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Crunch Time: Are Your Vendors out To Lunch? Or Are You?

It's very telling, especially today, when a supplier doesn't deliver.
Over-commit, under-deliver. While there is no such thing as 100%
delivery, 100% of the time when there are variables like creative,
interpretation, third parties and even technology changing at a
breakneck, daily pace. However the fundamentals should never change:
communication, expectation, examination and verification.

Being
around the automotive online space for over 10 years, it has been
common to be around or even directly involved with what you might call
"sales coups without production capabilities" or "sell it and then we'll
build it". Most of the time letting clients know you're building
something as they buy it is completely fine. Selling something as
complete or pitching services you provide when you really don't is
something else.

Over the past few years, it's been website and SEO services. Lately it's social media and reputation management. Two sayings to remember: if it sounds too good to be true, it likely is; stupid is as stupid does. In all fairness, the impetus is always on the buyer. While that's not completely fair, everything deserves a second look or opinion. For one example, recently we've been in meetings hearing about services for a few hundred dollars a month promising positive reviews on hundreds of sites.

Even without prejudice, it is difficult to understand the reach, impact or importance of a positive dealership review on some obscure website. About florists. Being read eight states away from you. By someone who has no interest in buying a car.

Numbers are great. Especially transparent ones via Google Analytics or something similar. It's also great to have a string following in the social online around your business. Having 40,000 on Twitter and 10,000 fans on Facebook, most of whom never have or never will buy from you, refer people to you or possibly even realize what your business does. That's irrelevant. People moving into your PMA that own a car from your franchise? Great. Likely a potential customer. Someone on your social network that lives 8,459 miles away from you because you're giving away something for free? Worthless.

What's of less value than that? The people and companies that are selling the services because you don't have the time to know and understand better, let alone put resources against it. And the fact that you can do it for $300 less a month than another company that can do it for you? And you call yourself a business person? Please. The other day at an OEM meeting, we heard about dealers paying $2,000 dollars a month for social media services. There are real companies doing a better job for half the price. Dealers paying $8,000 a month for that?!?!?! Let's not even go there.

This is not about the struggles with real ROI in the digital space. Or people not understanding services. It's not even about pushing companies out of the industry that will intentionally pull the wool over dealers' eyes (that would take years anyway). It is about taking charge of what you want to do in your business, having goals, comparing apples to apples and making sense out of the insane amount of pitches car dealers face.

Many times it's your vendors that are out to lunch. Sometimes, it's absolutely you. Question reps and consultants. Question proposals and marketing materials. Question your staff on what to do. Heaven forbid, question your customers and find out what they want and expect first. And stop buying for the sake of it, because someone in your 20 group did or because a golf buddy (that operates their store completely different than you do) told you they found the magic bullet.

Get back to business. It's crunch time…

Best Practices: Professional Insight, Powerful Results

When You Hit The Wall…Again. And Again.

From time to time, even with the best plans, strategy, resources and more, it becomes painfully clear that you're not going to make it. Unfortunately, some people experience this state of being for far too long. In automotive retail, there are even those that are paralyzed by it for, well, eons. In sports if you have two false starts you're gone. Why does 1,479 false starts constitute holding on to a process or salesperson at a dealership?

One of the many benefits of calling on dealers all over the country is the face time with some great people. Hearing many clearly defined business and action plans is inspiring and creates hope that things continue to look up. Having dealerships that used to track leads in archaic software, or even Excel, switching to advanced CRMs is inspiring. Chopping off the top salespeople or totally turning your sales department upside down and starting over? Now that can make even the greatest skeptic smile!

There is no question that times are changing for our retailers. About five years late. Some of the areas of greatest discussion recently (not counting social media) are how we keep the best and brightest, or attract them, and compensate them, how to incorporate tools that should help us but ultimately cost too much or don't do what they are supposed to, how to cut costs and how to stop giving up gross.

We don't claim to have the answers but have some thoughts to mitigate the typical course of (1) I can't change things so I won't even try, (2) I don't know where/how to start, (3) I tried before and failed, or (4) fill in the excuse you use: take risks in small doses in the right direction, ask for help because there is a lot of good, free advice (especially in the online automotive forums), start creating more buy-in with top management before you try to 'sell it' and simply convince yourself that the goals you envision are worth achieving!

