Jack Fitzgerald recalls how in 2001 then General Motors Corp. Chairman Jack Smith tried to explain to him process-based management, using charts, diagrams and maps.
It overwhelmed Fitzgerald even though he's no lightweight as the head of Kensington, MD-based Fitzgerald Auto Malls' 12 stores and 35 franchises in three states.
“I didn't understand what Jack Smith was talking about,” he says. “He was very nice. He must have thought I was an idiot. But I had a desire to find out something about it.”
Then Don Ray's management column ran in the August, 2001 issue of Ward's Dealer Business. Ray explained the purpose and value of companies using the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) to certify uniform business processes that meet audited standards.
Noting that quality-conscious automotive manufacturing relies on ISO-certified standards, Ray urged dealers to do the same as a way to achieve efficiencies and ultimately customer satisfaction through consistent, timely and trouble-free delivery of vehicles and services.
Says Fitzgerald, “I read the Ward's article — and got what process-based management was about.
“Mr. Ray's focus is that, if you want to improve customer satisfaction, you need to improve efficiencies. You need a process to do that and there's this third-party organization that assesses and certifies that level of quality through process-based management.”
Convinced, Fitzgerald and his managers came up with the “Fitzgerald Quality System.”
It calls for processing customer feedback in real time, allowing managers to act immediately to modify operations across the Fitzgerald enterprise.
Fitzgerald then sought certification from ISO. Smithers Quality Assessments Inc. tested the Fitzgerald system to see if it was ISO-worthy.
It was. It became the first-ever multi-location dealer group to become ISO 9001:2000 certified.
Fitzgerald is delighted.
“It's the best thing to happen to me in 40 years in the business,” he says. “It's a big investment but it helps in big ways.”
As a gauge of buyer fulfillment, he says it's superior to auto makers' surveys and customer satisfaction indexes (CSI) — a system that the National Automobile Dealers Assn. says is broken.
“I'd like to get this CSI-survey monkey off my back,” says Fitzgerald. “I don't think manufacturers truly know what customers think about us, certainly not based on the surveys. Those don't mean a thing to anyone anymore.”
Using an ISO-approved system across all of his dealership points enhances sales, service, follow-ups and concern resolution, says Fitzgerald.
He adds, “It gives employees a chance to do their jobs right. People want to do it right. They don't want to come to work saying, ‘We're going to screw something up today.’”
It also promotes teamwork in a work setting that needs it: “Up to eight or nine dealership people are involved with a customer. You get dissatisfied customers when someone on the team drops the ball. Processes focus on avoiding that.
“You got a lot of turf to cut across at a dealership, all those different departments and different managers. Processes prevent turf battles.”
In Fitzgerald's new quality-control system, surveys are provided at every transaction point to all customers who can respond online, by mail or in person. The surveys are typically short but allow customers to elaborate.
The accounting office receives the feedback, inputs it and delivers it to managers for follow up. The system aims to address customer concerns as well as their causes. It's also strong on employee feedback.
“Everyone on the team gets a say,” says Fitzgerald. “There's a process for them to make changes. It really is wonderful and efficient.”
Fitzgerald was 20 years old in 1956 when he quit a successful door-to-door salesman job to start selling cars. He now oversees 1,000 staffers in Maryland, Pennsylvania and Florida.