On any given day, prospective car buyers browsing Hillside Honda’s show floor might overhear some Spanish, Mandarin, Korean, Russian or even Bengali. The linguistic variety is a reflection of the surrounding community of Queens, a borough of New York City, and a key way Hillside Honda has created an advantage over its competitors.

The dealership began deliberately building a multilingual staff about 10 years ago, General Manager Peter Petito says, as a means to better reach its customers. Now its employees speak more than 10 languages and even more dialects. Petito himself is fluent in English and Italian and has seen how having multilingual employees has improved customer communication – and business. “If there is a language barrier, they’re not going to buy the car,” he explains.

 

The multilingual initiative extends to Hillside Honda’s marketing efforts. The company’s advertising agency films commercials in English and then translates the ad spots to run on Pakistani- and Chinese-language television. “We’re in an area that’s exceptionally diverse,” Petito says. “It’s a true melting pot of race, religions and nationalities.”

Hillside Honda opened as a family business 1972 and today is owned by the father-daughter team of Steve Finochio and Marialaina Brody. “The owners of this place treat every single person like family,” Petito says. 

The company has been rated as one of Automotive News’ Best Dealerships to Work for in three of the past four years thanks to its employee incentive programs and culture. “Everyone truly, truly cares,” Petito says. “It’s not a right to work at Hillside Honda. It’s a privilege. Everyone respects that.”

 

A Queens Business

With 2.7 million people in Queens, Hillside Honda’s neighborhood is larger than many cities. That entire population of potential customers is shared between Hillside Honda and one other Honda dealership in the area. 

Honda is the dominant manufacturer in the market, Petito explains, and 2016 vehicles such as the redesigned Pilot and the HR-V crossover have been huge hits so far this year. “It’s just the overall reliability and dependability Honda has been known for for years,” Petito says of the brand’s popularity.

Leasing is especially important in the New York market because the harsh urban wear and tear ages vehicles more quickly than in other areas of the country. 

“A three-year-old car in the boroughs can look like a seven- to eight- year-old car somewhere else,” Petito explains. Nationally, leasing accounted for 23 percent of all car sales in 2013, according to Edmunds.com, but at Hillside Honda, leasing makes up around 52 percent of the business. 

“They get beat up so [customers] want to turn the cars every three years,” Petito says. With a leased vehicle, motorists get a new warranty and the latest technology and comforts. “For a lot of people, it’s the best of both worlds,” he adds.

Investing In Customers

As with the preference for multilingual employees, each initiative Hillside Honda undertakes is done with the ultimate goal of improving the customer experience. To that end, the dealership recently invested in two new properties that will cut down service times and quicken the buying process.

In April 2014, Hillside Honda opened a $3 million, 10,000-square-foot service annex across the street from the dealership. The building offers eight lifts and two service bays to complement the existing 12,000-square-foot service department attached to the main dealership building. In choosing to build the annex, Petito explains that Hillside Honda reviewed customer concerns and realized people did not want to wait a week for an appointment at the dealership, nor did they want to leave their car at the shop all day. The new facility offers oil changes, tune-ups, brake replacements and other routine maintenance work while customers wait, in some cases without the need for an appointment. 

But it is Hillside Honda’s other recent investment that represents a new way of thinking about the hidden elements of the customer experience. The company last year acquired a four-acre warehouse located about 20 minutes from the dealership that will serve as Hillside Honda’s vehicle storage and reconditioning facility. Instead of leaving cars sitting on empty lots exposed to the elements and mischievous birds, all vehicle inventories will eventually be moved to the new warehouse. The covered building protects vehicles and allows staff to keep the cars washed and waxed as they await purchase. Once a customer signs off on a sale, the vehicle is delivered to the dealership, ready to drive home, within an hour – less than half the time of the current sales process.

The reconditioning facility opened at the end of October. Hillside Honda will hire between five and 10 new employees to run the operation and the total investment is estimated at $5 million.

 

Constant Evolution

The new service center and reconditioning facility are examples of how Hillside Honda has adapted to modern customers, but the company has always sought ways to improve. That process begins with its salespeople, who must attend daily training that covers everything from the basics of greeting the customer to presentation and closing. Petito likens the process to how Muhammad Ali prepared for a fight. “Whether you’re here for one month or 10 years is irrelevant,” he says. “The best train every day.”

The abundance of information on the Internet has armed car buyers with more product knowledge than ever before. Customers can now get the vehicle price online without haggling, and even know the interest rates before walking in the door. The dealership of today is more like an Apple store, he notes. Customers know what they want, they’re coming in to talk to a “genius” and complete the sale. 

Sales has become more about meeting the expectations and giving the customer the experience that can’t be replicated through computer screens. “All they have to do is drive it, touch it, smell it, and they know they’ll get great service,” Petito says.

 Although the Internet has not disrupted the industry, it has brought full transparency to the interaction between dealership and customer. Petito sees the change as necessary. “This business is finally evolving and it really needed to,” he says, urging others to embrace what the Internet can offer. “The world hates change but it’s the only thing that’s brought progress.” 

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