Many times turning heads and making waves is actually less of a risk that doing the same things over and over and expecting a different result. We've all seen or known people who were burned out that we had pegged as being a superstar.

For most of us, the greatest help we can receive in avoiding 'hitting the wall' is common sense, some outside counsel and a firm dedication to what we know will work. Remember, we're here to (clap) pump…you up!

Best Practices: Professional Insight, Powerful Results

Start With The End In Mind, But Mind What You Start

One of the beauties of working with those businesses that want to move forward is just that: the move forward. One of the drawbacks is the distractions that can stop clients in their tracks. Even the most excited dealer, on any given day, may end up with a list of fire drills that can stop a freight train. Downhill. When you start your move in the digital direction, it must be a complete commitment.

More and more principals and senior management at the dealer level are getting their hands, minds and ambitions set around their online presence, brand reach, consumer interaction and spending real time in understanding what is out there. By educating dealers rather than just taking over the whole ball of wax, change is visible. By involving them rather than avoiding them, cooperation is established. By partnering, accountability becomes easier.

Even with the greatest level of engagement, however, retail is still retail and some habits die hard. Dealers can't ignore their fixed operations for a day. Management can't (and won't) turn a blind eye to the sales floor for 24 hours. Not even the parts manager gets a day without a general manager visit. So how can you afford to go a week or two, if not longer, without chatting up what's happening online and not just leads.

Two areas that might need more work are setting expectations and goal setting. Too often relatively major aspects of online operation are glazed over that can easily be addressed by keeping both vendor and client accountable to updates, the calendar and results.

These days you hear about more dealer service providers being tasked by their dealerships, companies providing more amenable terms, dealers sharing more information with their 20 groups and huge attendance at events around Internet and social media efforts. Great! What is happening to hold the dealer responsible? The web and everything associated with it is so fluid today that it almost makes more sense to have a meeting about what's happening and how to adjust and direct once or twice a week compared to having another sales meeting. Folks, if you have the right staff, it's about bringing the people in…salespeople know what they're doing and not doing especially when they hear it from the desk consistently.

Set expectations, draw out what steps must be done to excel. We must start with the end in mind AND be completely committed to it. Advisers, consultants, webinars and conferences are what you start and maintain with. In other words those are tools, just like 3 by 5 cars, tickler files, walkarounds, and CRM software. They are the conduits to results you want: the sale. They don't sell cars but you can't exist without them.

If you have committed to put your emphasis online, no matter what phase of the process you're in, stick with it. This isn't toe-in-the-water. This is died-in-the-wool. You can't get anywhere without having both the keys and a destination. You can't take off without the right equipment and a flight plan (yeah you pilots of the auto industry, you know who you are). And you can't win online without being part of it, staying in it and knowing what you want out of it.

Best practices: Professional Insight, Powerful Results

Branding, Communication and Process For Dummies (AKA All Of Us) In Time For NADA

If education, reinforcement, results and transparency are the benchmarks of success why are we all not more successful than we are right now? More often than not, in our beloved industry, what has been around for a long time is considered as accepted or the norm and what is new is rejected with rare exception. At the end of the day we're branders and communicators entirely and inextricably linked to the success or failure of process. Well, we need a wake up call.

Recently there has been a barrage of articles on everything from social media must do's for car dealers to self-indulgent bantering among dealership consultants, from incessantly republishing authoritative sources to fill pages and drive traffic to kicking dead horses and old ghosts. And who are we kidding? The whole industry has to wake up to new ways of doing business, engaging consumers that control content, delivering more value than flash to dealerships, learning more than preaching and finally…wait for it…stop talking about what you don't understand.

So what's the difference between ignoring technology because management says "you can sell without it", the Barracuda firewall encasing your dealership is controlled by a corporate yes man who thinks that every 10 minutes on Facebook is one unit lost and your so-called vendors swear they're "all over it" and getting passed by like a 911 GT3 in 6th gear? Not much unless you truly desire to be in business and profitable over the next 24 months.

