Interview – James Weston, chief executive of Robins & Day

“We are comfortable with receiving less leads so long as they are better leads, and there’s no question that an improved digital journey can achieve that.”

James Weston has been chief executive of Robins & Day since 2016, overseeing the brand’s Citroen, DS and Peugeot sales, and more recently adding Vauxhall to the portfolio.

After starting as a Sales Executive in 1997, Weston joined PSA Retail in 2001 as an assistant sales manager at Robins & Day Chiswick before spending a further two years at the site as the general sales manager. He then progressed into various general manager roles including regional general manager for South West London, and then spent three years as sales director at head office, responsible for driving the volume and profitability of the group. Here he talks about the brand’s new £14.5m retail site in West London, how the retail group made the most of lockdown and his hopes for the rest of 2020.

How do you feel when you look around a facility as visually stunning as Chiswick?

“The site holds a lot of memories for me, actually. I started here in January 2001, so to be here 20 years later re-opening it really is quite special. We didn’t want just another dealership, we wanted somewhere that made a prominent statement about the strength of our brands. It is now a flagship store for PSA Retail in the UK, and arguably across Europe. To my mind, it’s creation accelerates the journey we are on: it’s a visual demonstration of what we have achieved and what we hope to achieve.

“I think what customers will really notice is how it has been designed around them from the moment they drive in. We’ve looked at shopping centres and put those lessons into practice, from shortening the journey from the moment they park, through to ensure they come through to meet someone who can help as they enter the building.

“The highlight for me, though, is the large central skylight. It really opens up the building, creates a dedicated reception area and gives a clear demarcation between where the three brands are housed. Whichever brand you choose to browse, there is a clear brand identity to follow, and it’s emphasised by the cars, merchandise and branding that’s on display.”

Running such a large site must bring challenges as well as opportunities?

“There are some, but they are all surmountable – or even just nice problems to have. So, yes, across three brands it does get quite hard to manage the demand, but which dealership wouldn’t like the problem of having more interest than cars?

“Likewise, we have chosen to display used cars inside and out, and that’s a deliberate move to bring used to the fore. It’s a critical part of our business, especially at the moment, and we see opportunities for growing that by giving it more prominence, but that in turn does bring about logistical challenges of moving stock inside and out.”

“Then there’s the pressure of running the aftersales department here. By centralising our offering we can bring an economy of scale into play. But every bay we have needs to generate profit or quality, and that goal drives us to give the best customer service possible. Pressure is often only driven by the desire to do the best job we can.”

Is there a contradiction in investing so much in a building at a time when digital journeys are becoming more important?

“Not if you are doing both. This site is unique in that it is on a major roundabout in a busy city. It almost justifies itself as a billboard – not that I’d be happy with that, but it does explain why we’ve put so much into it.

“Running three brands from one site also offers an opportunity for us to streamline the back office and to enhance the front of house presence of each brand; it’s an efficient way of doing business, if done well. Our goal is to present an omni-channel approach: however the customer wants to buy a car, we need to be there for them, and for some time yet we think that bricks and mortar will feature significantly in that.”

How much does the growth in digital sales change your approach?

“In many regards it doesn’t change the approach at all, it just presents us with a different way of trying to meet a customer’s needs. We used the lockdown period to really overhaul our digital communications, and one of the key parts of that was recognising that some customers have used digital as a stepping stone into the dealership, and others just want to remain online for as long as possible.

“We have also recognised that you can use digital communications to maintain a customer’s interest and that it doesn’t just have to be about driving them through the showroom door. We are more comfortable now with receiving less leads so long as they are better leads, and there’s no question that an improved digital journey can achieve that. The time we save can deliver better customer service, and in turn better sales.”

Presumably anyone walking through the door during the covid crisis is a keen buyer?

“Sure, people obviously don’t want to visit multiple places at the moment, although I must say that the protocols we’ve put in place to keep our staff and visitors safe have been extremely well received.

“But the key question is whether we can maintain some of that efficiency when the crisis ends. We can’t take it for granted that only highly engaged buyers will walk through the door forever, so we need to keep learning and try to build a sustainable approach for the longer-term. Digital can definitely help remove some inefficiencies.”

Does it also mean you need online sales agents who are as talented as in-store ones?

“Yes, although the skillset may be slightly different between physical and digital selling. The online marketplace has changed dramatically, and we need to try to adapt as it does.

“So, for instance, we can see dwell times on our website soaring, we can see times people are engaging online changing, as social time shifts around in lockdown, and we can see that some buyers expect to be able to do everything online. I need my online agents to be available at the right times, and as knowledgeable as my sales assistants.”

You have also put electrification at the heart of the site?

“The interesting thing with EV customers is that they are far more educated about their purchases than your average combustion-engined buyer. That knowledge doesn’t end at the spec of the vehicles, either – they tend to be experts on electrification, full stop.

“That raises two challenges; firstly, our advisors must have a credible level of knowledge and secondly, they must know when to admit they know less than the customer. There’s no shame in that, but there is a need to handle it carefully and respectfully rather than be embarrassed and try to cover up. Our goal is to have honest experts, and I believe that mindset will be key in driving sales.

“We’ve worked hard on the expertise, too. Prior to lockdown we brought the new electric cars to our sites and used them to train all customer-facing staff directly. We want them to be ambassadors for the technology, so it’s important they all understand the products and the kind of people we are selling to.”

How do you see business going to the year-end?

“Used sales are strong, and look like they’ll remain so. Aftersales is also strong, and there’s pent-up demand there. New is one we’re watching, although I have to say I see no indicators yet of demand waning, and we’re in an interesting position of demand outstripping supply.

“Most importantly, we’re seeing that the majority of customers are prepared to wait. So even though lead times are creeping up just a little, people are prepared to wait for the car they want. I can’t imagine the final quarter will be plain sailing, but it looks okay.”

As you’ve been so busy, how have you had time to rethink aspects of your business?

“We had plenty of time to think during lockdown! We had two strategies. The first was that everyone would come out of furlough to a safe but also different workplace. We recognised immediately that there was no point coming out as we went in; the world was always going to be different. Having spent five years building our values to a point that I believed were strong enough to see us through lockdown, I wanted us to come out of it thinking positively.

“Within that, we set a ‘Back to Better Business’ as a mantra. We wanted to lose poor practices and boost performance and we mapped out how to do that. Easy to say, of course, but the proof has been in the comments as our staff have returned. They recognise the strides we have made and on that score at least it is Robins & Day 1, Covid 0.

“We have set in place practices to build a sustainable business long-term. There has been a cultural shift within Robins & Day and while it must be subtle – you can’t force change – we are more focused than ever on making every resource pay. We’ll achieve that through efficiency and a focus on profit and by making the customer experience brilliant.”

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