From Bankrupt to Benchmark

How DrivingSales University Made Walla Walla Valley Honda the Most Likeable Dealership on the Planet

DSU’s Principles of Awesomeness have built a dealership experience that’s turned a bankrupt dealership into a national Honda benchmark for sales and customer satisfaction.


Situated in the shadows of the Blue Mountains, Walla Walla Valley Honda has a seasonal, small town feel. It’s a friendly place, and one of the oldest communities in the state of Washington. Things change slowly here, and people count on one another to help create a diverse and welcoming way of life. That goes for businesses as well, except for car dealerships. Like everywhere else, the idea of going to a dealership and buying a car is not viewed as great way to spend a Saturday. Salespeople aren’t generally thought of as people who are looking out for you. It’s a negative stereotype based on the past reality of car sales. The battle over control, the waiting, the negotiating…it has historically been an ugly, hard-scrabble process that turns off customers, hurts dealerships over the long term, and ruins relationships.

But help is coming to the automotive retail business. The future shows a different approach to car sales that reprioritizes the experience toward customer satisfaction and long-term viability. Indeed, nestled up against those Blue Mountains is an experiment taking place that will evolve the business and change the way people buy their cars and how they view dealerships. Thanks to the practices being developed at Walla Walla Valley Honda, people may soon welcome the idea of going to the dealership and talking to a friend about their experience.

The Challenge: Down and Out in the Walla Walla Valley

It used to be that a customer would walk into the Walla Walla Valley Honda store, and, more often than not, walk back out – never to return. The dealership was known as a haven for hard-sell tactics, broken promises and disreputable customer service; if there was a reputation among car buyers in the area, it was worse than bad – it was busted down and was driven to bankruptcy. “The previous owner had a sales approach that would start at retail – and then go into hard negotiations with every customer,” said Blake Underriner, the store’s current GM. “I’m not totally sure how they did business, but I know it wasn’t good. The store went bankrupt. It closed down. And when we came in, we started from scratch with a clear understanding of why we’re in business, and in the community. It really helped us develop our brand identity from the start.”

Today, Walla Walla is a solid example of best practices in developing a transparent and lasting approach to dealership operations. It hasn’t been easy. Reversing the previous owner’s hard sell tactics and lack of transparency takes time, but with each car sold and serviced, the team at Walla Walla Honda is rewriting the dealership’s reputation.

The Solution: DSU and the Principles of Awesomeness

The first step to resuscitating a failed business is to carefully construct a meaningful mission statement that drives all aspect of dealership operations, from sales to service, accounting and beyond. For Walla Walla Honda, the owners turned to DrivingSales University to help them identify and create a mission statement that reflected their desire to create a transparent, friendly and community-oriented mandate. The result was a statement anchored by the DSU “Five Principles of Awesome”:

  1. Upfront Pricing, No Negotiation Needed: Walla Walla Valley Honda’s “Pricing Promise” vows that it will list the most competitive price up front and center, at the dealership and on the website. So that there’s no negotiation, only a transparent approach to pricing.
  1. No Buyer’s Remorse Money-Back Guarantee: Walla Walla Honda’s 3-Day/300-mile Money Back Guarantee and 5-Day Exchange Promise ensures that you’ll be happy in a car that’s right for you and your family.
  2. Non-Commissioned Sales Staff—Buy the Car That’s Right for YOU: Dealership ownership and management rejected the notion of commissioned sales, because it puts the salesperson at odds with the customer – a no win situation. Walla Walla Honda trains and hires non-commissioned Honda Product Specialists, who receive bonuses for customer satisfaction. That makes the sales experience a classic “win-win.”
  1. Trade-In Guarantee – We Buy Even If You Don’t: Walla Walla Honda will appraise your car, and you will leave the dealerships with a check – whether or not you buy your next car.
  2. True 24/7 Availability (Call, Text, Email, and Facebook): Walla Walla Honda specialists are available at any time, on any day and on virtually every platform.

Depending on your perspective, the Five Rules of Awesome are, well, awesome. Each tenet sets into motion a relationship between customers and sales, setting them up for loyal, repeat business. Working with DSU helped the dealership put its mission statement into focus: Provide an experience so awesome that our guests recommend us to all of their friends, and come back again and again for everything automotive.

But the fact is, principles and mission statements only go so far. It takes a committed team to apply the meaning of the words to the actions on the showroom floor and in the service bays of a dealership, every day, with every customer. That’s the difference, and why it works at Walla Walla Valley Honda. The team believes in the process, and understands how important it is, because it’s on everything they do – advertising, website, social media, and most importantly it’s a part of every single customer conversation. “It works because our staff believes in the mission,” said Underriner. “I think that’s the most important thing. The team must believe in and execute your mission and approach.”

In order for a team of hardworking professionals to believe in and adopt a new approach to selling and service, the words they follow must be carefully selected and meaningful to the entire experience at Walla Walla Valley Honda. To that end, the mission statement not only reflects their sales and business intent, but the spirit and enthusiasm with which the team goes about its work. Walla Walla Valley Honda isn’t just in the business to put customers in new Accords, or Pilots. They’re working to be a longstanding and valued member of the community – and become a friendly, reliable business for generations of residents.

The Result: From Bankrupt to Benchmark

The community is coming around to Walla Walla Valley Honda again. It’s hard work, and slow going at times, but what was once a bankrupt, closed dealership has now become a benchmark Honda dealership. In the past 18 months, the store has gone from 0 sales to an average of 50-60 sales per month; they’ve been honored by Honda as a visionary dealership, while accelerating overall gross to the point where it is now in the top 10 percent for Honda dealerships in the nation. This transparent approach, driven by the Five Principles of Awesomeness and a uniquely designed mission statement is showing signs of sales and service excellence:

From bankrupt. To benchmark. That’s not an easy journey; it takes discipline and focus, a consistent approach and a uniform belief in a way of doing business that builds and nurtures relationships. Working with DSU, Walla Walla was able to make their mission live and breathe across the store and every employee. “When our specialists explain the five principles, 9 times out of 10 customers become very, very relaxed. You can feel the tension leave the room,” said Underriner. “It’s our job to reinforce that through the sales process and to make sure that we’re doing everything we say. That’s the most important thing. If we tell them we’re going to do it a certain way, we follow through and get it done.”

The difference between bankrupt and benchmark? That’s it, right there. With every deal made in a transparent and accountable way is one step farther removed from the way things used to be – and a step toward a model of automotive retail that’s known throughout the community for its outreach, fairness and transparency.

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“You can be transparent, you can give a price up front, you can build trust with customers. You don’t have to withhold or revert back to old “control and manipulate” sales tactics, you can be open and build trust in the relationship with the customer and actually have higher gross, higher closing rates, higher return, and better loyalty.”
- Jared Hamilton, co-founder of Walla Walla Valley Honda