Every piece of real data out there shows the same thing: brand, communication and process control your path. Not advertising. Not high-pressure salesmanship. Not displacing your cranium under the warm sand. Brand is shared. Communication is shared. Process doesn't need to be shared but without it you won't remember where the brand and communication go (even if you've got really good hair, a tan and bling to win over GMs and dealer principals with).

So, when's the last time you went through your website (and saw keyword stuffing and out-of-date optimization)? Checked out your templates (and saw that they didn't have links in your signature block)? Really customized your 'newsletter' (that is the same as everyone else's)? Checked, double-checked and then triple-checked your third-party lead sources (unless you have no issue with them showing 80 leads and 315 phone calls when you're positive that the real number is half that)? Do you truly know what your site analytics show? How are those inbound links working for you? And your press releases? When was the last blog post you did?

Today I overheard a salesperson getting educated at a dealership. Rather than say trained, we'll go with that. He was asked not to say "welcome to (name of dealership), my name is (his name), how can I help you?". It was explained that by putting the showroom guest in the position of being 'helped' that they will feel put off or less empowered and it was better to offer assistance by saying "how can I assist you?".

Let's not kid ourselves any more. Many in automotive retail need HELP and those that ask will get it from the best sources the industry has to offer, as long as they're willing to go with the new. As you check out all that has to be offered in Orlando this weekend, where is your help going to come from?

Best Practices: Professional Insight, Powerful Results

The Square Peg, The Round Hole and Public Opinion. How Can The Dealer Win?

The factory, the product, the media coverage, the recalls, the blitz of lacking and half-cooked information. When does the dealer get the coverage? When they're closing, exposed as corrupt or so-called environmentalists torch their lots. Welcome to the square peg and the round hole in the automotive industry, if not the perfect storm.

And who's to blame for the lopsided ego-train? Yes, the factory is guilty: plain as day. More than not, they treat the dealer like a flea on the 800-pound gorilla. But so is the dealer base. For the last couple decades, the dealers have waited for the new models, created mediocre-at-best, self-indulgent print and radio ads, greeted fearful (or at least resentful) customers in less-than-desirable locations and then wondered why they have the (earned) reputations they do.

With exception to the leaders in the industry, dealers have not done much to truly brand and distinguish themselves. Don't get 'yer panties in a wad yet: We're not saying that you don't impact your communities, gainfully employ many or that you don't feed tax revenue into your city's coffers. What we are saying is that the dealer brands have not matched, let alone eclipsed, the nameplate and that is sad. Today would be one of those days if you happen to sell one of two import brands…and we all know that the domestics have had their days as well.

There has not been a better time ever to build a sustainable brand aside from what the factory does. And wouldn't you want to do something different?!?!?! Have you paid attention to most car ads? Have you seen the POPs that are created for showrooms? You're better off putting one of those 40-foot high lizards or cylindrical men with billowing arms on your roof! Actually, please don't do that, 1986 called and they want their marketing back.

How does the dealer win today?  Start competing with the factory by becoming your own media. On the web it's more achievable for less money than you'd ever imagine, if you do it right. You might even start working with your customers and actually source, communicate and retain them successfully. There are some OEMs that actually want to take over your CRM and relationships but it's not because they can do it any better than the dealer can. Truth is it's not happening correctly at retail. This evening I was talking to a successful local dealer group that has one of their import stores source nearly every walk-up the same way in their CRM: simply click the first drop down choice. CRAP!

The foundation for winning is simple, it's just not easy: unbreakable processes, management from the top down, complete comprehension of systems and support and a die-hard commitment to the customer. If we don't do that, it's all for naught.

These are still very trying times in automotive (special mention to the banks!). Maybe we can all start by simply trying to keep ourselves from making it any harder. Start internally. Then make sure your 'home' is in great shape. Then concentrate on the customers. Then, alas, take care of the factory.

Best Practices: Professional Insight, Powerful Results

Dealeritis or Vendoritis? Has The Game Changed At All?

