<p><em>Photo: GettyImages.com/elwynn1130</em></p>

A professional juggler once told me that the only way to learn to juggle six balls at the same time is to try to juggle seven. In today’s retail environment, the position of general manager requires specialized expertise and diversity of knowledge. It is not uncommon for a qualified GM to command an annual income north of $500,000 and into the seven digits; they can virtually write their own pay plan.

I know what you’re thinking right now: “What in the hell is Ziegler smoking?” You know plenty of general managers who make good money, but not that kind of money. The truth is that most GMs are not executives. They are glorified general sales managers. Are you among them?

There is a reason some of the large public companies struggle with acquisitions of new dealerships and expansion of their brands: There is a huge shortage of executive general managers who can successfully run a large-volume dealership or dealer group.

Executive GMs understand how to run a complex organization. Sales ability is a minor qualification. They possess finely tuned organizational and productivity skills. They have advertising and marketing acumen. They have learned how to focus and multitask while dealing with unexpected and disruptive issues. It’s an intense position for an intense person who performs well under stress.

After 42 years in the car business as a top-performing salesman, executive manager, consultant and trainer, I have earned my reputation for helping dealers and GMs graduate to the big numbers. I know what it takes because I’ve seen it and done it. I know there are at least 20 things every GM must do every week to earn their title and perform at a high level.

So, for the next minutes, let’s pretend I’m the new GM at your store. Here’s what I would do:

1. Get to Work Early.

I am one of the first to arrive at the dealership, every morning. My day begins before normal business hours.

2. Drive the Lot.

One of the primary responsibilities of the executive GM is the condition of the overall facility — cleanliness, display and safety. My first task is to drive the dealership from both directions, then slowly weave through the inventory. I am looking for uneven rows and obvious “lot rot” — especially in pre-owned — as well as litter, loose equipment and other safety hazards.

Regardless of everyone screaming that customers shop on the internet (which they do), I have to remember that my front line is a quarter of a mile of billboard exposure with thousands of cars driving past every day. What are all those potential customers seeing? High-volume dealerships have great display and merchandising.

3. Use the Service Entrance.

After parking in the back, I enter through the service or get-ready departments. I’m going to talk to everybody. I am smiling. I don’t want anyone to be afraid to approach me. From lot attendants and clerks to service advisors and salespeople, everyone I encounter gets a greeting and a smile, maybe a little family chat or a sincere congratulations for a job well done.

I am never negative or scowling during my morning walkthrough. There will be other times when that is necessary.

4. Ask Questions.

I am never too big for the little people. I am cordial and casual. I know everyone’s names and I know some things about them. I meet new people on their first day. I ask about their lives and listen to their answers. I pay attention to the challenges that affect my employees’ work.

<p><strong>An executive general manager&rsquo;s day should begin with a walkthrough of the service department, where every staffer should be greeted with a smile.&nbsp;</strong><em>Photo: GettyImages.com/monkeybusinessimages</em></p>

5. Pull the DOC, CRM and Financial Reports. 

Once in my office, my workday officially begins with operational reviews. My most important measurement tools are the DOC report, my CRM report, and the financial statement. You will never be a competent general manager operating at the highest level if you cannot pull, read and interpret these documents.

6. Get the Controller.

Next, I will review receivables, payables, warranty funding and rebates, parts obsolete and manufacturer programs, preferably with my office manager or controller present, every single day. 

7. Open the Mail and Sign the Checks.

I sometimes have to leave the store for manufacturer and 20 Group meetings. When I am present in the dealership, I personally open all the mail and sign all the checks. I will question my accounting person about line items and expenses. We review the PACE report. Before they leave my office, we know the dealership’s exact “cash position.”

8. Rally the Troops.

Twice a week or more, I will hold department management meetings. Very seldom will I combine the variable and fixed ops managers in the same meeting. This is necessary in large operations. If the operation is really large or comprised of multiple stores, this will be a series of meetings.

The variable meeting is mandatory for my department heads, including new-vehicle and pre-owned sales, fleet sales, my F&I director, my BDC manager and my accounting chief. Our discussion will include:

  • Inventory aging
  • Trade-ins, including recon expense, time in service and wholesale profits and losses
  • Who is driving our loaners, and why
  • F&I product penetrations, per-copy average and lease penetration
  • Number of customers financed at 72- and 84-month terms
  • Contracts in transit, funding delays and deals delivered but not approved

My background is in variable operations. I know my weakness lies in the intricacies of fixed ops and I’m man enough to admit it. That is why I hired a strong, honest service manager and overpaid them. I have also hired a reputable service department consulting company to train my advisors, streamline our processes, and give me regular updates.

With all that in mind, the fixed ops meeting will include my service manager, my parts manager, my body shop manager and — you guessed it — my office manager or controller. We will cover:

  • Open parts counter tickets and repair orders, especially those older than 30 days
  • Average hours per RO
  • Average dollars per customer-pay RO
  • In-and-out times for our quick lube
  • Inventory of spare parts and fluids techs are storing at their workstations for side jobs

9. Audit Deal Jackets.

I am going to pull random delivered deal jackets. I am going to read every document and worksheet, focusing on finance approvals and conditions. Why is our gross where it is? Are we missing deals? We need to discuss nonperformers and the state of our F&I training program.

