It’s been a year since Alex left Checkered Flag; accepting a prime position with Dealer.com to explore the vendor side of our industry. Alex and I usually speak no less than once or twice a week on the phone. Most of our conversations are around our jobs, the industry and of course what’s happening here on DealerRefresh.
Over the last year, Alex has had the opportunity to see our industry from outside the dealer world. For that reason, I thought I would put him through an a short interview as finishes up his first year away from Checkered Flag and has had time to settle in his new (ish) position on the vendor side.
Let’s get started..
Alex, what exactly do you do?
I am the Director of Product Research. I like to call it the “Director of Think Cool $h!t Up.” I get to be an in-house-always-on-call dealer for various departments to run things by. Think of me as someone who makes infinite feature requests. The difference is I have to build a case around them and really think things through. It isn’t just “I have an idea;” it is “I have an idea with supporting documentation that is backed by research, data, and predictions.” It requires a kind of critical thinking I haven’t had to practice since college.
Many things involve working in areas that I never participated in too much while at Checkered Flag. One example of that is legal. Every idea needs to be scrutinized to make sure it is compliant with the law (think about consumer privacy or the CAN-SPAM act). Recently it was brought to my attention that I have to start researching patents. That is definitely something I never would have considered as a dealer.
If I am ever in a dealership again my feature requests will be much different….or at least better thought-out.
What are you currently researching?
All sorts of things. I love to play in analytics, analyzing dealership process models, where data can be combined with outside data sets, and overall usability. It mostly revolves around making dealers’ lives easier and making the consumer-facing pieces function better. I’m thinking you’ll start to see some of the things I’ve touched at NADA 2012.
How has your perspective changed?
This is a massive question, but the way I now view the industry was, alone, worth taking the job at Dealer.com. The world is different when you’re working in a B2C environment versus B2B. The actions you take in B2B are much more complex and much farther reaching.
View of dealers
I still think of myself as a dealer. I approach everything as a dealer, but with one exception. I no longer am bound to the end of a month. I realize now that being bound to a month to month mentality was a handicap that limited my vision. It is difficult to speak to some dealers, my own family included, when you’re thinking about things that are 2 years down the road and trying to frame it in a way that makes sense to someone who might only be thinking 2 months ahead. Great things require planning and critical thinking; they require debate. Many dealers make decisions from the gut and those decisions are mostly formulated fully out of emotion. I did the same thing and don’t fault anyone for it. I just wish more dealers would accept patience.
I understand that we are constantly dealing with people who are making decisions completely on emotion (AKA customers) and we need to incorporate their mentality in order to make a car sale. It might be this simple psychological synopsis that creates all the stresses between dealers and manufacturers. Manufacturers, for the most part, are absolutely thinking in terms of years, not months. And maybe this is also part of the reason why manufacturers aren’t very good at being dealers.
View of OEMs
As a dealer I was not a big fan of the policies many of our OEM’s forced down our throat. Sitting outside of a progressive dealer group I now see that the vast majority of dealerships are rarely considering the power of consistent marketing and the value of a brand. This is definitely a frustration for the manufacturers, and I now appreciate that frustration. I think the OEM’s could do a better job of paying attention to dealers, and listening to much of the advice they’re given. Politics plays a big role in this relationship and that skews things greatly. It isn’t a perfect world, but I can say that if I were back in the dealership I would make a stronger effort to work with my OEM’s than to fight them like I did. Consistent marketing makes a lot of sense. Do I believe an OEM should force specific technologies on dealers, no. Do I believe they should work with dealers as marketing consultants who educate and financially help by providing tools they approve, yes.
View of vendors
I’m a little biased here now – lol. I think vendors have good intentions overall. Automotive is a difficult segment and like most dealers, most vendors weren’t kids who always dreamed of being in the car business. They’re technologists who want to build technology that betters someone’s life. I think this is true of all companies no matter how much we like to hate them. Sure, there are some weasels across the vendor fence, but those exist everywhere. With good feature requests that are thought-out and good feedback any dealer can become a superstar client for any vendor.