There seems to be a perpetual struggle in the dealer world between the client needing services, needing to change/improve, needing to stay in front of the competition and the vendors needing new places to hock their wares, prove their value, bang the 'we're the leader' drum and pay back their investors. They're both right while not typically paying attention to each other.

In the course of recommending vendors, after assessing the needs of the client, it is sometimes difficult to pinpoint what services will be beneficial. This is more the case today with some providers offering truly integrated, real-time solutions. There are times when, over the course of an engagement, fitting vendors are brought in to do their jobs, but in hindsight it's realized that one larger provider could have done the work. And likely at a lower price while providing a more streamlined experience.

It is always appropriate to push for the larger picture and achieve more but automotive retail has been hit hard over the years with less-than-promised services at outrageous prices and lackluster support. This has been painfully evident with DMS and CRM systems. Many dealers are numb to the pitch today. But have they turned a deaf ear and a blind eye when now is the right time to hear them out again?

Many consultants have the benefit of working with leading-edge and/or forward thinking dealerships and it is a pleasure. In providing best practice recommendations (i.e. the suggestions are honest and the vendor doesn't pay anyone a finder's or recurring fee) it is always necessary to keep goals in mind while ensuring the possibility of exceeding them. Too often the client feels it's the vendors job to 'perform' and the vendor feels it's the client's job to do so as well.

Getting over this 'dealeritis' and 'vendoritis' type of game is essential. and many think it's not happening fast enough. One event started changing things last year and we need more change.

What suggestions do you have to get vendors and dealers together in not-simply-for-large-profits-for-the-promoter forums around the country? Can it be sponsored so the cost is free-to-low for everyone and vendors pitch or should it be a pay-your-way-and-bring-a-sack-lunch event? This is the year of the automotive community: pitch in so you'll win!

Best Practices: Professional Insight, Powerful Results

Why 2010 Is The Year For The Dealer In The Automotive Communities

You've seen them. You've registered. You've looked a couple times. You've even mentioned them at some of the events you attend to be in the 'know' . But the most you've been involved with what is likely the greatest area of information and opportunity for quicker growth ends with exactly that: not much. Post a comment on a forum? Nonsense. Ask a tough question of your peers? Waster of time. But your processes, results and even poorly rated vendors don't change and the answers are staring at you, through that nice flat screen you convinced your general manager you had to have.

So what will it take to propel dealership involvement in the communities? If we don't change retail, as great as the products have gotten, the fact that new cars are now launched on the web or mobile devices exclusively rather than traditional advertising (about stinking time), the fact that you read reviews of hotels and restaurants on review/forum sites and a list of other valid reasons, the dealer voice online is about as frequent as (fill in your least favorite 80's or 90's pop star here, mine's Cher) appearing on the Billboard Chart's number one spot today.

We can all agree, or let's just say we can, that a lot has had to change in automotive retail. And some are doing it with rewarding results. Even with 'better' results, it's not enough to drop your marketing expense by $50,000 a month compared to a couple years from now, redesign your website and expect cars to fly off the showroom floor. We must share and help each other.

Considering how many have chopped expenses including travel and 20 groups, stopped attending most events and don't even see their reps as much as before, how can you not leverage the online automotive industry communities? That is a rhetorical question considering how many dealers still step over a dollar to pick up a penny.

And let's have real involvement rather the same old list of suspects. A changing of the guard is totally needed, appropriate and refreshing. Does your favorite publication use the same contributors every month? (yawn) Boring! It's no different online.

Dealers, here is the challenge: write down your two or three biggest challenges. Everyone posts them starting tomorrow, for the next 50 weeks. Stupid questions? No such thing! Someone already asked the same or close question? See who else can answer it. What are you afraid of? This is your opportunity to learn while everyone else does. No two people will execute exactly the same so make sure you've got your spin on it.

As an example, after last October's DrivingSales Executive Summit, the comments were consistent not only about the value of the event but the content was more in line with what dealers needed. It was dynamic. The speakers were fresh. The subjects impacted attendees. Then, crickets on the website.

Folks, this is THE year for the automotive online community. Our future success depends on what we do today and for the next 354 days. We have one of the best industries out there, we should treat it as such.

