, the next customer is going to hear it. On the contrary, it can be powerful for a customer to hear the same words coming from the sales associate at another table as he or she’s hearing from his or her own sales associate.
Carolyn, how do others describe you?
Uh, driven? Perhaps a challenge to work for; I don’t think I am, but it is certain that you have to work and you have to be accountable—you’re accountable for your production, you’re accountable for your CSI, and you’re accountable for knowing and being the best you can be.
And you hold associates to that same accountability?
I do. We work very hard to make our stores an easy place for customers to spend their money. You have to look around your business and identify your WAYMISH, “Why are you making it so hard” for me to spend my money? Getting culture to the point this doesn’t happen requires much repetition – communicating repeatedly your culture to make it stick with staff. My report card is the comments customers give to us.
What keeps you up at night?
Well, frankly, nothing. That may be peculiar to hear, but the only thing that might keep me up is if I thought I had the wrong person in the wrong seat on the wrong bus going in the wrong direction.
How will OEMs’ facilities programs affect you?
For Ron Craft, it’s going to be a plus. For Lone Star Chevrolet, it’s tearing up something that doesn’t need to be torn up.
Here’s an interesting story about that. GM sent a mystery shopper to Lone Star Chevrolet, and as a result wrote up 75 things that she raved about: How the place looked, how homelike it feels, how warm it was, etc. Now, with this GM program, I have to turn the store into white walls and white floors – just like a hospital! I’ve been fighting this and I’m not going to win, so I’m trying to reconcile, but it is for the good of nothing that I can see.
What would you do differently if you could?
This is probably going to be bizarre: I wouldn’t do anything different.
Not a second-guesser, are you?
No. No. I can make a decision and it sticks.
Who’s Carolyn Cross when not at work?
You ready for this? I’m really nothing outside of these dealerships. People ask me what I do for a hobby and I tell them I sell cars. They ask where I go on vacation. I tell them, I sell cars. I know it sounds as if I should have three heads, but selling cars and operating these dealerships is just what I love to do.