View of technology
Technology is a bitch. It was hard to make all the technologies work at Checkered Flag and now I’m seeing why. Holy crap there is a lot that goes into building a piece of software. I thought I had a decent idea of how it worked, but I sure was wrong. I spend a lot of my time flushing out requirements. You’ve got to plan for every scenario. What happens when someone clicks this after clicking that? What is the purpose of that button? Should we have a button? Those are simple ones. The tough ones come in when you’re trying to figure out how different data models fit with other data models. And when you’re trying to get a data model from a totally different programming language to work with a different data model from another language it takes a special kind of thinker to get it right. When you’re making new technology you sometimes have to leverage older technologies and that is time consuming.
What is different between the dealership and working as a vendor?
It isn’t as simple as moving from a dealership to a vendor environment. It is an entirely different industry. The dealership serves consumers and we all have a good picture of what that entails. My vendor role is technically in the technology industry, and we serve the car industry.
Being in the technology business requires critical thinking that isn’t as based on emotion. It requires working with a team, whereas much of dealership management is a practice in dictatorship. Nothing wrong with either, just different industries and needs.
A huge change, for me, has been the level of everyday conversations. Virtually everyone at Dealer.com has a college degree and a desire to work. They’re career-oriented people. It has been like dying and going to eCommerce Director heaven. Everyone wants to talk about digital marketing and is completely bought-in on everything I struggled to sell to my dealership coworkers everyday. When you can skip past educating and then selling an idea, the conversation goes much deeper.
Where do you see the future of automotive?
Getting much more complicated. Because Dealer.com works with car dealers, OEMs, other vendors, and has clients outside the United States I get to see a much larger picture. I also get to work with a lot of dealers who aren’t on DealerRefresh and have an appreciation for why so many manufacturers want to control a lot of the things dealers do. I’m also seeing more and more dealers truly come “online” everyday. That’s exciting! I just hope the manufacturers are seeing this too.
We’re in the middle of a technology revolution that is getting faster and faster with no signs of slowing anytime soon. We’re also in the midst of a major generational divide. The younger generations do not know a world without technology and they’re going to force more and more communication and purchasing through technology. Yes, the car business (like everything) will always be a people business, but the “personal touch” will not consist of as many handshakes.
When talking about the future and the generational divide we’re experiencing I’d like to add that the older generations should not be discounted. I know the audience on DealerRefresh and I know you’ve had some frustrations with people who are higher-up on the totem pole. Just remember that these people have been beating the pavement for a long time. They have hardened instincts that are based on years of experience. It would be unwise to ignore their wisdom. At the same time, I would hope the older generations would work with the younger ones to help us better formulate stronger solutions. Neither generation is a threat. We just have a hard time understanding one another.
Do you think we will ever see a day when all technologies rest at one vendor?
No. Good technology is baked, not purchased. I just don’t think there are enough bakers who can tackle everything.
Are there some things you’ve seen that you wouldn’t have seen at Checkered Flag?
OMG yeah! I can’t even begin to list the number of things I’ve been exposed to over the last year. None of it is a big secret, there just has been a lot. Instead of working with one dealer group, I’m now working with thousands. Seeing different markets, seeing different business practices, and seeing how others use the same technologies I used to use daily have shown me a much larger picture.
If you go back to Checkered Flag will you change the way you did things there?
I wouldn’t go back and seek to change things overnight. I’d start with some ideas, draw-out a plan for putting those ideas in action, and would work with all the players I’d need to get it done. Investing in *real* long-term planning and strategy would be the biggest change to the way I used to do things.
If there was one thing you’d call the greatest thing working at Dealer.com has done for you what would that be?
Shedding my month to month mentality. Shedding that mentality was like switching from a 13″ black and white tube television to a 70″ Hi-Def LED television with a full surround sound system pumping over 90 decibels.
Alex, you and I have conversations about the above all the time, and is why I thought it would make for a great article-interview. Thanks for taking the time to answer a few questions and sharing with the DealerRefresh community. Congratulations again on your first full year with Dealer.com