I have been doing lots of flying recently. The travelling is rarely fun, but the meetings I have been having with dealers usually are. You’d think that dealers would be pretty happy these days, and that generally is the case. Sales are looking good and the dealer count is down — seems a surefire pathway to increased profits.
Despite this, there are some conversations that take a different turn. Sometimes, a dealer is focused on increased regulation, competitive discounting, bullying from manufacturers, (think stair-steps and facility mandates), employee turnover — the list can be lengthy. Meeting with these dealers can leave me drained. But then I run across a dealer who is completely different. These meetings can run all day, but feel like they lasted an hour. The dealers tend to be optimistic and thoughtful. Most interestingly, these dealers have what I call an “itch.”
They acknowledge the competitive pressures all dealers face. Despite all these, they are successful, but still not satisfied. Their “itch” drives them to try new things, push different boundaries; not in the simple pursuit of profit, but to find a way of doing business that is dramatically better.
I have been thinking along these lines for the better part of my career as well—so we have lots to talk about. What anchors these talks is the opportunity articulated in my last post where I noted there are a few dealers around the country whose performance is head and shoulders above what we would normally consider successful. These stores draw from very larger geographic areas. They are stable. And perhaps the biggest twist is that their gross profits are higher than average. (Proving that really high volume doesn’t have to mean low—or no—profit.)
Very simply, the opportunity is for more “typical” stores to achieve this heightened level of success. And with the opportunity being so huge, the wonder is that every dealer is not working to achieve it — especially when we realize that what these stores are doing is actually not that hard to figure out.
It is really only three things:
First, the dealers have identified the things that a large number of consumers really, really value when buying a vehicle. We covered some of these in my first post; things like efficiency and respect for their time. A feeling of confidence that the dealership’s pricing is fair. A dealership point of contact who has the customer’s “back.” (Someone the customer feels they can trust.)
Second, the dealers have developed processes that consistently deliver on these features. Consistency is the key; meaning that these experiences are delivered every day, to every customer.
Thirdly, the dealership efficiently communicates to the marketplace to build demand and expectations around the aforementioned experience.
A big part of what I am describing is really the building of a brand — at least in the way I think about brands. Valuable brands are built from a set of expectations, or promises about a product. They are also trusted or credible, meaning there is little doubt the expectation will be met. While brands can be influenced through advertising, by far the best way to build a brand is through word of mouth.
These three steps to success are easy enough for me to write about, but I have to also acknowledge they are devilishly tricky to implement. They start out easily enough — understanding what consumers value is no mystery. (Dealers can simply ask their customers, or look at the decades of research in this area.) And it is not that hard to design an experience that responds to these needs. It is the consistency part where things start to get tricky. Sticking to a process is not something most dealerships are good at. Salespeople like to do business in their own way. Turnover also undermines consistency. Perhaps the biggest obstacle is the pressure to hit a number that encourages managers to stretch for a deal that really should have been passed on.
Think about that one for a minute — passing on a deal is really, really hard. But sometimes it is the right thing to do; first, because of the need to deliver the same experience to every customer, with no exceptions. Second, if the dealership did its homework when designing their consumer experience, it will be highly valued by many consumers, but probably not work for some others. You’ve heard the expression “You can’t be all things to all people.” As it relates to branding, you shouldn’t even try. For example, let’s say you have designed a sales experience around fair prices and an expedited sales process. This might be valued by 80% of the market, but the 15%-20% of the market who obsess only about the “deal” will not be impressed. Instead of undermining your credibility with the 80%, why not leave the deal-obsessed to your competition?
Today’s super-successful stores developed their versions of this road map long ago and have followed them for years. When the market was tough, it was not viewed as cause to change. The big payoff for this commitment would have been an ever increasing rate of referral business. Prospects became customers, who shared the experience with their friends, who in turn became prospects then customers and the cycle continued. Referrals are the underpinning of a profitable store and the only real way to build a business, but they build out over decades.
Who has that kind of patience?
This is probably the single biggest barrier that blocks dealers who want to see dramatic performance gains: The cycle time. The stores I have been referring to that are already at this level have been at it for decades and they have achieved referral levels that can exceed 80%. (Think about that for a moment. It is a huge number.)
But before you dismiss super levels of success as practically unobtainable, let me offer up a ray of hope…
I just covered an example of how referrals used to play out; one customer sharing with one or two friends where perhaps one of those friends would remember and visit the store at some point in the future. Until just recently, this was the norm. We all had fairly well defined peer groups. Today the Internet — especially social media — has blown those traditional boundaries apart. Communications are no longer one-to-one, but one-to-many. This raises the possibility that the cycle time that dealers had to endure in the past can today be radically shorter.
This could be a big deal — and we will look into it more in my next post.