Best Practices: Profession Insight, Powerful Results

So Much Good Stuff…Does It Make You Want To Ignore It All?

It's no secret that over the past few months things have really been taking off in the online automotive space for dealers and a lot of attention is being paid to the more leading edge, innovative companies (and some not-so-leading-edge ones).  It really seems that retail is starting to embrace, at a minimum, the 'change' in mindset.  At the same time it's not too hard to see that it may be overload.

When you consider the amount of good information, new technology, availability of tools (especially those that are free or inexpensive), vast selection of downloads/blogs/webinars and more, it really seems like a heyday for flipping the switch and going forward like a gleaming new Boeing 787,  But just like the impressive 'Dreamliner", you can't get off the ground if your resources aren't trained for the flight.

We still seem to be hamstrung by our best resource: staff, desire, goal-setting, application, training and simple commitment.  In a recent meeting, a general manager was talking about how he'd like to offload the lead handling to a staff member.  Yes…a GM wanted to have someone else take up the task of correctly touching, responding to and managing the leads.  Huh?!?!?!?!?

All of this made me flash back to the AM/PM radio spots with their campaign "Too Much Good Stuff".  We can SEO/PPC/CRM/DMS/PMA/CPO/RO/MICKEYMOUSE a dealer to death.  By the same token, you've got to be able to execute on all of those lovely acronyms.  Start with the leads.

Don't have the right person(s)?  You had better look at all of your sales staff.  Don't apply any excuses to any one of them.  Can't type an effective email?  Chances are you can't communicate very effectively on the floor.  Sorry, you must not ignore one and not the other.  They go hand-in-hand.  Can't turn on a monitor or CPU?  Just imagine that all of the 'old dogs' on your sales floor had to learn something about navigation/Bluetooth/OnStar/Sync/back up assist/iDrive and more on new cars over the past few years.  And chances are your 40-50 plus year-old techs in the back have had to learn something (actually a heck of a lot) that's new under the hood.  Again, stop excusing lack and ignoring ignorance.

Don't have someone that can lead efforts on your website, integration, social media, templates, vendor management and more?  You need one.  Don't hire a salesperson to do it…and don't hire an IT person either.  Hire someone with a balance of skills covering all the aspects: communication, technology, customer service and ensure that it's someone that can conjugate what they'll do for you, not what they did for someone else.

Understand, staff, educate, execute and then lead with some consistent effort and passion.  Every dealer that wants to thrive, let alone survive, must be able to assess and improve on ALL aspects of their presence, brand and sales, especially online.  To get better results you've got to think and do things differently.  And that doesn't mean thinking differently by keeping the person on that has been selling 3-6 cars a month for months just to have them post in social media networks (by the way, that's a mistake!).

Here's a challenge: Make your business plans by December 31, target your staff and online needs, plot your strategy, write everything down, stick to it all year long and (here's the hard part) do everything that you're in control of and ignore the rest.

The difference this coming year between you making online work for you and not making it work can be devastating.  Make "Too Much Good Stuff" work for you and then take it all…

Best Practices: Professional Insight, Powerful Results

Why Hit The Panic Button When You Can Hit The Simple Button?

Can't you just hear it in the background when you try to explain the shift to digital/social marketing from traditional 'push' marketing to a business like, oh let's say, a car dealer? A chorus fills your head from 1978: "Aaahh Freak out!  Le Freak, C'est Chic, Freak out!". Scary enough, our sales volumes are near 1978 levels and we continue to advertise as if it were.

From forums on DrivingSales to articles on Advertising Age to the offices of medium- to large-sized dealer groups, there is still a debate. That's' mind boggling! Consumers are gobbling up media at alarming rates. Their chosen media, not advertising. Do you still believe it was the advertisers that killed the newspapers? It's much easier to accept than understand that people don't need to read yesterday's news that they already got online or on their cell phone the day before.

So, people do what people do when they just don't understand: freak out, panic, sweat, worry, bury their heads. Come on, take out the Simple button (thanks for the idea Staples!) and start working and communicating WITH everyone. If you don't understand SEO, social media, microsites, true CRM, integration and the whole list of items that aren't a print, radio or TV ad then simply ask our community. Stop being in love with your advertisements and start being in love with your customers!

