Best PracticesIndustry EventsIndustry News & Trends

Dealer ThinkTank Review 2013 with Kevin Frye

Abrams Tank
Is this a Dealer ThinkTank?

I have seen an M1 Abrams tank while serving in Desert Storm, but never a Dealer ThinkTank, so when I heard about a brand new conference that was going to have its very first event in my own backyard of Cincinnati, I had to attend. And of course, that means I am going to share my experience with you!

What is a Dealer ThinkTank? Well, the only armor it has in common with the M1 Abrams is that perhaps some of the hosts wear Under Armour sportswear under their suits. Dealer ThinkTank is a group of leaders in our industry that look to share ideas, strategies and solutions for front-line dealers. The hosts include Todd Smith, Jerry Thibeau, Joe Webb, Jeff Kershner, Allan Cooper, and Eric Miltsch, each of which have experience in the industry in different areas.

Twitter Alert! – looking for some great folks to follow on Twitter? I have done my best to link each person’s name in this review to their Twitter page. And if you are strong enough to handle my sarcasm, feel free to follow me @kevinfrye1, and of course don’t forget to follow DealerRefresh / Jeff Kershner)

Dealer Thinktank Team visits Jeff Wyler Automotive Family
The Dealer ThinkTank team visits the Jeff Wyler Automotive Family

The Best Car Dealer in Cincinnati! Cincinnati is the home of the Jeff Wyler Automotive Family, and I invited the Dealer ThinkTank team to visit our brand new headquarters for a facilities tour with a follow-on discussion. Some of the things the Dealer ThinkTank team were able to see included our modern training facility, our in-house car museum, and our in-house studio (where they watched as we were filming commercials). Best of all was our follow up presentation and discussion on current industry issues. One could quickly see that we had a room full of folks with strong opinions and insight on the future of automotive, and I feel we could have gone on for hours if I had not set a deadline.

Joe Webb loves Skyline, Montgomery Inn, and LaRosa’s… Since Joe Webb has some Cincinnati ties, I only felt that it was appropriate that the Jeff Wyler Family treat the Dealer ThinkTank team to dinner at the famous Montgomery Inn Boathouse. I think everyone left with a full stomach and a smile on their face before the big event the next day.

Eric Miltsch and Cliff Banks enjoy some Montgomer Inn ribs in Cincinnati
Eric Miltsch and Cliff Banks enjoy some Montgomery Inn ribs in Cincinnati

Location Location Location! Wow – I have been to a lot of conferences, but I must share that the location and setup for the premiere Dealer ThinkTank was first class. A room was setup at the Hilton Netherland in downtown Cincinnati which was decorated beautifully for Christmas. The training room was spacious, with chairs and tables up front for the presentations, and round tables in the back for discussion. There was plenty of great food and drinks, and I would rate an A+ on location and hospitality – great job!

Is this The Right Stuff? The attendees (about 40 in total, mostly dealers) were greeted with all of the hosts getting together on the stage to welcome us, and to share what we would expect for the rest of the day. Seeing these guys lined up on the stage kind of reminded me of the Mercury 7 being introduced by NASA (now who remembers that movie?) I found that many of the people present had traveled up to 4 hours (driving) to attend, and there were many new faces, which I feel is a positive, as many dealers do not have the budget to support travel to one of the bigger events. The Jeff Wyler team had several people attending, and I also saw industry leaders like Ric McCoy, Ben Freedman, Shawn Clos, Cliff Banks, and more.

 Dealer ThinkTank Cincinnati
Kicking off Dealer ThinkTank Cincinnati

Live Chat on steroids? I know that Todd Smith is great at Live Chat with websites, but how about actual Live Chat in front of a live audience? Todd talked about “If I Could Go Back into Retail Today”, and it was a pleasant surprise for me to see Todd talk about a different topic than I have heard over the years. We were given a list of 10 changes that Todd would make if he were back in the trenches of automotive today, and how he would best address some of the challenges we face.

While I agreed with much of what Todd presented, I think a red flag was raised when Todd suggested a BDC approach in redesigning the sales organization of a dealership. This is a HOT topic in the industry at this time and one that I feel is risky to position with in a conference like this. You could dedicate an entire conference to “To BDC or Not to BDC“, and many dealers that took the BDC route several years ago have realized that what they felt was a band-aid to solving their problems of not getting their sales reps to do what they are supposed to do has only created MORE problems. In fact, later during the day during our roundtable discussions, much of the conversation I had with other dealers was how they were struggling with BDC issues. As a dealer who is in the trenches, I disagree that BDC is a solution for the best way to retail today, but I did agree with Todd that if you implement it, you need to restructure pay plans. Let’s face it, if your sales reps want to have someone else do the work they don’t want to do, they should not expect to continue to be paid the same as before, as the BDC is a tremendous additional expense. Oh boy, see what I mean, this topic can take a life on its own very quickly…

The Dealer ThinkTank panel listens to Jerry Thibeau
The Dealer ThinkTank panel listens to Jerry Thibeau

Are you overwhelmed trying to keep up with all of your reports? Todd hit the nail on the head that future eCommerce leaders need to leverage Business Intelligence to make better business decisions. This would be a tool that encompasses all of your key performance indicators in one area so as to quickly see the performance of your dealership, as well as make the best decisions to improve your business. I also learned that ActivEngage had a new tool in that area that I look to get a full demo on in the upcoming weeks. Todd – you are a great speaker, I really enjoyed the session.

