Language and Cultural Awareness boost Automotive Sales

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How important are bilingual staff at work? Do they provide a competitve advantage? What other skills do speakers of other languages bring to the business table? Well, we have found a lovely little example of a small company using languages to boost their sales.

Bilingualism can be a great asset for a company. Not only does it enable staff to communicate to suppliers and colleagues but also to the all important customers value the ability to buy in their native tongue. In an article on Automotive News, we find a great example of a company that is using languages and bilingualism to their advantage;  the Aurora, Colorado (USA) based car dealer Shortline Subaru is converting sales and turning some heads at the same time.

In 1998, Shortline Subaru hired Bill Carrera to sell cars for them. Four years later, Carrera  became the store’s sales manager. Nothing special, you might say, but interestingly enough, Carerra spoke very poor English when he was hired. His climb in the company shows that he was exactly the kind of employee the company was looking for.

Shortline Auto group’s owner Don Hicks believes the company’s staff should reflect the communities in the area around its dealerships. Hicks is known for hiring bilingual employees and mainly focuses on the Spanish and Korean language. However, his staff also features employees who speak Bosnian, Romanian and other European languages. Currently, nine out of his 150 employees speak more than two languages, but Hicks is aiming to employ another bilingual staff member every four to five months.

In addition to the multilingual staff Hicks employs, he is also expanding the non-Engilish advertisements for his company. The budget for this type of advertising has increased by twenty-five per cent this year. As over a quarter of Aurora’s population is of Hispanic descent and the Korean community is growing fast, this is a wise move.

Moreover, the focus on non-native communities has already paid off: according to Hicks, the new-vehicle sales of the Shortline Auto Group and its customer satisfaction scores have risen greatly in the last few years. The company’s bilingual staff also helps to attract new customers. Hicks: “[the customers] are more comfortable speaking in their own language and that alone makes them come to us first. They know we cater to them and we understand them. We know what you like, what you don’t like and we speak your language.”

According to Chip Maher, dealership management consultant for the National Automobile Dealers Association 20 Group Program, there are no statistics available about multilingualism in U.S. dealerships, but it seems to be a common practice, especially in larger companies on the East and West Coast, for example. In areas where the ethnic community isn’t very large, such as Aurora, bilingual employees are less common. However: “The larger the store, the more metro the store and the more regional it is, you’re certainly going to have to go that route to serve the customers.”

Carrera says Hispanics make up about ten per cent of Shortline Subaru’s customers: “The most important thing is that, even as the sales manager, I go and talk to the Hispanic customers in Spanish.” Some of these customers have a very good command of English, but when signing documents and talking about financing, an employee that speaks their native language builds trust and ensures that buyers understand what they are signing is a great advantage.

After Carrera, three more Spanish-speaking employees were hired. Since then, the new- and used-vehicle sales of Shortline have doubled. This cannot be entirely attributed to the new employees, Carrera says, as the period coincided with the economic rebound in the U.S. However, Carrera says, “We believe that our bilingual salespeople are selling about 30 to 50 cars a month for us that we wouldn’t be able to sell if we didn’t have that team with us.”
In the last four years, customer satisfaction of the dealership has risen from 80 to 94 per cent. Hicks says the same has happened with the Shortline dealers selling Hyundai and Kia. Five months ago, the company also started hiring Korean employees. Carrera is unsure about the number of Korean speaking customers that visit his store, but since the new employees were hired, the monthly sale of Subarus to Koreans has risen from one to twelve vehicles. This is why, according to Hicks, bilingualism is “a key priority going forward.” He continues: “If we had a salesperson who wasn’t exactly what we were looking for, but they were bilingual, we would give them a shot.”

One of the two Korean immigrants Hicks hired could hardly speak any English when he started out. The other employees at Shortline Subaru taught the man how to sell cars and helped him master the English language. After he hired these Korean speakers, Hicks placed advertisements in a local Korean newspaper. Now, Korean customers find their way to his store.

Carrera oversees the bilingual employees of the Shortline Auto Group. He says that for Korean customers, it is not only important that employees speak Korean – they also appreciate the fact that the entire staff understands their culture. Carrera: “If I have the opportunity to meet an older person I will look at them, pay attention and make eye contact. In the Korean culture that’s completely different. With an older person you have to show respect and not make eye contact. It’s small details like that that you must note.”

Carrera finds new bilingual employees by advertising online or posting job notes at businesses that are frequented by certain ethnic groups. This is the easy part: the real challenge arises when these new staff members have to be trained to sell cars. “That takes more patience and experience,” Carrera says. “But we’re not surgeons. This is something you can learn.”

What a fantastic automotive example of a company that is embracing language and culture to their benefit. Speaking customers’ languages, advertising and marketing to them in those languages and even paying attention to cultural differences are clearly paying dividends for this American dealership!

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