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Picking the Best of the Best - by Steve Stauning

Picking The Best of The Best

By Steve Stauning

 

As some of you may know, I served as the director of ecommerce for the Asbury Automotive Group (NYSE: ABG) a few years ago. One of the most rewarding things about working for a publicly-traded MegaDealer Group was the ability to not only negotiate from a position of strength (we had over 120 franchises back then), but also the luxury of relying on a team of experts to help us always select the best of the best providers of any product or service.

 

While our process was exhaustive (we once issued an infamous – and wholly unnecessary – 33-page RFP during a search for a new website vendor); we had a distinct advantage that most private dealerships do not have: we had the time to fully and deeply investigate all potential vendors. Our corporate staff didn’t have to worry about selling cars or responding to leads, so we had plenty of time to properly vet the suppliers.

 

Snake Oil Sellers Need Not Apply…

 

I’ve always had a passion for cutting through the BS in the automotive vendor world; and it actually makes me sick to read some of the gaming that goes on in the blogs (including this one from time-to-time). Not because it’s allowed – I don’t think it’s the editors’ jobs to investigate the veracity of every discussion post – but because private dealers are most often the victims of these opportunists. At Asbury, we could easily see through the smoke screens and sniff out the snake oil; for private dealers, this is not always so simple.

 

That’s why I’ve been so excited by what’s going on at Dealers United.

 

As some of you now know, I’ve had the privilege of helping Dealers United with their ambitious launch. Among the very cool things I get to do, is leading the vetting team for Dealers United approved vendors. This process, as I will describe briefly below, is hands down the most intensive investigation I have ever heard any company undertake to find the best of the best providers in our industry. (Even more exhaustive than the searches we conducted at Asbury.)

 

It’s No Beauty Contest…

 

I can tell you that assisting the Dealers United team has been unbelievably rewarding. The first deal (releasing March 28) is for Search Engine Optimization (SEO) services, and we left no stone unturned.

 

We didn’t just pick the most famous, most vocal or biggest names in automotive SEO and hand one of them a contract; although we certainly invited these companies to participate. We also didn’t care what the blogs said about a company (I already wrote that those can be gamed); so a self-made industry reputation and lots of dubious industry awards only got you an invitation to participate in the search.

 

These particulars didn’t sway us just as they should never sway you; and I can guarantee these wouldn’t influence the publicly-traded MegaDealer Groups when they’re looking for a provider. Simply put: we were on a mission to find the best, not the loudest.

 

A Dealers United Vetting is not for the Weak…

 

We started with 35 SEO Companies (yes, thirty-five); and over the following four weeks, we completed an intensive investigation into their abilities (both stated and not). We examined the search engine optimization content they were capable of creating (and replicating and maintaining) for their clients; and we studied hundreds of their client websites and tested these for search visibility on Google and other search engines. Additionally, we scrutinized their processes, strategies and tactics to ensure everything they provided was true “White Hat” SEO.

 

Finally, we studied their ability to generate meaningful (and authentic) offsite content and links for their dealer-clients.

 

So, after four weeks of this thorough investigation that included webinars with those we felt were the top six vendors, we whittled it down to the very best provider. This supplier not only has a fantastic SEO solution, but they also understand private dealers enough to know that their job is to deliver great search visibility, while allowing the dealers to sell cars.

 

In other words: they are physically doing the SEO work, and not busy trying to train your team on the ever-changing world of search engine optimization. (While we value private dealer education above nearly all else, the realities of SEO and dealership turnover do not lend themselves to wasting a dealer’s money on SEO training for his/her team. As I’ve learned over the years, your team should be busy selling cars, not writing SEO content.)

 

It’s Not About Price…

 

The best part about our process is that we only considered a vendor’s ability to provide great SEO to the Dealers United members. We didn’t care about personalities; we didn’t allow any gaming; and we weren’t swayed by anyone’s PR machine. We were singularly focused: great SEO and nothing else.

 

It wasn’t until we felt we’d found the best of the best did we consider pricing in the equation. In fact, pricing was not even contemplated or discussed with 29 of the 35 invited companies – their solutions (for various reasons) were obviously no fit for our dealer-members, so why ask how much it cost?

