Tom Kline

Lead Consultant & Founder | Better Vantage Point

Tom Kline, a former dealership owner with 30+ years of experience, specializes in solving dealership problems through risk mitigation remedies, compliance, and dispute resolution for dealerships. Tom is the Lead Consultant and Founder of Better Vantage Point and has worked with publicly-held and private dealerships. Kline recently created AlwaysDoBetter.com/HowWeHelp, a digital comment box, to prevent employees and customers from posting negative reviews online while giving the dealer an opportunity to resolve the issue.  Kline is a member of the Expert Panel for Dealership Marketing Magazine and an Endorsed Expert for the RVDA, VIADA, and the CIADA. Kline recently spoke at the national Digital Dealer Conference and will be presenting at the RVDA National Conference. Thank you for seeing things from a Better Vantage Point.

Auto Dealers: What’s Your Total Cost of Risk (TCOR)?

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Financial statements track how you are doing financially every month. Consider measuring and benchmarking TCOR as a part of your ongoing financial statement process.   What is TCOR and why should you care about your dealership’s Total Cost of Risk (TCOR)?  Business is about keeping the money you make. Your sales and gross profits could be at record highs, but your losses might be, as well. Unless you are tracking TCOR, your money may be walking out the back door because of losses or customer problems. Consider changing the way the dealership accounts for losses at the store (TCOR).    The only way to improve in any area is to measure it and benchmark it. TCOR is a metric used to evaluate your dealership’s internal risk process. Here is how it’s calculated: Insurance premiums + self-insured losses + losses associated with lower profits and productivity + risk administrative expenses (internal & external) = Total Cost of Risk (TCOR)  Tracking this metric will help you laser focus on which parts of the dealership cost you money. Consider customizing and defining each aspect of the formula to specify the guidelines for your dealership. These guidelines will be different for every owner-operator. It’s important to be consistent in how you establish and execute the accounting at your dealership based on those guidelines. Consistency will produce accurate data leading to meaningful answers.  Here’s an example: Let’s say you sell vehicles to people who have credit challenges (secondary customers). In my experience, if you “spot” them in their vehicles, and then cannot get them financed for whatever reason, they tend to write more negative online reviews. Hopefully, you have a process at the dealership to bring them back in and try to satisfy them in some way.   (If not, start today. Most lawsuits and regulatory problems start with upset customers. In fact, a dealership in Tennessee recently had its license revoked after multiple claims of deceptive acts. Now, the owner has been convicted of twenty-one (21) felony counts. His problems all started with customer complaints. Pro Tip: After you have satisfied the customers’ concerns, ask them to “update” their review. If you ask them to “change” their review, the customers will feel manipulated, Then, it will look like the only reason you helped them was to have them update the online review.) If you tracked the personnel time and all other expenses associated with these types of issues, you would be able to determine the actual cost of taking care of these customers. This is only one aspect of TCOR. (Please refer to the formula above.) If the dealership accounts for these costs accurately, it means you can no longer hide these losses in “Other Income.” In many dealerships, “Other Income” becomes the “garbage pail” of accounts, where you charge expenses, so the managers who are paid on gross won’t complain about chargebacks.    Using the secondary customer example above - whether or not TCOR is being tracked - we can discuss which policies and procedures can be put into place to stop these types of losses. There are plenty! We will not know the effectiveness of the procedures unless the numbers are tracked accurately. Recently, I have been hearing dealers espouse a case of the “yets.”   “I haven’t been sued yet.” “I have not heard from a regulator, yet” “We haven’t had any major problems, yet.” So, I don’t need to track TCOR…  Depending on the accounting controls at the store, the losses may be bigger than you realize. Unless you are measuring these costs, it is unknowable how much money is being poured into issues at your dealership. Do you really know your risk costs? Reputational losses? Customer satisfaction charges? Please consider tracking and measuring these numbers moving forward.  I’ll bet you’ll be glad you did. 
