I visited a new diner for a breakfast meeting with a few bankers I'm courting in hopes of expanding my flooring lines to accommodate the rapidly improving marketplace.
My partner and I arrived 45 minutes early to prep for the meeting. On entering we were met by the aroma of sweet muffins baking and fresh coffee brewing. Unfortunately, we also met a young hostess demanding to know if our party was complete. And there starts my story.
There stood a trained soldier already hardened to resist arguments as to why this restaurant should much prefer feeding the first two of a party of five, to insulting them with a 45-minute wait to be seated and served.
“But there's no one in line and half the tables are open,” I said. That fell on deaf ears. This was a restaurant that knew its rules.
No stranger to a thick skull, I politely asked for a presumably more seasoned manager to assist. Sadly, this particular manager had been selected for a similarly stiff neck to that of her protégé.
She thrust her finger toward the far wall on which hung an engraved plaque proclaiming: “Parties will not be seated until everyone has arrived.” Both the manager and her underling beamed with pride at just how solid was the ground they stood upon.
These people knew with certainty their job was to protect the seats and preserve their availability. No coffee and Danish would be sold before their time in this diner.
I waited for 45 minutes, without spending a dime, my only comfort coming from knowing how many times I would recount the story and how I'd never return.
So what were the lessons learned and how do they relate to the car business?
I recall a prosperous time when many industry pundits noted the sharp contrast between Chrysler's uncanny ability to navigate tough times vs. their worrisome record of always screwing up during prosperity. The lesson: Though it may seem ridiculously obvious that managing fast times and slow are vastly different, getting it right all the time is still rare enough to be newsworthy.
It seems that most businesses, like the diner, set rules based on the best of times without considering that they will be followed blindly regardless of their current consequences or applicability.
A mistake common of business people that screw things up is arrogant benchmarking of successful competitors as a blueprint of how they'll emerge from their darkest hour.
I don't know if it's because they truly believe that they've suddenly evolved and can now get there in one fell swoop, or if they're trying to impress distracted overseers with pretty pictures of success even if they're someone else's.
The classic example was General Motors and Chrysler thinking that matching their dealer map to Toyota's would somehow put them on Toyota's path.
Reflecting on the restaurant: They should have bent over backwards to fill the place first, and when a line formed, then manage the crowd. Managing off times the same as rush hour only served to insure that off times prevail. The staff knew the rule, not the reason. Successful businesses invest in empowerment.
A second retail rule (and one of the most counter-intuitive) is that in the busy times allow for disciplines that slow times won't tolerate.
The abundance of compensation in busy times and the positive energy that flows from volume encourage employees and customers to accept things that simply don't fly otherwise. By contrast, cutbacks and impersonal arrangements fuel dramatic and emotional pushback during the slow times.
This is the wrong time for auto makers to attack their dealers by trimming margins, reducing incentives and imposing difficult standards under the banner of raising the bar to meet new challenges.
Successful retail of muffins or Chevy Malibus cannot work if behind every employee is a team of supervisors fixated on enforcing a policy that may not always make sense.
Peter Brandow is a veteran car dealer.
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