This month, GonzoBanker puts the spotlight on Jennifer Binkley of Auto Expert. Jennifer is an accomplished credit union exec who caught our eye for her “take no prisoners” efforts to raise the bar on marrying successful business operations with outstanding customer service. With a forge-ahead attitude that’s contagious coupled with a willingness to ask the simple questions that can lead to real business success, Jennifer is proof of concept that it doesn’t take a banking background to be great in this business. In our view, Jennifer is a Gonzo example of how financial companies can build real fee income in non-traditional businesses.
Name: Jennifer Binkley
Official Title: Since 2003, Jennifer has served as President of Auto Expert, a Riverside, Calif.-based car locating service and subsidiary of Altura Credit Union.
Tired of greasy car salesmen? Auto Expert is a service for credit union members that finds the car of your dreams and does the price haggling for you. Consistent with her fast-paced career, Jennifer was recently promoted to the position of COO at Altura. Way to go, Jennifer!
Gonzo Title: Jennifer’s ability to jump head-first into a new industry without trepidation and make positive change early in her career earns her the nickname “Jen of Arc”.
Alma Mater: While Jennifer’s end game was a business degree from Cal State San Bernardino, when Nextel knocked at her door with a not-to-be-turned-down training opportunity, Jennifer opted out of academe in favor of real world experience. As it turned out, real life was a good teacher, and Cal State was soon dust in Jen’s rear view mirror.
Previous Gigs: Jennifer earned her chops in the high pressure world of telecom sales, where she dealt in the currency of wireless solutions for government and education. Soon enough, the time came for a career change. “Auto Expert was looking for someone with a sales background, who could bring some of those lessons to their operation,” said Jennifer. “They wanted a non-traditional background to help build a non-traditional niche.” Coming in as an outsider to financial services, the credit union movement and automobile sales was a challenge … and an advantage. “My lack of knowledge allowed me to question things I otherwise wouldn’t have.”
GonzoBanker Claim to Fame: With Jennifer at the helm, Auto Expert recently received amazing recognition in the quality management world – the Governor’s Award for Excellence from the state of California. This is a particularly distinctive accomplishment because it’s only the third such award ever granted.
According to Jennifer, the Baldrige National Quality Program has played a significant role in Auto Expert’s success. “The Baldrige program is a quality initiative that our owner, Altura, began and included us in as key participants,” said Jennifer. At the beginning of the Baldrige process Auto Expert was skeptical, believing the service they offered was good enough to “sell itself.”“What happened,” Jennifer noted, “was that Baldrige forced management to ask the tough questions, like ‘Why don’t members get it?’ and ‘Why isn’t the front line comfortable talking about it?’”
Progress occurred when the team realized it was the front line employees who held the keys to making the business tick. Investigation revealed that: a) they were not comfortable referring a member to a service they weren’t knowledgeable about and b) with each referral employees felt like they had skin in the game. In response, Auto Expert developed employee-oriented collateral designed to make sure employees knew how to answer member questions and recognize the hot button comments that signaled potential member interest. In Auto Expert’s quest to make employees true believers, it also began offering employees a complimentary after-market product, in this case a sealant package. “They got to experience it for themselves,” said Jennifer. “We saw referrals from our credit union partners just skyrocket.” Last but not least, they put in place a tracking system that allows front line employees at partner credit unions to follow every stage of a referral.
The payoff from “taking it to the streets” was big. In addition to doubling sales in less than five years, “We started with three credit union partners and we now have 24,” said Jennifer. “In addition, our employee retention has increased from 43% to 78%, and our employee satisfaction rates have jumped from near the bottom of the scale to near the top.” Typically process heavy and low on results, efforts to introduce quality improvement are often greeted with skepticism. However, Auto Expert’s results blow away the fluff around many quality initiatives in the financial industry.
Lessons Learned: Jennifer believes the word quality is often misunderstood. “Quality improvement is not all ‘rah rah’ and customer service,” she noted. “It is that for us, but when it comes down to it, the quality improvement process forces you to look at all aspects of the business, including the financial. In the pursuit of quality, you really end up creating consistency, and that leads to success.”
For those who want to dip a toe into the quality improvement waters, Jennifer suggests starting at the top by having the highest ranking executive attempt to answer the basic Baldrige questions and review the results. Having been there, Jennifer stated, “At times it can be painful but it is immensely rewarding to answer tough questions about the company from the perspective of each key stakeholder.”
Finally, Jennifer advises GonzoBankers everywhere not be afraid to ask questions, even if it’s risky. “Am I politically correct? Never,” said Jennifer.
Coolest Thing Auto Expert Does for Customers on a Daily Basis: For Jennifer, it’s Auto Expert’s “mint on the pillow” moment of delivering the member’s car to them with a big red bow.
Shout Out: Jennifer offers kudos to all the Auto Expert employees, stating, “The front line has provided the ultimate experience and produced results that have laid the foundation as a quality organization; our operations team has been resourceful and dedicated to providing the front line with the tools and support needed, and our management has been willing to do whatever is needed for the member and every employee while removing the roadblocks for our team to provide exceptional service.”
When She’s Not “Driving”: Jennifer keeps busy with her husband and two girls, Brianne (B) and Camrynn (Cami), who are 4 and 8, respectively. Jennifer enjoys boating with her family in the summer. She is also a basketball devotee. In true Lakers fan style, Jennifer managed to tweak Phoenix-based GonzoBanker when she commented with conviction that “Steve Nash is a baby.”
Fave Movie of All Time: Jennifer loves The Count of Monte Cristo, “because of the Dantes’ perseverance, cunning, and the lesson of forgiveness.”
What’s Playing on Jennifer’s MP3: On the music front, Jennifer’s tastes are eclectic. Her recently added playlist includes songs by The Game, Daughtery, John Mayer and Rage Against the Machine.
GonzoBanker finds Jennifer’s commitment to excellence and drive to do more remarkable. On her behalf, we’d like to donate $250 to The Assistance League of Riverside for its project Operation Snack Attack, which provides children receiving school lunches with food and snacks on Fridays for the weekend.
Article written by Diana Ferguson