Changing the way we generate traffic is not easy, but it is incredibly simple. What is usually missing from any effective digital strategy at dealers is (1) process, (2) stick-to-it-iveness, (3) oversight, (4) knowledge, (5) willingness and (6) a burning desire to succeed. Why wait when you can dominate? The wait mentality really gets my goat. You might as well sell you business if you're going to wait.

Last week while speaking at a NADA 20 Group, one dealer had less than 20% of their marketing budget in digital/online. His explanation? "Hasn't worked!". His process? Buying the same way he buys weekend spot or full-page ads. Folks, online is not a "stick-your-toe-in-the-water-and-see-if-it-feels-good" proposition. All of the transparency and accountability is there, no other media measures like online!!

Whether it's wanting to "own" page one of Google by partnering with a strong SEO company (especially if your website company thinks SEO is simply a typo of CEO), to sharing great content on Facebook or Twitter, effectively engaging service customers with a tool like Driverside, or doing effective CRM with a company like DealerSocket or VINSolutions, it's the same: if you don't know, ask.

If you don't have the best brand possible reflected online, over 60 percent open rates for your emails, positive onliine reputation, inventory that can be indexed by the search engines (you don't if it's framed-in on your website) and a community that communicates with you online, it's time to get your business in order before spending thousands and thousands of dollars every month because someone's convinced you that they can sell more cars for you (if they're that strong, hire them and get rid of your deadwood).

Polish up your Simple button and use it because you should be operating a profitable business and not a charity and blind contribution machine. In other words, make your business right before you continue to help make others right (and more profitable that yours)…

Best practices: Professional Insight, Powerful Results

What Will You Focus On Tuesday After Clunkers Shuts Down? Start Inviting Your Customers In Again…

Imagine, if you can, that business becomes painfully slow. Sales, traffic, even service, is down anywhere from a little bit to 'oh-my-gosh-how-can-we-survive?' slow.  Then try really hard to imagine some gift-from-above program from an unannounced source drives a bunch of customers to your store for a few weeks.  Then…the program ends abruptly.  At the same time, consider that you expected the program to end at any time so you are not completely surprised by the news that the masked crusader and his money left town.

What will you do the next business day? How prepared you are, how well you communicate with prospects and customers alike, how creative you are and where you know your business comes from will dictate if Tuesday is satisfactorily busy or if it is just like another day before all the loads of Monopoly money arrived.

Most people we've heard from consider C.A.R.S. a blessing with all of the traffic and sales it generated, as well as a genuine pain in the butt.  Of course!  If you had the program to do for yourself, would you have done it any differently?  You absolutely would have.  So why are you going to be twiddling your thumbs come Tuesday?  What program you run is up to YOU, every day.

Now, that's not to say that you're going to be able to come up with $4,500 of "it'll get here someday" funds on nearly half of the deals you do next week or any other day.  However, it's entirely up to you how to drive people off of their scared little (and big) duffs and into your business.

It's not up to the factory, it's not up to the million-dollar advertisements, it's not up to the region or your 20-group and gosh-forbid it's definitely not up to the government.  Don't you want them out of your business…not in it?  What happens in your business, positive or negative, is up to you, your brand, your staff, your effort and your planning.

So when the here today-gone tomorrow spigot of funds is finally turned off by someone making a lot more than you with nicer benefits than you have and a pension you can't even dream about, get back into the habit of making your business happen.  Less business?  Get a bigger piece of a smaller pie!

Can't figure out how to make it work?  Ask someone for help or at least tell the receptionist that you're not "away from your desk all day" and that you'll start taking meetings again.  Business doesn't happen from thin air, it takes a lot of work and some good consistency.  And sometimes it takes outside ideas folks, as painful as that might sound to some 20-year plus veterans.

Besides, whether you call it natural selection, survival of the fittest or one of a myriad of other expressions that refer to 'business better then usual', it is always best when you're the master of your domain rather than waiting for the next shot in the arm.

Best practices: Professional Insight, Powerful Results