Risk Avoidance – Ignored

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Are you too busy selling cars to pay attention to the myriad number of lurking problems and issues that you haven’t had time to address? You would like to correct them and don’t know where to start?   Let today be the day you start. First, don’t be the businessperson and entrepreneur who doesn’t pay any attention to the “what ifs.” What if happens! A lot, in fact. Don’t avoid the risk. Start by being aware that risk is out there and everywhere. Sometimes you see it and sometimes you don’t! Unearthing unknown problems is a process and is heavy lifting. Rest assured there are steps you can take now to be a pro. Here are eight (8) action items you can start today to reduce your operational risks. Consider Doing An Enterprise Risk Assessment Doing an enterprise risk assessment means that you should examine all aspects of your operation for problems and what ifs. This is an on-going process and (1) is not accomplished overnight, and (2) should be a part of your monthly routines.  Here’s a starter checklist: 1. Is someone designated to find, respond, and resolve internet complaints? (If you are asking why you should waste resources on this, consider this internet posting example I found on a review site for a client: “If you are reading this and went through something similar at this ***** hole, email me at @***.com and I will be glad to talk with you.” This is exactly how class action lawsuits begin. Although, this is a huge exposure, it’s easily solved as a straight-forward daily task that someone must be responsible for and bring to conclusion.)   2. Do you know what to do if/when you get served with a lawsuit or an inquiry from a regulator? (Now is the time to formulate a proactive plan, not when you are under time pressure. If you have not had a problem here, consider yourself lucky. Not being pessimistic, but it’s an eventuality. This is not as simple as turning it over to your regular lawyer. Unless they are well versed in consumer law, they may not be qualified to respond. This is the worst situation because they will give you bad advice and you will likely act on it. That makes a bad condition even worse. I’ve seen it a lot and it’s ugly, expensive, and time consuming.) 3. When was the last time you had someone independently check your website for advertising compliance to ensure all advertising laws are being met? (Are you unknowingly using bait and switch advertising? How you read and/or changed your disclaimers to reflect today’s advertising requirements? Recently, I reviewed a dealership’s websites and quickly found seven (7) violations within a three (3) hour quick view. Each and every mistake was actionable by an attorney, regulator, Attorney General, the FTC, or the CFPB (you get the picture here). Several mistakes made the dealer vulnerable to Unfair and Deceptive Acts and Practices (UDAP) laws under which the potential damages are tripled. Tripled! Plus, if sued, the dealer would be liable for the consumer’s attorney’s fees, which will be substantial. $70,000 - $80,000 is not an unusual number, sometimes it’s more. This is a disaster easily avoided by having a third party check your ad content regularly. This should be a regular monthly check as you change your advertising frequently.) 4. Gotcha! The local television news van shows up and wants to do a story about a customer’s broken vehicle that you (personally) don’t even know about. What do you do?   (Do you have a media policy? Do your employees know what to do or where to direct the reporter?  The dealership should have a written media policy signed by each and every employee with a clear delineation about who is authorized to speak to the media. Usually, by the time the news crew arrives, the station already has the customer “in the can,” i.e. the customer’s interview has already been recorded and approved by the station manager. So, the only thing left is for the news crew to interview you on camera and get your side of the story. Sometime, stories can be stopped with facts but you have to be prepared and know how you are going to handle these situations. PRO TIP: Do not ever submit a written comment on your letterhead. Then, everyone who sees the story on television sees your logo with the response! That’s not helping your reputation.) 5. The Internal Revenue Service arrives wanting to talk about IRS Cash Reporting requirements. Are you ready?   (This has nothing to do with income tax. This is how you report customer “cash” transactions to the IRS in compliance with their regulations. Fines for willful non-compliance can be up to $5.5 million and up to five (5) years in jail. Did you know that a traveler’s check is cash? Did you know that a cashier’s check for $10,000 and under is considered cash? Do you have a written policy about how your dealership handles this issue? Did you send the customer a letter at the end of the year indicating that you filed a Form 8300 with the IRS? Big liability here. Get on it.) 6. A mechanic is driving a unit that loses steering or the brakes. It careens into your used oil tank which begins leaking and is running toward the drain. Do you have a plan for this? (First, do you have a written spill plan? Have all of your employees signed off on it? Remember in our business, if it’s not in writing, it doesn’t exist. It’s very difficult to keep up with all the pollution and environmental regulations. Do you have pollution insurance to cover a spill? Did you know you can be personally liable for this type of accident? What happens if your waste oil vendor dumps your used oil in the river? Do they have insurance to cover you? Are you tracking the insurance of your vendor? These “what ifs” get messy, quickly.) 