 

Once we found a great fit with an exceptional company providing world-class SEO, we worked to negotiate a deal… and boy oh boy, did we negotiate one phenomenal deal for our dealer-members. (Sorry, but you’ll have to wait until the deal is released to our members on March 28 to learn the details.)

 

I Know There Will Be Sour Grapes…

 

During my days at Dealer Specialties and Reynolds Web Solutions we occasionally lost large OEM bids; and each loss stung for a short period of time. The difference between those losses and the ones that we will dish out every month with Dealers United is that being selected from an OEM RFP process is most-often associated with providing the lowest price, not necessarily the best service. So the “endorsement” value a winning company would receive from an OEM bid was often worth very little.

 

Not so with Dealers United.

 

Given that we’re still experiencing phenomenal growth – while already three times larger than all of the publicly-traded MegaDealer Groups combined – a winning vendor in our search can truly hold their head high, because unlike an OEM RFP, this is not about price; and unlike industry awards or ratings sites, the Dealers United vendor selection process is intensive, exhaustive and comprehensive; and it cannot be gamed.

 

By the end of the last week of this search I was physically drained; but I can state without reservation that we selected the best of the best – and that makes me genuinely proud to be associated with something this important to dealers.

 

Good selling!

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Comment by Keith Shetterly on March 16, 2012 at 9:59am

In the future, as they are (to me) a stated dealer advocate, I ask that Dealers United cease these pre-announcement announcements.  This isn't the Oscars, it's business, and (in my opinion) this type of move is marketing best used outside of the online professional communities.

That said, I love Steve "Mr. Patent!" Crim's work.  

Comment by Steve Crim on March 16, 2012 at 9:21am

Sorry guys - I haven't had time to comment on all the confident speculation speculation going on here.  We've been absolutely swamped with a huge project starting up in a few weeks.

;-)

Steve Crim - ScreenCrafters

Comment by Jesse Biter on March 16, 2012 at 7:58am

Kevin,

Let me address your concerns directly:

1) My humored response

2) SEO Training for Dealers

3) Hiring from Mega Dealers

1) My humored response:

In no way was the word "might" used to suggest you didn't complete those courses.  I fully believe you did.  I apologize if my reference to Tommy Boy offended you.  I was simply trying to make the point that, in most cases, it's best for anyone in any business to out source the heavy lifting required to do tasks they otherwise probably can't do as effectively themselves.  Thus the reference to "taking the butcher's word for it."

2) SEO Training for Dealers:

As with point number one; we aren't suggesting dealers shouldn't understand what's going on with SEO.  However, as you know, SEO is constantly changing and it requires a lot of work.  I have a healthy understanding of how to change the oil in my car but I'm not going to do it myself.  The SEO company we chose offers training and consultation as part of the package.  I think Steve's comments are getting blown WAY out of proportion.

3) Hiring from Mega Dealers:

I can assure you that we are in no way collecting any data from any dealer that would help any mega-dealer decide to purchase that dealer.  Furthermore, no dealer is under any obligation to sell to any other dealer.  I've been in the automotive business for 16+ years and I've gotten to know a few folks.  I asked Steve to help me out because I knew he was the best at vetting vendors with his experience working as a Vendor, as a Mega Dealer and as a consultant.  If we're going to level the playing field and ensure we are getting a better deal then any mega dealer, then, in my opinion, we should learn from how they do it.

Again, I love these conversations and I'm happy to answer any questions you have. I'm no wordsmith so I apologize if my late night response and lack of thorough thoughtfulness offended.  You have my word I meant no harm by it and was only trying to be funny.

--Jesse

Comment by Aj Maida on March 16, 2012 at 7:56am

Wow!!!! Hello folks. This has brought up a great topic and one that should be looked at and that i obviously believe in, Dealer Education. But, I think we have got way off track here. Everyone on here, Steve, Jessie, Ralph, Brian, obviously Kevin (Cisco Certs, cool). We also think all dealers should have the opportunity to save $$ and that is what hopefully Dealers United will provide. It's free, just because your a "member" you are not obligated to take the deal. I will be interested to see what is released on the 28th.

Comment by kevinkelly.it on March 16, 2012 at 6:25am

Jesse, 

First off, I find your metaphorical reference offensive.  Second, my Cisco certifications are posted online for anyone to see, so you can take that "might" out of your nasty reference.  It was that training that enabled me to save hundreds of thousands from Reynolds and Reynolds,  and others that think dealerships are easy targets. 

