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Car dealers' collaboration could be key to COVID-19 survival, opinion

Nathan Tomlinson, owner and dealer principal, Devonshire Motors

As the industry prepared to peak for the busy Q1 close few expected the final week to be quite as challenging as it turned out to be with the outbreak of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.

While businesses fought to juggle the last strands of normality with a shift in priorities towards public safety and the unplannable task of closing down complex retail operations in full flow, dealers were tested like never before.

More than three weeks have now passed since showrooms were forced to close, and many tried but found aftersales operations difficult to sustain as staff and customers were advised by the Government to prioritise their health and safety above all non-essential tasks.

With limited information, no experience to draw from and with guidance often changing several times per day this absolutely unique situation is new territory for everyone.

Collaborate to survive

Right now, we have a situation where manufacturers and retailers are calling each other to ask for a bit of insight into how the ‘competition’ is approaching things.

I completely understand why, I’m full of empathy for everyone as we’re all facing similar issues, and previous behavioural patterns are a comfort.

However, we have to look a little further along and understand that it’s time to pop some of the legacy behaviour on hold and adopt a different approach to ensure that on the other side of this we can at least hope to pick-up where we left off.

Most of us are battling the same issues, and probably in more or less the same order.

The process for closure and customer contact, staff welfare, communication, cash flow, HR, return to work and recovery.

Each one of these stages has been and will be exhausting, nuanced and will throw up any number of unexpected elements that many have to deal with alone and all of us, no matter how big or small, have nobody to turn to for the benefit of experience.

So, I’m calling for collaboration.

This is a unique situation that requires manufacturers, lenders and other influential leaders to join together and support the entire industry with shared support policies and practice to allow us to move along together in some sort of order.

What we need today is critical thinking and a support structure for the motor retail sector.

It’s not about discussing targets and opportunity for Q2, at least not today.

Today it’s about ensuring measures are in place to support businesses with cash flow and staff retention. Tomorrow we can talk about Q2, once we know that we’re going to be in it.

Managing panic

Some dealers are in utter panic, some quite calm, but the topic of conversation is always the same, and nobody really knows what to do for the best.

Worse still is that it is difficult to separate fact from opinion and where decisions are required the clock is ticking.

So far, I think the most unexpected challenge for many of us has been managing the almost infinitely varied responses that come back from customers and staff in relation to every decision we’ve had to make.

I’ve experienced every possible combination of human emotion, from ignorance, to panic, to strength and solidarity, and all the while we are limited in the way we can communicate to provide the quality of response and reassurance that we would do under normal circumstances.

Clear communication and definitive actions have been difficult.

This is going to be a testing period for all of us and not enough of us are putting effort into ensuring that we are able to get through this period personally.

Even when everything wants your attention and it's all super-important, nothing is more important than your health.

You're looking after a LOT of people, they all depend on you: friends, family, employees, business colleagues and even people you don't know who look to you for inspiration.

If you're going to deliver, if you're going to look after everyone, you've got to be healthy to do that.

Not a short-term disruption

I’m seeing a lot of commentary surfacing now with regard to how managing the spread of the Coronavirus is coming at an increasing cost, not just to the economy but maybe also in terms of mental health, domestic abuse, education and future opportunity for young people.

Many societal nasties are on the increase as a result of this brand-new restricted normality, and they are all bound to have a very significant impact.

I am under no illusion, this isn’t going to be a short-term disruption, nor is the disruption necessarily only going to be the one we’re presented with today.

Today we are deliberately focused on just one or two very specific virus-related metrics, that will change very quickly.

More and more I am convinced that in order to protect the fabric of our industry we need to act together in full collaboration under one united entity because we are going to be dealing with the effects of COVID-19 – in various guises – for a very long time.

Author: Nathan Tomlinson, owner and dealer principal, Devonshire Motors

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