7. A regulator shows up and asks to see your training records on xxx. What do you give them? (Twice-monthly training for your employees is considered “best practices.” Even more importantly, when you train, you must have employees “sign off” on the training materials. Then, you demonstrate to the regulator by providing your training materials with the employee’s signature. If you can prove an attempt to get it right, the regulator will generally be more lenient with you. If you appear to totally disregard this particular area of compliance, then buckle your seatbelt. If a regulator arrives at your dealership, generally they won’t leave without you writing them a check. The question is whether that check will be a few thousand dollars or a “5” or “6” figure check. Oh, and do you have any insurance which might cover these instances?) 8. You receive a “charge” from an employee who goes to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) claiming that there’s an atmosphere of sexual harassment and discrimination. Now what? (First, have you considered having insurance to cover this type of claim? Second, do you have an Employee Guidebook that has policies on how to cover these issues? If you do not, you leave yourself wide open and vulnerable.) So, there are eight (8) actionable items for you to consider. Ignore these at your own peril because when one bites, you’ll hurt.  
Dealer Risk Mitigation: Expectations & The Fountain of Youth

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My buddy, Tom, recently visited St. Augustine, Florida and he was kind enough to bring us souvenirs. No, my fiancé and I didn’t get t-shirts. We got something a heck of a lot better than that! We were gifted tiny tourist miracles from Ponce de Leon’s THE FOUNTAIN OF YOUTH! In personalized bottles! That’s life-changing, right? Well, I thought it was awesome until I flipped over the bottle and discovered it was “Made in China.” WAIT, WHAT? Then, we were sad. Our hopes and expectations of eternal youth – dashed. This was a kitschy, little reminder that things don’t always turn out as you want them to or as advertised. Sometimes things turn out worse than you thought and sometimes, though not as often, they turn out better.   And so, when you get a regulatory letter saying the dealership has made customer or advertising mistakes requiring immediate correction, often your expectations start with dread and large dollar signs. That eventuality could happen. However, with proper care and diligence, you can settle the issue(s) quickly. Most often, these regulatory issues start one of three ways:  A customer problem An employee issue Advertising violation(s) Be vigilant on these three (3) issues. They should be front and center in keeping you out of trouble. There are plenty of risk mitigation strategies to prevent problems, covered in a subsequent article. Risk mitigation is an ongoing, everyday practice that requires continuous improvement activity.  So, when you receive a letter, administrative action, lawsuit, subpoena, or a formal request for documents, from a regulator, read the paperwork with great care. Sometimes the magic is in the wording of the allegations. Please read it and set it aside for the moment. Building the Story Next, research the problem. Interview the parties involved. Take clear notes as the nuance of the story matters. If the alleged violation is customer or advertising-based, pull the file and review it carefully. Do all of the signatures in the file look consistent? Or may someone have forged a signature? Build the story of what actually happened by reconstructing the detail, step by step, and commit to recording this for yourself to have a chronological record of what happened. Be sure to include direct quotes from the witnesses in your chronology.  Now, refer back to the original allegations to determine what holes are left in the story. Try to unearth the details relating to those holes. Re-interview as needed. Taking good notes is critical! Effective Risk Mitigation Contact your risk mitigation expert and determine if the charge could be covered by your insurance policy. Consider this carefully. Depending on the dollars involved and the nature of the complaint, insurance company adjustors can make the matter more complex and time-consuming. This is an expansive question, so this will be a future article, as well.   Most “complaints” have deadlines. Just be aware of this and ensure you are responding promptly. At this point, I advocate contacting the regulator directly and having a friendly chat. Find out what he/she is looking for. If the problem was related to a consumer or employee, resolving it may be as simple as satisfying their concerns. If it is advertising-related, I can assure you it won’t be that simple. During that call, be positive, be professional, and assure him/her that you want to resolve the issue. Ask for permission to ask questions. Grab your chronology and ask questions to try to fill in the gaps where the allegations do not make any sense. Go slowly and listen carefully as the regulator may or may not have the correct information.  If the regulator has bad information where you can prove the allegation is incorrect, gently offer up one or two incongruous tidbits at that time. Depending on the rapport you have built, you can offer a third, though I would not offer more than that on a first call. The purpose here is to sow doubt about the veracity of the complaint. Don’t overdo it.  