Interview – John Tordoff Chief executive, JCT600

John Tordoff - Chief executive of JCT600

Be prepared to do things differently to compete

JOHN TORDOFF IS chief executive of the family-owned JCT600 chain of dealerships, which cover 52 sites and represent 21 brands, from Rolls-Royce and Ferrari to more mainstream makers such as Kia, Seat and Volkswagen.

In recent years, Tordoff has led an overhaul of how the business operates, identifying new opportunities and structuring it to succeed in a changing market. The result is a turnover in excess of £1.2 billion, which makes it the UK’s 12th largest automotive retail group.

What happened in 2016 to spark the changes you now attribute your success to?

“A number of factors all came about together. I’d love to point at one reason – it’s possible to look at the VW emissions situation, for instance – but, in truth, I think it was a combination of a few different things that highlighted a simple home truth: that, frankly, we needed a kick up the backside.

“That’s hard to admit but, as a leadership group, we all sat down and accepted that it wasn’t good enough. We wanted to improve and could see that we could. It wasn’t dramatic in nature, but it was in culture. We changed structures. We got new people in. We focused harder on accepting some changes and embracing them. One year on, the figures were much, much better – in terms of trading figures, the best we’ve had. And we’re still growing.”

Did you consider the job done at that point?

“No. We all looked at it and said: ‘Do you know what? We could still do so much better.’ So, again, we added a few members to the team, filled a few roles we’d held off on, got a bit more impetus behind aftersales and so on. We also created an entirely new role for a customer experience director.

“We are very conscious that the whole industry, and our business in particular, is changing rapidly and everything just has to be more customer-centric now. It wasn’t that we didn’t recognise that before, of course, but having someone thinking constantly about how to pull our initiatives together has had a huge impact.”

What’s the biggest challenge you face now?

“I can live with challenges that I can do something about, so I’d highlight one that I can’t control: WLTP. We’ve spent months planning for it from the retail side, but it has been a moving concern. The initial concern was that we were going to get to the end of August and be faced with an absolute mountain of pre-reg that we were going to have to battle our way through. Thankfully, that didn’t happen.

“But now we have a problem of supply. We can’t hit our targets if we can’t get the cars to sell – and the problem of supply looks like it could last well into 2019 for some brands. Add in other external factors, from falling consumer confidence to the diesel debate, and the pretty severe headwinds are there for us all to see. Selling new cars is hard, and the fleet market is a total bloodbath, frankly.”

Can you mitigate these problems?

“Well, this is another lesson we learned back in 2016, and that’s to be better at the things we can control. So, principally, used cars and aftersales. We’ve had some really phenomenal success in used cars with some fairly radical referral schemes we’ve run. Aftersales has also done well. We’re really maximising that.”

‘You need expertise on every touch point now, so you can help your customers’

Are buyers switching from new to used cars?

“Some are. For many, the £300 a month that they were spending on a PCP will now cost £350 a month if they want the same car. So, of course, some buyers will look at the nearly new stock and see what the same money can get them.

“But I like to think we’re driving our own success, too – and a lot of that is driven by our online presence. We’ve got far better at digital and with dealing with the enquiries we generate from it.”

How are you improving the customer experience?

“We are overrun with enquiries. The difficulty is talking to them all efficiently and helpfully. So we’ve put a big emphasis on getting back to customers quicker, more efficiently and speaking the language they are using rather than ‘car dealership’ talk.

“Online, we’re open to chat from 7am until 10pm, seven days a week, every day of the year. We’ve invested heavily in a customer service centre. It’s been open for about six months and we’re ramping up to capacity of around 80 people.”

How quickly do customers expect you to respond to enquiries?

“It’s never quick enough, but our own data suggests that 45% of enquiries we receive get a response within 30 minutes. That’s not bad, but it isn’t good enough. It needs to be 80% within 30 minutes. The other 20% within the next 30 minutes. People are just impatient these days and they have so much choice. If you don’t get back to them quickly, somebody else will and they’ll just move on.”

What’s the biggest barrier to that happening?

“The volume of enquiries we get. We’re overwhelmed. What we’re investing in is identifying the keenest buyers quicker.”

Does the sales process have to change as well?

“It doesn’t have to, but it’s pretty notable that the purchasing process is entirely built around how we retailers need to manage it, rather than how the customer wants to go through it – and the two sides are almost opposites.

“The stereotype of the mystery salesman who never emerges from his office and whom all other salesmen have to ask permission from before they do a deal is still a reality in some dealerships. Customers dread that kind of experience. Now we have online assistants, in-store product geniuses, specialists who can photograph and video the cars to help customers and more. You need expertise on every touch point now, so you can help customers and stand out from the crowd.”

Where does this leave the salesman?

“They’re getting batted from pillar to post. They’ve got customers to deal with. They’ve got technicians to deal with. That’s hard. Essentially, the role is the same as it was 40 years ago, and we’re questioning if that’s right. I haven’t got any conclusions to tell you, but there’s no glory in being set in your ways, even if your final conclusion is that the way you built your successful business is still the right one.

“We challenge everyone to ask: ‘Is this bit of our business fit for purpose in 2018?’ And if it’s not, we challenge them to do something about it. If we’re to compete with the growing presence of online retailers and such, we need to be prepared to do things a bit differently.”

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