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  • Writer's picturePhil Villegas

How Social Distancing is Bringing Us Together

By Marilou C. Vroman, CPA, CFE

A visit with a multi-franchise dealer with stores in multiple states left a marked impression. I entered a conference room and saw countless monitors on the wall, many of which were tracking appointments, ups, and sales transactions at each of the group’s dealerships. Interestingly, the largest screen in the center of the wall at focal point was dedicated to hosting virtual meetings with team members at other locations. At the time I viewed this setup, it was almost foreign, embracing video technology by dealers seemed somewhat rare, discretionary, and almost “ahead of its time” even though the technology had been around for quite some time. Many dealerships to this day still engage in primarily face to face meetings and conference calls with those away from central operations.

At a time when working from a remote location is either required due to a government order, or merely encouraged for health and safety, it’s time to start thinking of what our automotive retail business might look like in the future. Who would have thought the simple act of sharing a screen would potentially become the new norm?

The freedom of interacting with dealership co-workers in the same physical space does not necessarily mean face to face interaction is happening. In fact, there are plenty of dealerships where staff will go for days before seeing a manager. Even in the back office where a Controller or Office Manager is “locked” behind their monitor for three days trying to close out a month making only the most vital calls, is having little to no face to face interaction with others. Further to this, how often are customers contacted via email alone, with no chance to see your customer’s and share a good laugh with a smile?

With so many dealership showrooms closed due to Executive Order and staff working from home and isolated from others, what has dealing with this 2020 Coronavirus pandemic taught us? As we’ve had to adapt to a new environment with uncertainty, one thing remains constant, the importance of effective communication. Now more than ever, communication with our teams, our customers, and those we care about, are absolutely vital. We have been trained to know the importance of communication, but why is this so different now?

What we are now lacking by social distancing is a key common element of effective communication which is body language. When communicating by conference calls or email alone, we lose non-verbal cues such as a smile, nodding as a form of understanding or agreement, or signs of distraction, disengagement or discontent. These physical signs are vital to the progress of achieving goals, whether it’s negotiating a sale with a customer or sharing a new company policy with staff.

My work with dealers who host countless meetings via video-conference has been an eye opener for me. As I have participated in these conference calls, whether by WebEx, Go to Meeting, or other online platform, through the addition of video communication, I sensed an accelerated and stronger connection with the individuals who joined the meetings from the remote locations. While I could not be in multiple dealerships at once, I could effectively communicate with them, share relevant data and exhibits, and put more faces with names so the next time we interacted in person, I already knew them, and they knew me. Did this strengthen our relationships? You bet it did.

Our firm started using Slack technology in 2018 to manage projects and workflow. Little did we know at the time this would be a lifeline of our continued communication in March 2020. With our new social distancing protocols in place, our entire team is still meeting face to face daily, whether one on one and as a group, sharing meaningful communications, whether for a client project or simply the status of our individual health, wellbeing, family and/or pets.

There seems to be a silver lining with nearly every cloud. As we navigate the disruption, we may learn new and better ways of doing business with each other and our customers. Remember, in times of adversity, the stars often shine brightest in the dark.

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