Guest Post by David Metter
I know that many of us have taken shots at Autotrader.com in the past. Heck, I have even taken a few whacks at them myself…while they probably deserved it. But too many times, when a company does something good, you never hear about it. That’s why I wanted to take time to give you my review of this year’s Autotrader.com national sales meeting.
Very rarely does an automotive vendor allow a group of their customers to join along in the celebration of their sales staff, rollout of new products and initiatives, and just some general “letting off some steam”. When I was asked to attend, I jumped at the chance. I have had the opportunity to attend a few other in-market national sales meetings in the past and came away with great information that helped our dealerships get out in front of the curve. I figured that this one would be no different. What surprised me was the compassion that was shown towards their dealer customers across the country.
Autotrader.com has had the reputation of being the dealer’s enemy. There are numerous stories regarding rate increases and we have all heard about their national AutoTrader sales blitzes. I have always shared these stories with AT.com’s upper management team, including Chip Perry. Last year, Chip pulled me aside and told me that there were changes that were being made to move away from their old way of selling and managing their customers. As the year went on, I started to see these changes take effect. There were layers removed in the upper management chain. One key addition was the insertion of Alan Smith over all of the sales operations. Alan had managed the customer support center prior to taking on this new role. Coincidentally, at about the same time, they seemed to get rid of some bad apples within their sales organization. This past fall AutoTrader.com held a dealer advisory meeting which included some of the largest and most progressive dealerships and dealer groups in the country. They listened while we discussed our issues and successes. I knew they were listening because their entire national sales meeting was built around those earlier discussions.
From the kickoff to the finale, the message was clear. Their customers come first. Conversations around consulting with their dealers, adding value, and get this…no rate increases until at least 2nd quarter 2010. Now, some of you might make jokes about this but I haven’t had another vendor put that type of thing in writing…ever. Their sales compensation plan was changed to reward their team for retaining their customers and building relationships within the dealerships.
With other vendor meetings in the past, I have been asked to deliver a keynote or sit on a panel. In an interesting twist, AutoTrader.com asked me to help facilitate 3 training sessions around good SEO/SEM practices. Even more interesting, the first class started at 8am on day 2. Now unless you are Amish, nobody attends a meeting in Vegas at 8am, including me, (I am still a little mad about that) but I was pleasantly surprised that the room was completely full and the questions that were asked in the first session were as strong as the second and third. The salespeople attended these classes because they wanted to learn how to help their customers with their business. They are not selling SEO and SEM. In fact, I challenged them to do some homework on their dealership customers and scan their websites for best/worst practices. I can’t count how many people came up to me over the following 2 days to discuss what they had found…and they were in Vegas! Now granted, we were in a bar discussing this topic but that means that they took the time to get online and dig into their customers business practices.
The 3 day meeting ended with their annual sales award banquet. I had a chance to mingle with many of the executives from the company as well as sit at dinner with Bill Templeton, Lloyd Hecht, Dan Crowe and two of their Major Account Managers David Palmer and Lee Herndon. Nothing was funnier than watching the executive team from AutoTrader.com dancing on the stage as the band was finishing a set. I am still trying to figure out what music Roger Hildebrandt was listening to because it sure wasn’t the same music that was playing.
Usually in these types of events they serve a fancy multi-course meal but instead we received a thick cheeseburger and French fries. I will admit that the cheeseburger was great and an even greater message was sent. The evening ended with their annual awards. The most pleasant surprise was how they graded the award winners. Not only did they take annual sales numbers into account but customer retention and feedback as well as community involvement weighed into the decision.
Be careful before you start calling me an Autotrader.com shill or jokingly ask me to stay in my new vacation house in Atlanta. There are few in our industry that is more critical of vendors than me. Just ask anyone who has been escorted out our corporate office. I understand that a good vendor partner is not built in a day but I definitely like the direction that this vendor is moving. Some battleships can’t turn quickly in the ocean. Let’s just give them some time…and maybe a second chance.
About the Aurthor: David Metter is the CMO for