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Getting More From Conferences With Accountability

At the time of this writing, NADA 2020 is approaching quickly. Like me, I’m sure your email inboxes and social media feeds are getting flooded. The next big event, or the next big personality, or the next big technology. Just like last year. The more people ask if I’m going, the happier I am not.

Please don’t get me wrong. This isn’t an indictment of NADA or any other conference. I love getting to spend time with my friends in the industry, many of whom I don’t get to see enough. Like everyone else, I enjoy getting to see the shiny objects, while meeting new people trying to get involved in a not-so-sexy industry. It’s only after the conference, while sitting at the airline boarding gate, I get the familiar emotional reaction. The feeling of intense regret.

Why the long face, Captain Poopy Pants? Because I know all of the time, effort, and energy put into these conferences largely go to waste. Many ideas are presented, but there are no keys to implement them. So many of the techniques and technologies are undercooked. If the tech is any good, it gets bought by a larger company, then put on a shelf to collect dust. Those new friends become LinkedIn alerts as they switch jobs in 8 months, then again 5 months later. With all of the millions of dollars committed to these events, one would think there was a better way. I got one way to start.


Accountability comes in many shapes, forms, styles, and sizes. It works for those on the bottom of the ladder. Contrary to popular belief, it also works for those on the top rung. It not only works for individuals, but teams, and entire organizations. It can come in the form of standards, goals, or metrics. Most of the time it comes with one simple decision. Making it matter.

Chances are, if you’re working at a dealership, the meaning of conferences depends on your role. For dealer principals and general managers, it’s a good time to meet with the OEMs, learn what the megadealers are doing, all while spending time with current and prospective vendors. For “green peas,” it’s a great time to hear from some of the best (and some hucksters that refuse to go away), learn how all of the digital pieces are put together, and get recruited into the various fraternities and sororities of dealership personnel. For the seasoned professionals and middle managers, it’s a great time to catch up with old friends, get wined & dined by vendors, or (being brutally honest) get hired away to a different organization. Using napkin math, approximately 99% of the three to four days gets converted into blurry memories, strange business cards, Instagram posts, and $400 bottles of Kool-Aid. For everyone involved, it deserves to be something more.

You Need An Agenda

Conferences should be handled with a plan of attack. Joe Webb and I have written to our clients about how to plan for a conference many times. We even made a video about how silly things are getting. But, coming up with a plan goes well beyond just selecting the right tracks. It means going in with a goal that you want to accomplish. Define that goal, design a method to achieve it, and decide how you’ll measure the success. For instance, instead of passively attending the OEM meetings, a goal would be coordinating with your same-brand stores to expand or overcome co-op requirements (I’m looking at you, Cadillac dealers). Come with some feasible solutions together, then be ready to present how they’ll be implemented and measured. Stop being left holding the bag.

In lieu of just having new hires hit conferences to get their feet wet, require them to write a detailed report of everything they learned. Give them a framework to use, so that it’s not just a couple of chicken scratches. Require a date and time, speaker name, company represented, key ideas shared, why it’s valuable to the organization, how the key ideas can be implemented, and how success can be measured. This delivers two-fold value, as it helps educate the entire organization, not just those who attend. Kevin Frye, of the Jeff Wyler Automotive Family, has done a remarkable job recapping conferences for more than a decade. If he is still doing it, then the newbies can, too.

For the seniors, the agenda is largely up to you. Let’s make it a challenge. In advance of the conference, come up with three problems that need to be solved. Use a problem-solving technique, like the Five Whys, to discover the root problem. Perform some due diligence on the sessions, speakers, or vendors you want to interact with. Come up with a plan of engagement that will objectively solve the root problem. Make sure those plans include how the solution will be implemented, as well as how success will be measured. Pay extra attention to timelines, and especially how those solutions fit inside the company’s culture, location, brand strategy, and client makeup. If the first step isn’t going to work, then any subsequent steps might be glorious wastes of time, energy, and resources. There will still be plenty of time to hobnob with the automotive glitterati. This mentality may also be a cure for restless job syndrome.

Accountability for Speakers

The idea of accountability is not exclusive to attendees. If I received a dollar for every half-cocked idea presented under the guise of subject matter expertise, I’d treat the conferences as an income source. Speakers should be able to define their target audience, come up with at least three ways their presented material can be implemented, offer supporting case study material, and provide a formula on how to measure success. As the old adage goes, ideas are like as..s…hol…belly buttons, everyone has one. Attendees wouldn’t complain about hearing the same things every year if the stuff from five years ago could actually be put to work. Stop telling us what and why. Give us the how.

As a regular-ish speaker, I’m not immune to this. As someone who leads an accountability software business, it didn’t take long to call myself out. A few years back, I started concluding my 20 Group and corporate presentations with the key takeaways, along with highlighting tactics the audience could implement the following day. To the chagrin of time-totallers, I will gladly go into gory details about how to define and measure success. It may not make me popular, but I can’t be content with being part of the problem.

After a long time of being disillusioned with the whole find-a-speaker-to-kill-time-around-keynotes conference formula, I was reinvigorated by one of my close friends. Brent Wees has become a sought after speaker throughout North America, and now abroad (we became friends long before that while telling fart jokes). He broke the mold four years ago with his Do One Thing Differently presentation, which basically put him on tour around the continent, including a stop at Google’s headquarters. Many will remember it for being a moving personal narrative. What struck me as novel, however, was that it was the first time I can remember a speaker giving me a printed workbook. We were asked to go home to put what we learned to work. Little did I know that two years later we’d be giving presentations together, using that same workbook formula, giving us an opportunity to follow-up with attendees to measure how they’re putting what they learned to work.

As the 2020 conferences come upon us, we have a way to control the feeling that they’re the exact same. No matter what your role, go to conferences with a thoughtful agenda. Define your mission and document how it will be successful. Give others the tools to learn, while making it relevant for their way of life. You’ll still have plenty of time for your industry friends, and you’ll certainly have more meaningful things to talk about. Instead of being part of the problem, be part of the solution.

Bill Playford is Vice President and Partner at DealerKnows Consulting. He brings a unique automotive perspective, with a background in training, consu...