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Cindy Hodnett

Attitude leads to success, top car dealer says

Tim Ciasulli, presidentTim Ciasulli, president and CEO of America’s most successful Honda dealership, said he built his business by finding out what his customers wanted and then delivering it.
NAPLES, Fla. - Tim Ciasulli, president and CEO of Planet Honda, says he has built the most successful Honda dealership in the United States by "out-thinking, out-delivering, out-hustling and out-selling" his competitors.
     In a presentation at the Furniture/Today Leadership Conference that he called "Life in the Fast Lane," the New Jersey-based car dealer said he believes unprecedented opportunities exist for companies now despite reports to the contrary in the media.
     "The last couple of years have been really, really hard," Ciasulli said. "But there is also the greatest opportunity for small businesses that we've seen in the past 100 years."
     Although the past two decades have seen a dramatic decrease in the number of automobile dealerships, Ciasulli has catapulted Planet Honda to the top of the industry by "connecting with the customer," he said. Acknowledging that the furniture industry faces many of the same challenges, he advised industry leaders at the conference to create life balance for themselves and their employees.
     "Your attitude controls your altitude," he said. "When you show up for work, make sure your attitude is good. If the boat is sinking, consider it a good day for a swim."
     Citing the challenges of the "age of dramatic distraction," Ciasulli suggested setting aside a specific time of day to answer emails and other correspondence. He also recommended spending time each day to plan the time for business, family, physical and spiritual activities.
     "Leadership is holistic," he said. "Schedule periods of deep work and use your most creative hours to tackle important work and issues."
     At Planet Honda, Ciasulli spends $2.5 million to $3 million on advertising each year. Explaining that "if you want to be a big dog, you have to bark on the front steps," he said that too many companies make the mistake of focusing on offering the lowest price for their products.
     "Everything I sell is ‘for sale,' not ‘on sale,'" he said. "Many people believe you have to give the lowest price to get the sale, but I disagree. You must give the customer more reasons to come to you. Our gross profits are $1,000 more per car than our closest competitors.
     "You have to create the business that puts your company out of business."
     Citing a survey in which a majority of respondents said they'd rather have a root canal than buy a car., Ciasulli - who has a law degree - said that at first he "didn't want to be associated with a business" like a car dealership, but then decided he would tackle the challenge of making his dealership the exception.
     "The market research we did showed that customers wanted four things," Ciasulli said. "They wanted us to stop playing games, to not waste their time, to take out the risk and to make (buying a car) fun, fun, fun."
     Planet Honda implemented several programs to address the survey results. A Best Value Guarantee offers customers double the difference in cash if they find a lower price on the same car at another dealership. Ciasulli also developed the 30-Day Lemon Free Pledge, offering customers the exchange of a vehicle of equal or greater value, with the customer paying the difference, if the customer believes a newly purchased car is a lemon.
     The dealership's Mr. No- Lemon suit - an outfit with a big picture of a lemon on it with a slash through it, which his least productive saleperson has to wear - was created to reinforce the point, said Ciasulli. The idea complements the company's goal of "fix it right the first time" when an automobile is brought in for service.
     Another effective marketing strategy for Planet Honda is the "Just Looking" sticker, which visitors to the showroom can wear if they don't want salespeople to talk to them. Ciasulli said it gives visitors a sense of control, although he added, "I don't believe anyone jumps in the car to come to a dealership to ‘just look.' There is a germ of an idea to buy something."
     When customers wearing the just-looking sticker ask questions, the sales team is trained to respond that they are not supposed to talk to them unless the customer removes the sticker. His salespeople are ready "the moment they remove that sticker," but added that the strategy empowers the customer to drive the transaction.
     "The most profound transformation in business is the downfall of the barracuda and the ascendancy of nice, smart people and their passion for what they do," he said. "Fifty percent of our business is repeat and referral, and if the customer has a problem, we bend over backwards to fix it. It's WBFM - why buy from me? If you claim to do something and don't deliver, that's really bad, and bad guys finish last."

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