The most critical question you should ask is if you can reach out to the upset person(s) and try to satisfy their concerns directly. Most of the time, the answer to this question is a resounding “yes.” It’s important to ask the question. It shows respect and deference.  Then, agree on a time frame when you will get back with the regulator. Keep him/her posted on your progress. It’s better to over-communicate than under-communicate.  Solving the Issue By now, I am sure you are asking yourself, “when is he going to talk about getting the lawyer involved?” The attorney may not be necessary. This is a fact-specific question and I cannot generalize to give guidance on this. Then, satisfy the aggrieved parties’ concerns. However much it costs to fix the problem, I promise it will be less than letting the regulator devise a solution. Ask them to sign a Release of Claims, which should include language like this: “Customer acknowledges that he is COMPLETELY SATISFIED with ____________ (dealership) and with the resolution of his concerns.” Then, call your regulatory contact again and walk him/her through the dynamics of what happened with the upset person(s). Explain how you resolved the concerns. If a lack of proper business practices caused the problem, it’s usually okay to acknowledge it. Thank the regulator, and, if appropriate, let him know you will change your practices, so this doesn’t happen again. (Use a lot of discretion here as this may not be necessary, and you do not want to create a problem where there isn’t one.) Provide the written document to your contact so he can close his file. Phew! Great work! Conclusion Hopefully, your expectations of dread, gloom, and doom did not come to pass. What did you learn? Is it time to change your risk mitigation strategies? If this was stressful for you, consider taking the time to install new policies and procedures to prevent these problems before they occur. You can reduce your anticipated stress level for future problems by hiring someone who can help with these difficult situations.   Temper your expectations through continuous improvement activity. Risk mitigation is not a one-time thing but is an ongoing practice. It reduces the chances of regulatory interference and catastrophic losses. Consider changing your business processes to accommodate these loss prevention techniques. Then, I’ll meet you in St. Augustine, where we can sip Chinese water from the Fountain of Youth. 
Is Your F&I Compliance "Toast?"

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What does criminal conduct have to do with F&I and my new toaster? Here you go... I recently bought a toaster. (Please hold your applause until the end of the article.) The toaster is so generic it does not even have a brand name on the instructions. "Instructions," you ask? For a toaster?  Yes, it came with a full-color, multi-step instruction, which is awesome.  There are "Single bread toasting" instructions in case you might not want to...you know...toast two pieces of bread at the same time. And I quote, "Single bread operation may cause uneven toasting result due to nonuniform heat distribution from the empty slot."  So, I am getting a toaster, a grammatical mistake, and entertainment all for the price of a toaster. But wait, there's more. It gets better! And here is the tie-in with our business: It shows actual, color photographs of pieces of toast corresponding to the level dial on the toaster, ranging from level 1 (lightly toasted) to level 6 (call the fire department). So, they are asking you to compare the color photos with your toast. I love this! Examine and compare. This is risk mitigation at its absolute finest.  So when was the last time you examined, with a clear head, your F&I practices? When was the last time you (or a trained third party) compared a checklist to a deal folder for compliance? Are your deals "warm and toasty?" Or, do you need to call the Fire Department to hose them down?   If your dealership strives toward a better culture of compliance, consider this checklist when reviewing your F&I practices:  This is a partial list representing only twenty (20%) percent of the items that you should be checking.   Examining these practices will help prevent so many problems and allegations, including (but not limited to) product stuffing (quoting a payment that includes aftermarket products), discrimination, income manipulation, Suspicious Activity Reports, and fraud. Some of the items above are just the law, and you are required to comply.   Financial institutions are required to file Suspicious Activity Reports if they believe you have submitted false information to them. It is a requirement for them, not an option.  Some of these items may be obvious, but are you actually checking? Or have you hired a third party to check? If a regulator walked into your dealership, could you demonstrate that you perform periodic audits to check your F&I department? Did you know that Section 8 2. of the United States Sentencing Commission considers compliance activity when judges determine the length of jail time? You must "(1) exercise due diligence to prevent and detect criminal conduct; and (2) otherwise promote an organizational culture that encourages ethical conduct and a commitment to compliance with the law." It is worth noting, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) recently announced they are hiring additional lawyers for compliance enforcement.   Don't wait until smoke is rising and alarms are blaring. Implement a compliance program now, or you will be a level 6 piece of toast.  