You may have been funny at my expense, you didn't respond to the concerns.   The tone from Mr. Stauning and now surprisingly you, a well known and respected Christian is arrogant, presumptuous and condescending.  Not a way to treat potential customers.  

Yes, I think Homenet is an outstanding vendor, though I never heard them advocate for dealerships.  I do have concerns about Homenet accessing and sharing DMS data that does not belong to them.  Since the source of that concern comes from Jim Ziegler, I will let him address it. 

To me, when people like Ralph Paglia, Stan Sher, JD Rucker, and Brian Pasch provide free training,seminars and email updates on important issues such as the recent Google places problems with General Motors or teaching why SEO is less and less of an issue and content from video and social sites is crucial.  That came from vendors that advocate for dealerships.  Instead of providing that training, Dealers United is saying, it is a waste of time and not offering that type of dealership advocacy.   That line of thinking appears flawed.  It sounds like another Big Tom Callahan saying, if at first you don't succeed, lower your standard. 

The other question I'm having not answered is if Dealers United is claiming to equalize the playing field for dealerships with the corporate mega-groups, why is Dealers United hiring from inside those mega-groups?  It seems with that hiring, relationships inside those mega-groups are built.  Again, the concern will dealership data be shared, this time to choose which dealerships are best for the mega-groups to take over?  

The TrueCar analogy keeps popping up.  Free to join, only pay when there is a deal, offer best terms, this may not be the case at all, however, it is incumbent upon us to be as sure as we can.   We were all at this same point last year with TrueCar, we didn't do our research at the ZMOT.  

Directly to the point, with KPA/TK, ADP/Cobalt, DDC and PCG continuously offering free training    to make dealerships more successful, my expectation was Dealers United would take it that to a higher level, not discount it as a waste of time.  

I would ask that you hold to the standards of everyone else and keep your responses professional.   

 

Comment by Jesse Biter on March 15, 2012 at 11:18pm

First, let me say THANK YOU for continuing this conversation.  I love the opportunity to address everyone’s concerns to ensure, in the end, Dealers United is doing what’s BEST for DEALERS.

Ralph, thank you for your kind and honest comments about Steve’s ability to write an RFP.  You can see why we chose him to lead this effort.  And, although he did lead it, it was definitely a team effort.  It wasn’t just an internal team either, we asked our dealer members who they use, if they liked them, if they felt they were getting a good value, etc etc.

 

Kevin, while you might have taken night school courses at the Cisco academy to get a better understanding of a network, I can assure you most dealers haven’t.  Of course, I can get a hell of a good look at a T-Bone steak by sticking my head up a bull's ass, but I'd rather take the butcher's word for it --Big Tom Callahan.  This is ONE reason why we say dealers need Dealers United.  Yes, dealers can trust us.  Why? 

1) It’s FREE to join. 

2) Dealers only pay when they select a deal.

3) We negotiate the BEST terms including, in most cases, no contracts.  If a dealer isn’t happy they just quit the service.

4) We only deal with reputable companies.

5) We only deal with companies that our dealer members have recommended.

6) If a dealer has a service issue or another problem with the company, Dealers United is there to back them up. 

(the list goes on)

 

DEALERS have NOTHING TO LOSE

 

Why Else?  Because, I’m smart enough to know short-term gains won’t lead to long-term success.  I’m not hurting for cash and I’m not trying to make a fast buck.

 

I owned and ran HomeNet for 15 years and you’d be hard pressed to find one of our 18,000 dealers that didn’t think we weren’t an Advocate for them.

 

And Manny,, “you want to know your options” really?  We’re not telling you who to use for SEO the same way GroupOn isn’t telling you where to eat dinner.  We’re simply saying who we think will do a good job, why we think that, how we came to that conclusion and the deal we were able to negotiate based on the sheer number of our dealer members.  Furthermore, we’re not selling SEO tools.  We’re presenting an SEO company that has SEO teams that do the heavy lifting for dealers.  Further still, Dealers United is NOT an SEO company.  After March we’ll be talking about the next deal and SEO will be history. It’s a take it or leave it proposition. If it sounds good, take it, if not, don’t.  However, if a dealer takes it, Dealers United will stop at nothing to ensure they are satisfied and we will hold the vendor accountable for any dealers that aren’t. 

