Customers expect courteous service when shopping for cars, but at Riverside Auto Group’s dealerships, they are called “guests” and are given the kind of care they would receive at a four-star hotel. “We have a very focused team of associates that work to make sure that every one of our guests leaves with a good feeling about their business transaction or their business with us,” President Tim Dagenais emphasizes. “We’ve enjoyed great guest retention due to this.”

Dagenais estimates the company’s guest retention averages 70 percent across Riverside Auto Group’ dealerships. These include the GM, Honda, Nissan, Toyota, Ford and Chrysler brands for cars and trucks as well as Polaris all-terrain vehicles (ATVs).

Located in the upper peninsula of Michigan, Riverside Auto Group sells many ATVs and trucks to help customers traverse the rugged – and in winter, snowy – terrain for which the peninsula is renowned. “We’re in a very rural, blue-collar area,” Dagenais explains. “Our No. 1-selling new vehicle is the four-wheel-drive, full-size pickup.”

Riverside Auto Group’s dealerships are located in Escanaba, Mich., where the company is headquartered, Marquette and Iron Mountain, Mich., and in Marinette, Wis. It sells and leases both new and used vehicles as well as fleets of vehicles for corporations such as railroads. The company also provides vehicle service and body collision repair.

Service With Style

One of the ways Riverside Auto Group provides exemplary customer service is by giving employees the authority and funds to do so. “We really empower our associates to take care of the guest,” Dagenais stresses. “We do significant training with our associates so they really understand their jobs and they’re confident to take care of a guest issue if it comes up. Employees are told to take care of a guest concern up to $250 without any questions asked, anytime, anyplace, for any reasons, whether they are full-time or part-time. It doesn’t matter.”

Another reason for Riverside Auto Group’s four-star customer service is its engagement of a training company called Chart Your Course International that specializes in training employees of high-end hotels. “They work primarily with Ritz-Carlton Hotels,” Dagenais notes. “They never worked with an auto group before. We’ve had a two-year engagement with them where they come to our locations and do very structured training that includes workbooks and completion certificates.”

Riverside Auto Group has a single-page document outlining its mission, vision, values and customer service commandments that associates must sign and date. “We train on this with all our new hires in an orientation process every month, and it’s pretty simple stuff,” Dagenais says. “I attribute our improved customer service to Chart Your Course and setting a vision as the owner of the business for the associates to understand what we feel is important.”

The dealership also trains its service technicians frequently, all of whom are certified for automotive service excellence. Employees in all departments are encouraged to recommend people they know for employment, for which the referring employee receives an incentive of $500. “My vision is simple,” Dagenais says. “We want to be the best place to work and do business, which means we work very hard to provide our associates with an experience that is positive, rewarding, challenging and motivational.”

Bowling Them Over

This past November, the renovation of a former bowling alley into Riverside Auto Group’s new Ford dealership in Escanaba was completed. Located approximately one mile from the dealership’s former location, the renovation took almost a year.

“The building is unique because we retained some of the old bowling alley structure,” Dagenais points out. “The front is very modernized and the whole building is all brand-new, but it has a retro feel to it.”

Customers can drive their cars directly into the service department at the front of the dealership, where the new car showroom is separated from the service write-up area by only a single sheet of glass. “We structured and built the floor plan with guest interaction in mind,” Dagenais concedes. He estimates that more than one-third of the vehicles purchased at his dealerships include an extended warranty. “The warranties add to our profitability, but they also add to our guest retention,” he insists. “Guests that get the extended service plans definitely return at a greater rate for new vehicles and have a tendency to repurchase and be happier if they use the warranty.” 

Dagenais attributes his dealerships’ success to a confluence of factors. “We’re process-oriented, so our associates really know what to do, and the guest gets a consistent experience,” he emphasizes. “We make sure that our facilities are very nice – so the guest gets a good feeling when they come in – and that our equipment is excellent, so our associates can repair the vehicle and have the tools and equipment they need to do the job correctly.” 

For the future, Riverside Auto Group is considering construction of a collision repair center. “We will continue to focus on the guest experience, educate our associates on its importance and empower them to make a difference,” Dagenais concludes. 

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