Who is this California Surfer model guy? Next up was a new face I was not familiar with. Some hotshot named Jeff Kershner who acts like he owns his own website. I must say I was a bit overwhelmed with his celebrity. In fact I thought Glamour Shots had gone out of business years ago, but when I saw Jeff’s headshot, I knew he must have found the last open Glamour Shots franchise to get that wind-blown, seductive look down just right. (wow, if this publishes, Jeff must really like me, lol).

Jeff Kershner tries on the new fashionable Google Glass look
Jeff Kershner tries on the new fashionable Google Glass look

Crush them under the treads of your tank! Jeff spoke about How to Crush Your Reputation using modern strategies and solutions. My favorite point that Jeff shared was something I have not seen addressed yet at a conference – what do you do with shoppers who are in your showroom using a mobile device (aka “Showrooming” – your new Twitter hashtag – #showrooming)? “If you leave them alone, they will be on their phone” stated Jeff, so of course that means we must never leave these people, right? No, why not give the customer YOUR mobile device, and have them use it while you visit the sales tower. Encourage them to use one of the many great OEM apps, or outside solutions like CarStory that can continue to engage and build value with your shopper when you are busy working their deal, and discourage them from “showrooming” you…

Just call him the Glass-man.  It was a real pleasure for me to meet with Eric Miltsch, who is one of the forward thinkers of our industry, and is very smart to boot. On a side note, Eric is one of my must follows on Twitter, he has surprised me with several great finds on new trends and stories in automotive, along with Cliff Banks. Eric presented “Mastering Effective Content and Search Engine Marketing Strategies”. One of his key points was that a dealership can use Google Auto Correct to identify great ideas for content to create and share for your automotive shoppers. I used this same concept last year with a video I created to show what car shoppers think about dealers. This is a very easy way to let Google work for you, great point Eric.

Eric certainly delivered on sharing some very advanced ideas and techniques using structured data in Google Webmaster tools, using all 20 tracking spots in Google Analytics, and more. While I was able to grasp everything Eric shared, my fear is that most of the attendees were a bit overwhelmed with the high level of material that Eric was teaching. I think a challenge that Dealer ThinkTank will need to consider is “Who is your audience” and ensuring they can reach each of their attendees. Eric, my only suggestion would be to work hard to keep it simple, as many of the smaller local dealers that will find appeal to attend Dealer ThinkTank might struggle with the level of your material.

Two "glassholes" in a stare-off contest
Two “glassholes” in a stare-off contest

Show me the money! Many folks know that if you sit up front in one of Jerry Thibeau’s presentations, it literally pays as he throws out cash to the front rows. I guess Jerry had a rough night at the casino as he only hit me in the head with a Buffalo nickel, ouch! Jerry presented “The Great Internet Sales Assessment”, which was a very useful area for each dealer present, as he reviewed process maps, training your staff, and holding your people accountable. A key part of the presentation was sharing the results of mystery shops of several dealers present, including my own, and while much of the insight and critique was good, I had to strongly disagree with some of what was presented.

There is a difference between idealism and realism… For ALL trainers in the industry, listen to not only myself, but all of the other dealers in the trenches today. The danger in consulting is that every day after you leave the dealership arena to become a trainer/consultant, you often become more disconnected with the reality of what is really happening on the front lines. While it may be ideal to state that auto- responders should not be used during work hours, the reality is that many shoppers would never receive anything from many dealers if they did not get an auto-responder. Further, a well written auto-responder can be incredibly efffective and actually begin to successfully engage with your car shopper before you speak with them directly. Another point to consider – whenever you submit a form to a retailer online, you will always receive a “confirmation email” (aka auto-responder). Our shoppers have been conditioned to expect that.

Of course it is ideal to have personal emails sent to all shoppers. However, It is reality to realize it is not only difficult to get your folks to do that consistently, it is also difficult to get them to do it with proper grammar, etc. I am tired of hearing that “long emails do not work”. The reality is that OEM’s drive the required content in these initial manually sent emails that make them so long, but I can also show you that these are the most opened, clicked on, and replied to emails we use. My overall concern is to make sure you are aware of OEM requirements, and the reality of operating in a modern dealership before broad recommendations are made. And as always, Jerry did a great job – he is a great friend that I respect immensely (I just respectfully disagreed with some key points).

