Sunday, October 25, 2009


How do you tell someone that their child is ugly? Is it possible to tell a parent that his/her baby is homely? And even if you do, will they hear it?

The baby above is a metaphor for something that I believe vexes the Internet-based retail car business.  It certainly does me. It is this: as an industry (retail automobile sales) that suffers from a somewhat low regard by the populi, a regard that we all want to see improve, it behooves us to put on our most professional public face. And now that the quality of a dealership's web presence has become as or more important than its physical presence for establishing that professional face, it especially behooves dealers to have pro-quality websites and issue pro-quality bulk emails. And yet, as an industry (but on the local level), we remain stubbornly committed to publishing bad websites and issuing embarrassingly bad bulk emails.

The tools to do right are there; the vendors have done a pretty good job of creating widely available template-based websites and bulk email programs. So I don't think we can blame the technology any longer.

So how do we get today's Internet Directors, eCommerce Managers and/or General Managers to understand that the amateur-quality content they put on their websites and in their mass marketing emails is not only ugly, it also makes their dealerships look unprofessional in the eyes of the very customers their stores are trying to reach most; well qualified buyers?

Right away I want to say that I don’t mean to sound arrogant, and I realize that there is a great danger of that with this piece, so I will attempt to measure my words carefully. My interest in this subject is both professional and personal. It began a couple years ago over the Christmas holidays. Our extended family was at a restaurant having dinner when my dealership sent an email blast to its prospect database promoting an end-of-year new car sale. My then twenty one year old son was a recipient of this blast as I had earlier used his personal email address for a test and kept it in the system. He pulled out his iPhone, read the email, and in front of everyone at the table turned to me and said, "Geez, dad. Can't the people you work for write or spell? Isn't your dealership embarrassed, sending out emails that look like this?" Ouch. That ruined my dinner. But he was right. The layout looked very homemade, and the text featured poor sentence construction and grammatical errors. I was embarrassed.

Was the incident atypical of our industry? I think not. I no longer work at that store, but I receive copies of emails from my current store plus competitors stores whom I have mystery shopped. And a clear majority of the pieces I get suffer from the same amateur assembly.

Why does our industry, one that sells the 2nd-to-most-expensive big ticket retail product on the market, freely tolerate websites and email marketing  pieces of such less-than-professional quality that you have to turn to spam to find something that looks worse? Is it because we don't care?  Of course not. Everyone's intentions are the best; nobody sends out a sloppy piece or uploads a crappy web page when they could send out a good one. And since it generally takes just as many hours to make a bad piece as it does to make a good one we know that time constraints cannot be blamed.

I have to think there can be only two answers:
1). For budget reasons many dealers must compromise and do their stuff in-house, using whatever talent is available on staff.  Unfortunately, oftentimes the "talent" isn't very talented.
2). Some dealership managers simply can't tell the difference between a good piece and a bad piece. So they think the stuff they're putting out is just fine.

I empathize with both 1). and 2). above. They are business and human realities. The problem is, customers don't give a flip about our compromises  and shortcomings. They just know that they expect professionalism. And, the more sophisticated customers think our unsophisticated efforts are reason enough to continue their belief that all car sales people are rubes.

Just because you or I can't tell the difference between good (effective) online communication and bad (ineffective) online communication does not mean customers can't also. They can, believe me.  

So how do we get our industry to understand this?  It's like having a balding uncle with a bad comb-over. Everyone in the family knows it looks ridiculous - except him.  How do you help him to see it the way others see it?


Car dealers are legendary for their ability to produce unbelievably bad TV commercials; why should we be shocked when their Internet content is no better?  But why does this phenomena - seemingly unique to our industry - persist?  I think it's pretty easy to explain.

One of the great things about the car business is that anybody can get into it. Walk through enough dealership doors and eventually you will get hired. What you make of it after that is up to you. It’s rock n’ roll, baby!  Anybody can play: from the street smart person with only a high school diploma and a lot of aspiration, all the way up to the guy with a Masters in Asian Studies and no hope for a teaching position in his field; anyone who is willing to do what it takes can
be a success (in theory anyway) in the car business.

Let's say we have a talented, hardworking person who ends up in showroom sales where he/she becomes a top salesperson. Then one day this talented, hardworking person gets asked to join (or run) the dealership’s nascent Internet Sales Department. Now you have a person who may not be
particularly skilled at writing and/or who has no special eye for graphic design, and he/she is suddenly working in or running a department that relies upon the written word and graphic design to brand itself and connect with its customer audience. It happens every day.

My personal hunch is that the eternally optimistic and confident car guy mentality, the one that makes the car biz so attractive and so intoxicating to the people who rise to the top, is the same
mentality that also puts people unqualified to be in charge of websites and bulk emails in charge of those very things. 

Car sales superstars often see themselves as great communicators.  And people who see themselves as great communicators often make the mistake of assuming that if they are great communicating in one venue, then they must be great communicating in other venues as well.  But that ain't often the case.

The smart stage actor understands that film acting is a very different art.  The smart classroom instructor understands that putting his/her course into book form is a task unlike live teaching.  The reason is simple; the first one (stage, classroom) is communicating via live performance,
while the second one (film, book) is communicating via recorded media.

Showroom sales is live performance.  Internet sales is recorded media. The two are not the same.  And he who excels in one is not always going to excel in the other.

For more than 100 years people have been witnessing news and entertainment on movie screens, and for over 50 years now Americans have had television screens in their homes. Then, in just the past 10 -15 years, the computer monitor has become ubiquitous. And with the recent release of
high quality flat screen monitors an explosion of text and images has taken place; today you can’t go into a bar, bus terminal, grocery store, airport, classroom, hotel lobby, doctor’s office, restaurant, bedroom, office or dealership lobby without encountering a friggin’ flat screen monitor! The result of this 24/7 bombardment of electronic text and images is this: people today are exposed to so much high visual quality electronic media that they now expect professional looking content on their screens. Any screens.

To successfully communicate with today's online car shoppers we must accept that, like it or not, once you put text and/or images onto a screen you are in the professional electronic communications business. And your content had better be of professional quality or the audience
is going to think you are a loser. Or worse yet, a car salesman.

However, honestly, I think this problem will take care of itself over time. As we advance through the next 5 to 10 years more young Internet-generation media-savvy people will enter the retail car business and the old "We'll Beat Any Deal! Just come on down!" guys will fade away. We're already seeing these young people do a great job of social networking their businesses on Facebook and elsewhere.

Me? I guess I'll just accept the fact that I'll shudder every time my store sends out a bulk mailer, and take comfort in the knowledge that this too shall pass.

So, is your baby ugly?  Absolutely.  But even ugly babies can grow up to be handsome adults someday.