Selling With Pride: Auto Retailers Serving Our Community

We, as consumers, are very particular about where we shop. As GLBT consumers, that entails patronizing places that welcome us in.

If a company or retailer is known to be GLBT-friendly – based on the Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Equality Index, or through knowledge of in-house practices ensuring its employees and customers are treated equally and fairly – we will shop there and/or buy their products. If they are found to not be friendly and have a record of discrimination, we would not patronize them up through the point of a wide-ranging boycott of that business or corporation.

The automotive business has been successful in welcoming us, for the most part. Our focus is on the brand, the manufacturer, or the supplier. However, they do not represent the ultimate front line for the consumer. That would be at the retail level – the car dealer.

To see how dealerships are working with the GLBT community, I had the opportunity to talk to Richard Herod III, General Manager at White Bear Mitsubishi in White Bear Lake, Jessica Katz, General Manager at Kline Nissan in Maplewood, and Jason Gallus, a Sales Consultant at Luther Brookdale Volkswagen in Brooklyn Park.

Q: What is your background in automotive retailing?

Herod: I started working for this organization when I was a part-time cashier in college when we were a Saturn dealership. I worked my way up through finance, marketing, internet, sales, and eventually sales management.   It’s been over 18 years since I started here, and a lot has changed, namely our dealership name from Saturn of St. Paul to White Bear Mitsubishi — and my facial hair — there is a lot more of that now, too.

Katz: I have been in the automotive business for over 10 years. I never intended on making a career out of the automotive business, my plans were to become a doctor; go to school during the day and sell cars at night. Now, after all this time has passed, I save lives in a different way: by providing safe and reliable vehicles to our customers. I started my career as a Detailer, worked to a Lot Technician, Sales Consultant, Finance Manager, Finance Director, Sales Manager, General Sales Manager, to now a General Manager. I love this business!

Gallus: As a Volkswagen owner for nearly 18 years now, in the middle of 2013 I made a career change and took advantage of an opportunity to become a sales consultant at a newly opened Volkswagen Dealership. It’s been a brand of vehicle that I’ve been very passionate about owning over the years as a product that I feel is a great value for the money and incredibly fun to drive.

Q: How do you perceive the GLBT automotive market in our region?

Herod: The GLBT market in the Twin Cities is a very robust segment of car buyers. They appreciate dealerships who openly support and affirm equality. I am very fortunate to work for a dealership group that supports equality and customer-friendly business practices.

Katz: I love the GLBT community, I wish the community was larger in the Maplewood area. The GLBT community within my store is probably a higher percent than the entire city of Maplewood. At Kline Nissan you will see familiar faces from the GLBT community in our Service Department, our Finance Department, and then there is me who is charge of it all. Kline Nissan is closer than most people think, and my future marketing will offer customers reasons why they should check us out before making a vehicle purchase.

Gallus: I think as with any demographic, there’s going to be a range and variety of customers. Generally, I feel like most people, including the GLBT community, desire a product that fits their needs in both utility and style, and also measures up to be an excellent value to fit monthly budgets.

Q: What percentage of your business comes from the GLBT community?

Herod: Depends on the month. It can be anywhere from 10-25 percent.

Katz: I don’t know the exact numbers or percentages, because we don’t measure it…not because it’s not important — because it is — but it would either be measured by stereotyping (which we don’t condone), or by intruding on customer’s personal lives the may not be willing to share with us. Regardless of the percentage of business we have coming from the GLBT community the amount will never be enough.

Gallus: I would estimate that I would be under 10% at this time. I’m still quite new to the auto sales industry along with the newness of our dealership with recently celebrating our 2-Year Anniversary, people may not as aware of us as other more established dealerships.

Q: Do they seek you by reputation or knowing you are GLBT, or find you through leads or random visits?

Herod: Most often I am referred by someone’s friend or family member. Oftentimes people share their car-buying stories as being frustrating. Our GLBT customer base is very loyal and refers others after they receive a great car buying experience — and they share the good news. One story I can think of is a guest who was referred by one of my customers. After she was referred, she purchased multiple Mitsubishi vehicles and has since referred three friends in the last twelve months who then purchased new and used vehicles from us. Interestingly enough, one of her friends who traded her Honda on a Mitsubishi Outlander has since referred another friend who also just traded her Honda for a Mitsubishi Outlander.

Other times I get messages on Facebook asking for assistance with selling or trading a car, and sometimes just to give a second opinion on a vehicle that was found elsewhere. A dealer’s responsibility is to be of service to the community. I believe that my community is the GLBT community and they need to know that I’m here with my staff of over 80 employees to be of service. I can tell you that I have had customers pull me aside in the dealership and thank me for our support. They appreciate how “out” we are in the community.

Katz: Reputation and referrals. I have a lot of customers who refer their family members and friends to me because they are confident I will offer the best guest experience. I listen to their needs, and help find a solution that works for them. Being a part of the GLBT community, I do my best to let all of our customers know Kline Nissan is a place that is both accepting and supportive to the GLBT community.

Gallus: Referrals go a long way when it comes to shopping experiences. Ultimately, people tend to purchase from someone they feel comfortable with and by whom they are treated well. I think building customers by reputation is something that comes with time in the field.  I’m not sure knowing whether or not someone is GLBT plays as much into a shopping decision as it might have years ago, especially in the metro area. Internet leads continue to be very popular and I’m always excited to get to connect with people in person when visiting our lot.

Q: What is your approach towards your customers? How do you market to them?

Herod: My approach to customers is the same regardless of sexual orientation. Service is king and our company’s vision is “to be so effective that we are able to be helpful to others.” So when a customer is referred to me I sit down with them and consult their needs and help make good suggestions. I believe that if we treat customers right, they will be satisfied enough to return and tell their friends and family.