C’mon Dave, give me a break! One break, coming up… (who knows what classic song features that line from the control room – go ahead and comment!) We had a great lunch followed by some breakout sessions with our peers to address key challenges that each of us face (attendees were surveyed before arriving and the ThinkTank panel assigned groups to work on the various topics during the breakout). Well done, this is a great idea, and each of our hosts sat at a table to moderate the discussion. At the end of the day, each of the tables had someone present their solutions to the challenge they were given.

Shawn Klos, Ric McCoy, and Cliff Banks join the attendees at Dealer ThinkTank
Shawn Clos, Ric McCoy, and Cliff Banks join the attendees at Dealer ThinkTank

Is Joe Webb’s sister a top selling author named Charlotte? Joe Webb talked about “Earning Trust in the Digital Age” and I loved several of his catch-phrases. “Don’t play catfish” – are you that dealer that looks and sounds great online, but when the shopper finally meets you in person, you don’t even begin to behave or appear like you indicated??? Or “A basketful of kittens falling out does not help you sell cars”. Ouch, that certainly sounds like a lot of the social media solutions that dealers are sold today. If you are telling me that posting cute pictures or asking open-ended questions on social media is not the way to sell cars on Facebook, then a lot of social media gurus are going to be out of work.

How about changing up the way you spiff your sales reps, like offering an incentive for the best dealership review? I also liked Joe’s statement that a modern day sales manager is not in touch with what is going on in his dealership if he does not have a CRM dashboard open on his desk. Joe wrapped up a strong session with a personal experience he had with Walt Disney World that carried great impact. Lots of great content, in fact I think Joe could have run several sessions with the ideas he shared. Great passion Joe!

Wasn’t one of the Mercuy 7 Astronauts named Cooper? Wrapping up the day was Allan Cooper. While many confuse this Aussie with one of the dancers from the Thunder Down Under, Allan spends his time these days sharing his wisdom in helping other dealers excel. This was my first time meeting with Allan, and I found Allan to be passionate about changing the industry for the better, and his presentation on “Culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast” rang true with me because it addressed a key problem in automotive. There is not a “quick fix”. The successful dealer of the future will take the more challenging – but right – approach in changing the culture of their dealership to best meet the needs of our future customers. Allan has a tremendous strength in understanding how to mine one’s own database and focusing your time there to increase revenue for your dealership. He is right, and the good news is that with modern day CRMs, big data, and more, a dealer can extract a lot of value from their current customer base. It was a sincere pleasure to meet you Allan.

The dealer presentations and “judging” of the best ideas segment was a bit rough, but for a first event, it brought forth some good content for everyone to benefit from. Each of the hosts then took the stage again for a final “question and answer” panel, which was followed by something I found very impressive. Dealer ThinkTank has decided to “walk the walk” when they talk about “giving back” by choosing a local charity at each location they visit to present a check to. A check was presented to a local food bank in Cincinnati on behalf of Dealer ThinkTank and its attendees – well done!

Dealer ThinkTank gives back to the local community
Dealer ThinkTank gives back to the local community

Tisk Tisk Tisk, or Misc misc misc… There was a “product showcase” in the middle of the day by CallSource, the primary sponsor of this event. While there is often a lot of opinion that “vendors should not pitch” their products during presentations, I think that if we as dealers benefit from vendors sponsoring the majority of the cost of a training event, it is only fair that we give them an opportunity to have at least five to ten minutes to share their current solutions and/or products (which, by the way, should be one of the reasons you attend one of these events as you can find great new partners for your dealership). Congrats to CallSource who gave a great presentation by the way, which was not a direct pitch, but clearly shared the benefits of how telephony can help your dealership significantly.

My final two cents…  The training and conference market for automotive eCommerce is becoming very competitive. A dealer could fill a full time schedule with all of the conferences and training events now being offered through the year. It is becoming more and more difficult to differentiate oneself from others, especially when most of the events seem to feature the same speakers you see at all of the other events.

With that said, my humble assessment is just that – focus on humility. I think that any material shared must be closely considered versus the idealism of the idea vs. the reality of implementation and execution in the dealership. I believe that Dealer ThinkTank addresses a large part of our market that cannot afford to attend the larger conferences, and this enables them to get great automotive talent in an area closer, and more affordable to them. With that in mind, these are often smaller dealerships that might not have the significant resources that larger dealerships have, and the material should be focus on strategies that are within their abilities.

Great folks at the premier Dealer ThinkTank in Cincinnati
Great folks at the premier Dealer ThinkTank in Cincinnati

Congratulations on a job well done!  Putting together a conference like this and having your first event is a tremendous amount of work. I believe Kelli Holloway at ActivEngage gets a lot of credit for doing the hard work on most of the logistics (and you did very well!) For the rest of you – great news – the second Dealer ThinkTank event will be in Dallas in January. Merry Christmas to each and everyone of you that is working hard to make our industry better every day!

Sound off now! I would always love to read your comments.

As a former Naval officer I am driven to produce results & to lead people to reach their full abilit Aviation, outdoors, tennis, running, weighli...