‘Challenges brought us closer together’

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Ebbett Toyota’s Richard van den Engel talks about Covid-19 lockdown and the future


What have your main challenges been?

Like for many Waikato businesses alert level 4 meant our operations were completely closed (aside from a handful of essential services vehicle repairs).  The work our people do can’t easily be continued at home (automotive technicians or car sales people), so for the most part it meant our people faced just over four weeks at home with no expectation of carrying on any work.  That of course didn’t stop them getting stuck in with DIY projects, home schooling and family walks around the block!  The challenges we faced as a business were similar to those most faced over that time, figuring out how to pay fixed costs with little to no revenue, communicating with your customers explaining when we’d be back and what that would look like, keeping staff engaged and responding to the fear of uncertainty, and being aware of mental health issues associated with the pandemic.  What we found though is that those challenges brought us closer together as a team and to our customers.  They all brought out a certain resolve, kindness and willingness to cooperate.  It’s been humbling to watch the team respond.

What have your successes been?

There have been so many wins during lockdown and the weeks the followed – getting our operating procedures for alert level 3 fully designed, written up, inducting staff and communicating out to customers all before opening up on day 1 of alert level 3 was a huge success on its own.  Setting up people who could work from home prior to lockdown.  Migrating management meetings to online.  Keeping team comms up with our internal social media tool Workplace by Facebook.  There are so many things that have gone really well and have knitted us together more tightly as a team.

What difference has moving to Level 2 made for you?

We were very glad to be able to re-open the doors under alert level 3, but because of the strict health and safety measures we had in place it was very difficult to offer the hospitality we normally like to deliver.  Under alert level 3 service customers were required to drop their car on the forecourt leaving their key on the passenger seat and simply walk away – we would discuss their repairs over the phone once they had walked offsite.  We facilitated test drives too, but only by stealthily dropping our demonstrator to the customer’s home and walking away.  Level 3 meant we had to become innovative, and we tried some things which we’ll take with us into the future – for example, walking a customer through a car using Facetime is something we’ll continue to offer should people want a walk through from the comfort of their sofa.

Moving to level 2 meant we could welcome customers back into the showroom – it felt like the sun had come out at the end of a rainy day!  Face to face contact is a big part of being able to deliver on our hospitality promise (albeit at a 2m distance).  Alert level 2 still means contact tracing for us, so there are QR codes at the entrance of each of our stores, and we are still sanitising every car between handover between customer/staff – but other than that, it’s much closer to business as usual.  Business has been busy too – customers seem encouraged by the way the virus has been muted in New Zealand, and are keen to get out and about.

What long-term changes do you see yourself making to the way your business operates?

Some of the digital ways we’ve worked with customers will become common place now – offering virtual walk arounds of vehicles, at-home test drives, pick-up/drop off for service customers etc.  Internally we’re also leveraging digital tools better – we work across three branches and typically all meetings have been face to face, requiring many people to travel, but we’ve got really good at using Microsoft Teams to run virtual meetings, saving everyone time.  Uncertain economic times have also been the catalyst for some innovative ideas and a keenness from everyone to be more efficient in the way we do things.  We’re looking at automating creditors, job sharing, working from home, shift work, bringing outworked services in house and all sorts of other innovations.

Final word?

It’s times like these that you really notice and appreciate the strength of the Toyota brand.  Toyota has been synonymous with what it means to be an everyday Kiwi for so long, in uncertain times we’re finding customers flock to the brand and draw on the values of trust and reliability.  “We believe a better tomorrow starts today” has never been more relevant for us than it is today!

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