10. Work With My 20 Group.

No, I didn’t say “vacation.” Do you really believe the Alpha Dawg would belong to a golf-outings-in-resort-locations 20 Group? I joined a working dealer 20 Group, and my fellow members benchmark me, educate me, and keep me updated on new trends. Most importantly, they challenge me to improve.

11. Check My Rep.

I regularly check my customers’ reviews on Google, Yelp, Edmunds and DealerRater. I will personally respond to bad reviews. I will even get on the phone if necessary. I will call in the managers and employees mentioned in reviews — good or bad — and get the story.

I will make a strong effort to get the customer neutralized and happy, and perhaps persuade them to revise or cancel their review. Needless to say, I will pay equal attention to CSI engineering.

12. Save a Deal.

I will be sure my GSM is conducting a save-a-deal meeting every weekday with all the variable managers. Everyone attends. No exceptions! If my GSM is absent, I will conduct this meeting myself.

13. Save Another Deal.

I will require my managers to call on missed deals. What deals did we miss yesterday? Who is going to make the phone call? You’re not depending on your salespeople or BDC reps to get them to come back, are you? Why didn’t we make that deal? How could we put it together?

<p><strong>Executive GMs must be able to pull, read and decipher dealer software reports and financial statements.&nbsp;</strong><em>Illustration: GettyImages.com/TCmake_photo</em></p>

14. Enforce the CRM.

My dealership is a shining example of a CRM culture. No one is excused from using the CRM. So many GMs fail to enforce this rule. They make exceptions for employees who don’t want to use it, or parts of it. For them, I coined a phrase: “Marry your CRM.”

Now that our culture is established, if a manager or employee refuses to use our CRM in the way we have said is necessary to our process, they cannot stay employed here.

15. Put Your Ear on the Track.

I will listen to recorded phone calls. At some point, every day, I will stop and have a chat with the receptionist. That person knows everything that’s happening in the dealership, including conflicts and drama.

16. Trust Google.

Time to meet with my internet and BDC managers. I want a complete audit of our channels and how they are performing, including:

  • Ads on social media
  • Google AdWords
  • Third-party lead providers

Bear in mind that Google Analytics is the only measurement I trust. I do not trust the bogus companies using “attribution” and “influence” reports to justify their value. I will not rely on the numbers provided by a vendor or a company the vendor hired.

<p><strong>GMs can glean new insights &mdash; and in some cases, save a deal &mdash; by regularly reading reviews submitted by sold and unsold customers online.&nbsp;</strong><em>Photo: GettyImages.com/Steven Debenport</em></p>

17. Ditch the OEM Website.

Most factory-mandated websites are pitiful. I will hire someone to build our primary site, and I will demand regular audits of website conversion stats and performance.

18. Protect the Data.

I will get regular reports on who is extracting data from my CRM and DMS. I have made it clear that no one other than myself can allow any vendor access to either system or put tracking pixels on our websites — not the BDC manager, not the service manager, not anyone!

19. Stop Overpaying.

From firsthand experience, I know that dealers are paying ridiculous spreads with almost every vendor. Some of you are paying three times as much as another dealer in your market for the same services with the same vendor.

I have seen vendors make a muscle and try to raise their prices by thousands of dollars. Some dealers paid the ridiculous inflated price while others canceled. To those who canceled — with very few exceptions — after a few weeks or months, that same vendor came crawling back for thousands less.

20. Don’t Be a Sucker.

No vendor is indispensable. If they’re not performing, I will attempt to renegotiate. If they won’t play ball, I’ll fire them in a heartbeat. Every vendor has competitors, and most of them can pick up where the last one left off.

To that end, I will continually pay attention to what we are paying every vendor, from our lead providers to our CRM, websites, uniforms and pretty much anything else we’re paying for. If I suspect we’re being overcharged or somebody in my 20 Group confides they’re paying a lot less for the same services, I will fire that vendor and totally renegotiate everything. I will not sign a long-term contract.

Finally, I will audit every vendor for ROI, always using our own statistics. I will not believe the alleged research the vendors bring me about their performance. I know for a fact many of them are using bogus companies that are totally on the take. Don’t tell me about how you’re “influencing” my customers. Tell me how many deals you actually delivered.

There are many things an executive GM can do to be highly effective and deliver the big numbers that generate big salaries. If you adopt these 20 habits and best practices, you will undoubtedly discover more along the way. But this list is a good start, and I hope it was beneficial and thought-provoking.

Until next time, keep the emails and phone calls coming, and don’t forget to find me on social media. Let me know what you think of my list and keep me apprised of your progress. I want you to succeed and I know you can. 

Jim Ziegler is the president of Ziegler SuperSystems Inc. and one of the nation’s best-known consultants, trainers and speakers. Email him at [email protected].

About the author
Jim Ziegler

Jim Ziegler

President and CEO of Ziegler SuperSystems

Jim Ziegler ranks among the industry's most recognized and honored trainers, consultants, authors, speakers, and forecasters.

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