Trust, Your Employees, and Lady Gaga

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Positive relations with employees start with trust. If you break the trust, you have a long journey ahead. You may be in one of four scenarios: You have trust with your staff and want to ensure you maintain it. You had trust with the employees, made a mistake, and are working on building back trust. You do not have trust with your team and you need to climb out of a hole. You do not have trust and do not even realize you have a problem. Once you identify which of these situations you may be in, you are on the road to building a culture of trust within your organization. Simply realizing where you are is the first step.   Next, stop these nine toxic practices right now: Treating the employee like an enemy  even if they are the messenger of not-so-great news. This is belittling to the messenger. Discouraging the disclosure of bad news.   You need that bad news to operate the business. If you lack an "open door" policy on this, employees will do everything possible to avoid communicating. Making policy exceptions to benefit you only.   Employees see right through it. You may be the owner or dealer, but this smacks of inequality and erodes morale. Lying. Even partial truths will be perceived as a lie.  Employees are much smarter than you think. Failing to listen.   In a call or Zoom or meeting, if you are interrupting because you are in a hurry, not understanding, or not finding the facts by asking questions to the employee, then you are making a mistake. You are not only frustrating the employee, you are not collecting all the important information. Your decisions will be based on a lack of accurate information, so you may be building a house of cards. Simultaneously, you are frustrating the employee and getting poor information. That's a double-whammy.   Being discriminatory against certain employees.   Stop harping and picking on certain employees (i.e. showing blatant favoritism). This creates resentment and animus. Endeavor to treat everyone equally. Practicing nepotism.  If you treat your children in the business differently than the other employees, you will create deep-seated resentment — another punch to the gut to your employees' morale. Duplicity.  Talking to employees about other employees. You may think you are confiding, but it will come across as gossip. Piling on.   Bosses tend to pile too much work on top of those who are pulling their weight, plus some. Piling excessive work on to those workers will create resentment. This is not where you want to go. That person will be miserable. If you have an employee who is highly productive, you build around them. Give them a few employees of their own to support the increased workload. Too much is simply too much. To rebuild employee relations, implement these positive five (5) habits: Build genuine rapport.   Trust starts with rapport and an understanding that rapport is a person-to-person interaction. Reach out and establish rapport with those team members with whom you feel trust issues exist.   Have an open door policy for all employees.   Make it clear an employee can come to see you when their direct report manager is not handling their issues.  Return phone calls and respond to emails.   When employees need guidance and you don't return their calls or respond to emails, it builds animosity because sometimes they cannot complete assignments (or move forward in their work). Without getting answers from you, things pile up on their desks and that doesn't feel good as it creates stress. Follow chain of command.   While employees should follow the chain of command, so should the boss(es). When you, as the boss, break the chain of command, you erode the confidence of the managers and those employees who report to the managers. This creates feelings of mistrust and wariness.  Monitor websites like Glassdoor.   Often, current employees will review you online while they are still employed. You should respond to the online complaints in the same non-defensive manner as you do with customer complaints. It is usually very obvious who posted the review. Invite that person (not summon them) to your office so you can try to diagnose where the friction lies. To implement a culture of trust, make these four (4) changes: Equivalent pay.   Ensure an employee's pay is (at least) commensurate with their responsibilities.   Promises.   If you make a promise to an employee, put it in writing. Then, follow-up to guarantee the item is brought to a conclusion. Written policies.   Have an Employee Handbook or Guidebook communicating clear expectations about vacations, paid holidays, sick days, and days off. When you meddle with time away from work and pay, you erode trust and create anger.   Assets.  Treat your employees as valuable assets. They are the heart and soul of your business. A culture of trust within your dealership creates satisfied employees. Ultimately, this will reduce turnover, create efficiencies and will make you more money.   To conclude, Lady Gaga also opined, "You have to stop crying, and you have to go kick some ass." So off to work you go!