 

Regarding Anthony’s comments as to the release, again, it’s about making sure all of our teams have all the answers to all the questions we anticipate receiving.  Mark Warwick proves the point by asking below about how we’ll handle dealers in the same market.  Of course we have an answer for that but, until we have everyone on our team and our technology ready to answer everything our thousands of dealers will ask, we aren’t going to release anything.

 

Ralph, et all, regarding Steve’s words, I feel they are being twisted a bit.  Steve specializes in training, he, of all people, would never suggest dealers shouldn’t be trained.  Furthermore, he never suggested that dealers shouldn’t learn “basic marketing principles.”  He is saying that dealers shouldn’t hire in-house SEO experts to do the busy work that SEO requires.  I understand that ADM dealers are a different breed and, folks like AJ, that are SEO animals, are far and few between.  Outsourcing SEO is probably not for them.  However, if AJ leaves his dealership where did all that training go?  With AJ. 

 

I ask you,,,, is learning SEO the best use of time for a Dealer Principal?  Yes, he/she should have a good under

Comment by kevinkelly.it on March 15, 2012 at 3:12pm

Many red flags going up on this one.  Are we really advocating a "trust us" approach to GMs and dealership principles similar to say TrueCar.   Learning SEO is a waste of time?!?  

Let's see I took night school courses at the Cisco academy to get my A+ and CCNA, not to be the I.T. guy in the dealership, it was so I could manage the business properly and not have vendors take advantage of our dealership.  

Every free Google training I attend so that I can properly manage the dealership.  According to Mr. Stauning, I wasted my time.    Let's remember that Dealers United is a vendor.   

In a previous positing I listed my 4 types of vendors.

  1. Leaches - these are the vendors that just want your money and will go to any length to get it, including illegally.  I think many would be surprised how many major dealership vendors fall into this category.  
  2. Equal revenue generators - the majority fall into this category, they will help you make more revenue, but can only bring you up to the level of the other dealerships they service.
  3. Partners - vendors who live by making dealerships successful, they truly believe the more successful they make a dealership, the more successful they will be.  Many vendors call themselves partners, few actually do it. 
  4. Advocates - These are the Navy Seal team of vendors.  They fight for the dealerships 24/7, they do everything possible for your success.

What category Dealers United will fall into has yet to be determined.  However, what is screaming out to me is a Mega-Dealership power player is making the determination as to what is best for independent dealerships? 

The other vendors Mr. Stauning uses as his references fall low into the aforementioned categories, neither of them are above a 2. 

Jesse I have nothing but the highest respect for you, however, this post has earned the "hairy eyeball" from me.  In this ADM community, all of us know that Search Engine Optimization is now content Optimization and Google has cleared identified the importance of ZMOT. 

Dealers United is at their ZMOT point in the business cycle as we your customers are researching everything we can.   The tone of arrogance and condescension of this post is concerning.    

Comment by Mike Warwick on March 15, 2012 at 12:53pm

Is there any concern about Dealers United participants in the same markets using the same SEO company?  How would that work exactly?  Are there exclusive agreements for markets?

Comment by Ralph Paglia on March 15, 2012 at 9:40am

Stauning's reference to his RFP issued by the Asbury Automotive Group for website vendor selection made me smile... He is correct... I wrote the ADP Digital Marketing proposal in response to that RFP and it was by far the most detailed and thorough dealer website Request For Proposal (RFP) I have ever seen... The request for detailed specifications and information was incredible and resulted in my team putting over 100 man hours into researching and preparing our proposal in response.  In fact, our proposal was well over 100 pages because of the depth of the questions and information requested by Stauning's RFP... I wanted to give credit where credit is due... That was one heck of an RFP!

Comment by Aj Maida on March 15, 2012 at 9:23am

On the education issue...I learned a long time ago that everything I learned that is important is all the stuff I learned after I knew it all!!!! While we have taken our SEO in house it was during the time that we outsourced it ( We used PCG, the story about me writing a personal check to my DP is well documented). I was also educated, and like to think have become somewhat of an SEO animal (I have a Tee Shirt) that has enabled us to take it in house. While it is not a cost savings, per se;  it has enabled us to redirect those moneys to be able to add another employee who also has other duties, therefore giving us more bang for our buck. OH wait, much like SEO companies that also educate maybe I shouldn't let him multi task?

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