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Wilkins H-D ‘does it differently’ at the top

By By Kate Swanson

Employee book club, survey incentives help Vermont dealership rank highly with customers

Wilkins Harley-Davidson prides itself on being the oldest and most award-winning Harley-Davidson dealer in New England history. A member in good standing of the New England Dealer’s Association (NEDA) since its inception, the dealership is constantly looking for different ways to be successful and try new ideas.

John Lyon, co-owner of Wilkins H-D, is currently president of the NEDA and says that the dealership’s involvement with the association has led to significantly more training opportunities.

Wilkins Harley-Davidson opened in 1947 and moved to its current location in 1996. Co-owner John Lyon says he owes a lot to his team. “None of this is possible without our staff,” he said.

Wilkins Harley-Davidson opened in 1947 and moved to its current location in 1996. Co-owner John Lyon says he owes a lot to his team. “None of this is possible without our staff,” he said.

“We believe in the idea of having competitors and dealers work together for the common good of everybody,” Lyon said. “The NEDA has now moved to a sort of trading environment where we can bring in people from H-D and outside H-D to train staff and dealer principals, etc.”

At Wilkins, customer satisfaction is a distinct focus, and that helped the dealership become a member of the 2014 Powersports Business Power 50. The dealership has earned some of the top Customer Service Index (CSI) scores in the country for Harley-Davidson “because we’re small and able to focus on the customer,” Lyon explained. Recently, H-D has changed its CSI scoring, so customers are being surveyed more frequently.

“We’re a big supporter of that, and our culture obviously is to focus on the customers, and it’s been like that for decades,” Lyon said. “Our customers want to be treated fairly and taken care of after the sale, and I think that’s where we tend to excel.”

The dealership opened in 1947 and moved to its current South Barre, Vt., location in 1996. In addition to years of commitment to customers’ needs, Lyon says the dealership strives to find new ways of doing business and communicating between team members. Two-way radios and contact between all departments allow Wilkins’ staff to speed up communication time and make sure they put all their energy into helping customers.

“It’s having a focus on a daily basis of ‘Did we communicate that?’ and ‘What can we do differently next time to avoid those scenarios?’” Lyon said. “Every organization uses communication. The question is: Do they have a daily focus on communication? We certainly do.”

Book club for employees

Another way that Wilkins encourages its staff to pursue a broader understanding of leadership is through a monthly book club. Staff members are offered $100 a month to read a book chosen by the general manager. These books are often focused on leadership or customer service. Previous books include Stephen R. Covey’s “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” and Colin Powell’s “In Life and Leadership.”

“We’re really focused on bringing that information back to other staff,” Lyon said. “It’s learning and trying to add to your ability to lead your staff, your tools, and it is really vital to your organization adapting.”

Lyon says that the book club helps to generate more ideas to test out. Wilkins employs the “fail fast” mentality: If you’re going to try something, fully commit, and if it doesn’t work, that’s okay. This way of handling business makes it possible for the dealership to invest all of its resources into each idea and quickly see what works versus what does not.

Over the past year, Wilkins has seen the same buying trends that H-D dealers have experienced nationally. The two most popular models sold include the Street Glide and Road Glide, with customers also excited about the Rushmore improvements. “They’re excited about everything touring, but those two models in particular are flying off the floor, which is really nice,” Lyon added.

In the dealership, customers are offered gift card incentives to complete surveys of their experiences in order to help Wilkins continue to successfully adapt. These electronic surveys are specifically from Wilkins, separate from H-D’s CSI surveys, and aim to show what aspects of the dealership need the most improvement.

“Our focus is on candid feedback because sometimes it’s difficult to read, but you take that information and try to figure out what you did wrong and then try and avoid it in the future. I look at that feedback as a gift,” he said.

Expansion ahead

This year, Wilkins will experience physical growth at its dealership with a 6,000-square-foot expansion. After 10 years of consistent revenue increases, Wilkins looks to continue the trend by adding onto the dealership.

“We spend a great deal of time moving motorcycles every day, so if we’re going to continue these numbers, we have to add on square footage,” said Lyon, who added that the space will be used for both service and showroom expansions. “If you add more showroom space, you’ve got to add capacity to service those bikes and carry those bikes. Every department is getting a little piece of the expansion.”

Among Wilkins’ goals for success is to achieve a balance between pre-owned bike sales and new unit sales. In 2013, the dealership operated at a 1:1 ratio of new to pre-owned motorcycle sales. This year, Wilkins has sold a solid number of pre-owned bikes thus far and looks to sell even more new units in the coming months. While 1:1 is a balance, Lyon says he’d like to aim for a little less in pre-owned unit sales, so that the dealership is still investing in the manufacturer.

“New bikes are important … they need to move new units to keep business going and to keep investment in future growth,” Lyon said. “If you have the ability to sell both new and used, you need to sell new in order to keep the manufacturer still moving units and allow them to reinvest, which, big-picture-wise, will help everybody.”

Lyon uses the aforementioned “fail fast” approach in all aspects of the dealership, including events. Wilkins employs an After Action Review (AAR) process, so it can analyze what can be done differently in future events, no matter its success. “If you’re not sitting down to review your past actions, I think you’re missing out. Every event that we’ve had has been affected by AARs,” Lyon said. “Wilkins H-D does it differently; that’s our culture: We want to know how we can do it differently in the future.”

While gearing up for June’s Customer Appreciation Night, Lyon promised some surprises that customers are not used to. “Our goal is to surprise customers with certain opportunities that they would not expect during a typical customer appreciation event,” he said. “It’s not about hot dogs and free soda, it’s about making sure that your customers feel like they’ve truly been appreciated.”

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