Shifting Gears

Sonic Automotive is changing the car buying experience—and the bold transformation has the company enjoying life in the fast lane

Doug Bryant, Sonic Automotive

There’s the burnt coffee and the stale popcorn. The crowds, salesmen, the test drive, the credit check, negotiations, financing, the trade-in, and maybe, eventually, the deal. Automotive industry experts say the average car sale takes about four hours.

But that’s not the case at Sonic Automotive. The auto retailer—with more than one hundred dealerships in thirteen states—is using a mix of culture change and proprietary technology to shorten the purchasing process, remove pain points, and provide an enhanced retail experience designed specifically for today’s modern customer.

Doug Bryant joined Sonic Automotive in 2012. As vice president of talent management, training and recruiting, he’s been instrumental in reinventing the company’s culture. “Most people hate buying cars, and we wanted to change that,” Bryant says. “People don’t come to Sonic ready to do battle. They come here to get a great car at a fair price and enjoy a totally different experience.”

Sonic Automotive is Bryant’s second endeavor with the company’s leadership. In the mid-1990s, Bryant, who completed a doctorate in human and organizational learning, worked with several key Sonic Automotive players at AutoNation USA, where he designed and implemented strategic business planning work sessions, training, and performance management systems. Together, they took AutoNation from start-up to about $23 billion in a span of several years.

Changing consumer behaviors and expectations in other industries sparked Sonic Automotive’s transformation project. Although the company was making roughly $10 billion per year, its leaders knew buyers would eventually move away from the traditional model.

“Everything in the consumer world is changing with technology, and we don’t expect car buying to be an exception,” Bryant explains. “People are buying more products online in almost every industry. Dealerships that don’t get ahead of that curve risk losing business, and we want to lead the way to win customers.”

Bryant and his peers started the process by entering a research phase. They held customer focus groups to discover the highs and lows associated with car buying. “We tried to reinvent the car buying process to enhance what customers like and remove what they dislike,” Bryant says. With data from the focus groups, Sonic internally developed its own consumer-facing technology systems. At Sonic Automotive locations and Echo Park branded used car locations, customers experience the modern Sonic approach to car buying.

Customers with trade-ins can use Sonic’s app to appraise their vehicle before coming to the dealership. When the customer arrives, they meet an “experience guide” who explains several options. The customer can review cars in person or online. They can do side-by-side comparisons on a large, computer-driven “imagine bar.” They can discuss financing and keep a potential purchase overnight.

When the time comes to make a deal, there’s no haggling. Sonic Automotive advertises one locked-in sticker price for each vehicle. The entire deal can happen right on the experience guide’s tablet. The process, which Bryant says takes about forty-five minutes, removes back-office manager approvals, high-pressure upsales, and piles of paperwork.

Bryant and Sonic Automotive leaders knew the transformation would require him to bring in new talent and retrain existing employees. “This was a massive change,” he says. “To do it right, we had to totally rethink our culture and approach.”

Instead of simply hiring more people with traditional experience, Bryant retrained more than seven hundred existing managers to do the training for their own stores. He placed less emphasis on sales techniques while underscoring team building and development. Next, Bryant looked outside to complement his existing team. He hired several new trainers, but not from the usual pool of automotive veterans. Instead, he found high performers from other industries and spent three months training them on the “Sonic way of servicing customers” through the company’s new model.

Bryant calls his trainers “change agents” and says they’ve been essential in Sonic’s success. “We’re changing the culture, and that’s what’s making our customers and associates happier,” he says. Salespeople no longer work nights and weekends to compete in the old fashioned, cutthroat dealership model. Instead, they work regular business hours and get at least two days off per week. Instead of commissions, they make flat salaries and work to earn bonuses.

The atmosphere is friendly. Leaders are more engaged. Executives visit stores and talk directly to Sonic associates. During Hurricane Harvey, many Sonic executives personally delivered supplies to the company’s nineteen dealerships and two thousand associates working in the affected areas.

Implementing these changes has been a major—but worthwhile—investment. “Sometimes it takes time and money to do things the right way,” Bryant says. “It’s a lot of up-front work, but we’re seeing higher customer satisfaction scores and lower employee turnover in the stores that have been transformed.”

Additionally, the company has seen rises in both profitability and market share since it started the transformation. By the end of 2017, Sonic had completed the transformation in many Sonic Stores and at all Echo Park locations. Bryant expects the project to wrap up by 2020.

Off the Clock

When he’s not improving the car sales process, Doug Bryant can often be found at the poker table, or harvesting agave. Driven by their mutual love for tequila—and their mutual hatred for bad tequila—Bryant and several of his friends created Luna Malvada, a high-end tequila business. Bryant says there are a few secrets to creating his style of the spirit.

Luna Malvada is known for its complex taste and full flavor, made possible by a unique method. Growers follow an ancient Mexican recipe and harvest Luna Malvada’s agave only under a full moon. The strange approach brings added moisture, resulting in smoother tequila. Luna Malvada has many accolades, including awards from and rave reviews from Nightclub & Bar and BarMedia.

And as a Texas Hold’em pro, Bryant has won several big charity and celebrity tournaments, including the 2012 Aces and Bases Spring Training poker event in Scottsdale, Arizona. Bryant says most of the skills necessary to win at poker (statistics, probability, game theory, reading people, controlling your own emotions, and group dynamics) are skills he’s learned in his doctorate program, business, and most of all, auto sales.

“Congratulations to Doug Bryant on his well-deserved success. In partnership with Skillsoft, Doug brings a strong commitment to driving learning innovation at Sonic, which enables the organization to transform the car buying experience for their customers.” –John Crouch, Customer Sales Director, Skillsoft