By William Phillips, Automotive Internet Management Inc.

It’s early October, and I’m just leaving the J.D. Power and Associates Automotive Internet Roundtable in Las Vegas, where a wealth of great information was presented. The best thing I learned from this conference was that the work environment within a dealership is changing faster than anyone realizes. Technology is changing the face of who now works in this environment, and the industry is unprepared for or unaware of the change at hand.   

In the opening session, the folks from J.D. Power brought together several manufacturer representatives to discuss the results of a recently completed mystery-shopping study. This survey showed without a doubt why dealers are struggling: response times to customer inquiries that exceed 12 hours and next to no follow up of any kind. J.D. Power then brought out a panel of dealer representatives. For the next 30 minutes, this group of well-meaning, intelligent people discussed little of this problem – though for good reason. With all due respect to the smart people who participated, I don’t believe that anyone addressed the issues that needed to be addressed. Why? They can’t.

To be fair, the current landscape is changing very quickly – for dealers, manufacturers and even industry observers such as J.D. Power. Job descriptions within today’s dealerships, for example, did not exist as recently as five years ago and have failed to keep pace with the challenges confronting dealers on a daily basis. Even as we bring talented professionals into our stores to solve these issues, the sad truth is this: The skill set needed to tackle them isn’t in their job description and often extends beyond their job duties. In practical terms, consider your marketing director who understands SEO, website metrics and ROI calculations. Is this the person who has the ability or the time to fix your broken advertising and sales processes? What about process engineering-minded sales leaders who can manage staff and hold old-school car people accountable? Will they have the time – or the expertise – to do anything else?

What I’m suggesting is that you separate these distinctly different jobs and fill them with the distinctly different types of people they require. This point was proved in the J.D. Power panel discussion. One dealer representative proudly proclaimed that her staff is responding to all leads within 26 minutes: How could the manufacturer’s numbers possibly be true? (Unknown to another panelist of one of the larger dealership groups in the United States was the fact that, at the time, I’d been waiting three days for a call from one of his stores following a mystery-shop of my own). I don’t believe that one person on this panel isn’t doing his or her job. Rather, I contend that the issues J.D. Power presented as the problem lie outside their ability or job title to fix. You can know everything about Tier 1, Tier 2 and Tier 3 ecommerce marketing and still not know how to correctly fix process issues in a store.

Manufacturers and dealers need to be more committed to training and less willing to throw money at a problem. In this economy, you can’t back your way into profitability. You have to put your head down and focus on the basics. If you’re not sure what they are anymore, take this opportunity to relearn them. Your consumer is now placing boundaries between you and a sale that requires proactive methods to make contact. This business climate tests even the best managers; the ones who traditionally have operated on the basis of their feelings and their theories about what works must now get in tune with managing this new area of business that’s more about the numbers.

According to J.D. Power, car sales in the next year will fall more than they have in the past seven. The decisions about process control and dollars spent on marketing, as well as who makes these decisions, can’t wait until tomorrow. In case you think this is a sales pitch by a consultant to hock his services, let me be clear: Don’t hire one. Instead, hire somebody who can properly manage your marketing and someone for the sales process. Or, as I’m suggesting, hire two somebodies.

Hire someone who understands the data we need to manage in automotive retail and who knows how to work around the limitations of software tools currently available to us. This management-level position will involve spending advertising dollars that, in the past, may have been directed by the general manager.

You also need to hire a strong process manager, a role previously known as a sales manager. These individuals are not deal managers who stand around waiting for something to manage; they follow and enforce the process. They know how many emails and calls your customers receive, and they know the contact patterns your salespeople follow. They know that driving showroom traffic requires action – and that action is not developing an advertising concept or scripting a radio/TV spot. Their daily activities have changed the most of any position within a dealership, and there will be some sales managers who can’t adapt. As an owner or GM, you need to be ready to change the person if that person can’t change.

The good news is that, even in this market, dealers who work both hard and smart can thrive and flourish. Instead of worrying about who moved the cheese, focus instead on moving toward the cheese, and you can be among them.

This article reprinted with permission from Bill Phillips.