How To Handle A Customer Dispute Like a Pro: Part 2

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In Part 1 , you will recall that we had the goals of discovering the truth, building trust, and de-escalating the customer's anger (a.k.a. extracting the venom). We learned how to set expectations, communicate during the first meeting, and how not to irritate the customer. Here's how to build on your initial success and capitalize on the customer trust you have earned.   The Second Meeting: Gather Final Information and Achieve Mutual Understanding If mistakes happened, acknowledge them. It builds trust and continues to make you human and trustworthy in the eyes of the customer. If the dealership made a mistake during the sales process, it's okay to say, "I'm sorry." Disarm by telling the truth. Continue to acknowledge the customer's emotions (i.e. angry, upset, anxious, etc.) Try to extract the remaining venom here. Let the customer vent as necessary. When you find that the customer is repeating the same thing over and over it's time to say, "Let's focus on how to make you happy." You do not want to have the customer repeat their bad feelings over and over as it begins to wear a groove that is hard to overcome. If you don't take care of the problem now, it is going to get worse, and it's going to cost more money and you are going to create a problem for someone else at the dealership. Be creative and ask lots of questions.  Ask multiple questions, "If I could do this (xx), would that make you happy?" During these conversations ask things like: If I could buy the unit back at $xxx (including a profit for you as the dealer) would that interest you? What if I provided you with a service credit for $xx? (This option will only cost you fifty cents for every dollar that you offer to the customer.) What if I could sell you a different unit and take yours as a trade-in? How would you feel if I were your personal concierge during your ownership experience so you could call me with any issues that you had and I would take care of them? Some solutions are non-monetary. Explore these options. Customers want to be pampered and feel important. How can you accomplish those things? Offer to put the solution in writing "to make you more comfortable so that you are assured of getting exactly what we are discussing." The Third Meeting: Buy-in Present at least two (2) potential solutions for the customer. When you present a singular solution, a customer feels like you are shoving an answer down their throat. If you proceed that way, then a lot of the trust building efforts you've earned will evaporate. Be creative and don't be afraid to try something different.   It's okay to offer options where the economies are different. For example, maybe you offer to make three (3) payments of $xx or a service and parts credit of $yy and those numbers have $500 difference between them. You may be surprised which option the customer chooses. In any event, offering options shows you care and that you are trying really hard to help the customer. Words can be perceived as "cheap," and here you are showing the customer that you care by not just serving up one option.  Wrapping Up With The Customer Put your agreement in writing. Consider having the customer sign a release of any further dealership obligations. Follow Up! Follow through! Follow Up! Execute on your promises. Make sure you personally see that things are done. There is no shame in asking for help or advice or a "TO." Sometimes, other personalities may help you re-close the customer on a solution. This is just like selling in many ways. Consider documentation changes to your customer facing paperwork to guide how this process may look (i.e. an alternative dispute resolution structure.) Be creative here, too. Arbitration is not the only way to handle this. I think arbitration is overrated and ineffective and does not solve problems. It prolongs problems but does not help you, in my opinion. That is a future topic that I will cover. In short, there are all kinds of creative structuring which may work for your dealership. So, you did it! Be proud of yourself and allow yourself to have a quiet moment of success. Success comes in many forms and a job well-done is the result of your good attitude. Well done. Please contact me if you have any further questions. I've handled well over 1000 customer complaints of all shapes and sizes in my 30+ years in the business. Check out these 3 videos with quick steps for resolving a dealership customer dispute, complaint, & problem.