Katz: Most customers are stressed out about buying a new vehicle, even before they park their vehicle at our store. They don’t enjoy spending time at a car dealerships, for the most part; they don’t enjoy feeling like they are being taken advantage of; they don’t like wasting their time. We get it. That’s how we are different at Kline Nissan. I do my best to coach my team to identify what each customer is trying to benefit in their lives. Some clients need to replace their current vehicle, while other may just want something new. Regardless of their reasons, we are here to help! Each customer has a problem and it’s our job to make sure we find them the best solution. Using these practices makes it very rewarding for us, and it allows us to build stronger, more meaningful relationships with our customers.

Gallus: My approach is to do whatever I can to best assist my customers with finding the right vehicle for their needs and budget. I do what I can to understand what is most important to them and then move forward accordingly. I strive to put myself in that position and think about how I would want to be treated when I’m a customer. As a dealer group, we have Fair Value Pricing. It’s become so easy and convenient to shop online and, honestly, most people appreciate taking the negotiating out of the purchase process and knowing they are getting a very fair deal. It’s a very smooth process that leaves customers feeling good about their decisions and great about their overall experiences. Most of my personal marketing has been by referral at this point. This is done with a combination of socializing, whether it’s attending social gatherings or social media, continually working to keep connected with current customers, and also offering customer referral bonuses.

Q: Have customers and co-workers given you feedback on you being out?

Herod: I get heckled once in a while. My favorite hecklers are the emails or voicemails that slam us for being supportive of the GLBT community. They’ll reference our ad in Lavender magazine or say they saw us at Gay Pride. Sometimes I get random emails through our dealership website inferring that the guy in the White Bear Mitsubishi commercial is “gay.” Well, the guy in the commercial is gay, and has been his whole life. And there isn’t a day since I started working for this company that my management team or my employees have me feel less of a person for being exactly who I am.

Katz: I have heard that customers feel we need to find a way to let members of the community know we are supportive of them. We are actively seeking advertising avenues to help us promote who Kline Nissan [is]…we are coming out.

Gallus: I’ve not really been one to be extremely public regarding my personal life; however, if someone goes down the road of asking personal questions, I’m happy to oblige. Whether customers or fellow employees at the dealership, I think responses have been overwhelmingly positive and typically add another layer of personal connection when conversations have gone that direction.

Q: What kind of support have you received from the dealership group, brand and manufacturer for being out?

Herod: Being out with my dealership group and manufacturer is a non-issue. Our dealership group prides itself on being different than others with emphasis on customer satisfaction. My owner cares for me as a person — and only wants my happiness. I am thankful for this stability. My relationship with Mitsubishi has also been extremely positive. The job is to sell cars and keep customers happy. What team I bat for has no impact on the job that we need to get done on a daily basis.

Katz: I have worked with Rick Kline for several years, he has always been supportive of me and who I am. Rick is a wonderful person to work for, I have always considered him a mentor of mine and I am grateful of this continued support in my professional development. For the first time in my career, I am being allowed to live out my dream, my vision has always been to create a fast, fun, and exciting experience for our guests. I want to be the dealership that is ahead of the game, and defining how we market and communicate to our customers — Jimmy Fallon meets the car business — is my end goal.

Gallus: My experiences with the dealership group and manufacturer have been very supportive as our dealership has great representation of the GLBT community.

Q: What are the employment practices of the dealer?

Herod: We are an equal opportunity employer and do not discriminate against anyone based on sexual orientation.

Katz: We do not tolerate any discrimination. At Kline Nissan all forms of discrimination are grounds for immediate dismissal – period.

Gallus: The dealership group has been very proactive in offering benefits for all. I feel very fortunate to live and work in such a climate of acceptance.

Q: How important is being out at work?

Herod: Being out is just like breathing every day for me. It just happens. My staff cares about what dates I go on, whose wedding I attended, and they’ve grown very fond of the friendships and customers we’ve created over the last 5 years as Mitsubishi.

Katz: It’s important to be who you are at work, so with that being said, it is very important for me to be out at work.

Gallus: I’ve been inspired by a multitude of people from close friends to complete strangers. We all have our own levels of comfort and how ‘out’ we are at work. Perhaps it’s telling a select few or shouting it from the rooftops. I feel it’s important for everyone to be proud for who they are and, for me personally, being out helps pave the way in hopefully empowering someone else in making it easier for them to be out, too. This overlaps all aspects from dealership coworkers to customers. With my customers, being able to share on a personal level also helps build trust, comfort, and lasting relationships from a positive experience.

Q: Are there any initiatives or campaigns geared toward cultivating GLBT customers?

Herod: We are very visible in the community through our sponsorship of Twin Cities Pride, Ms. Richfield 1981’s Bingo A Go Go events, Human Rights Campaign, and OutFront Minnesota events.

Katz: No, but stay tuned for future advertisement campaigns for our GLBT community.

Gallus: As far as I know, so far there hasn’t been anything specifically targeting GLBT customers. Over the past few weeks I’ve begun exploring some options to see what could be most effective.

Q: What kind of future do you see for our community for your dealership?

Herod: I’d like more GLBT employees as our growth continues at a rapid pace. I’d love to sit down with anyone who wants to discuss a career that serves our community as well as our allies.

Katz: It’s growing, and growing, and growing!

Gallus: As GLBT acceptance has grown over recent years, it’s become easier for everyone and I only see it continuing to improve. As far as market is concerned, the excitement is building for our new store opening later this summer in a more prime location and we’re working to have greater participation with community involvement, visibility, and continued excellence in customer service will only open more opportunities for growth.

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