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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 Ralph Paglia on March 15, 2012 at 9:14am

When March 28th comes around and Jesse and Matt prove me wrong by NOT selecting Stauning's buddy, I will celebrate my folly in thinking that he could corrupt the selection process.

Comment by Ralph Paglia on March 15, 2012 at 9:10am

Jesse - My advice is to disregard Stauning's biased and unprofessional recommendation of his buddy to get the deal and actually conduct a real selection process with his financial patron excluded from consideration.  I am EXTREMELY concerned by the looming prospect of obvious corruption if Stauning's "Good Buddy" is the Dealers United selected supplier. 

PLEASE let me be the boy who cried wolf by ensuring that the selected supplier is NOT Stauning's "wink wink" recommendation. Prove me wrong by selecting an SEO supplier in a truly unbiased manner based on who does the best offsite SEO work.

Comment by Anthony Monteiro on March 15, 2012 at 9:10am

I am anxious, because this is the 1st deal for these guys, to see the analytics that went into all this vetting. Real side-by-side SEO dealer case studies using various website vendors, various dealers in various markets. How else would you be able to truly compare them? SEO is cross-effort program including the Website tools, the inventory, the video, the market, the competition in the market, the blogs, the reputation etc.. Like I said I have March 28th in my calendar because I can't wait to see all this research for the "best" SEO company.

Comment by Ralph Paglia on March 15, 2012 at 9:04am

Jesse - You are right... Time savings are often a great reason to outsource a wide variety of tasks, including SEO.  I do not disagree with that statement.  However, Stauning's condescending and hypocritical statement is a reflection of the morose belief that dealer education is a waste of time and money... which it is not! Learning how something works is often one of the best ways to determine whether or not it should be outsourced, or executed by a dealership employee who is trained to do it.

Comment by Jesse Biter on March 15, 2012 at 9:00am

Ralph,,,, I'm not sure Steve's comment is an insult.  I'm not insulted that my time is better spent working on my business then mowing my lawn.  Some things are just better being out sourced.  Some dealers have the time and desire to learn and do SEO, that's great.  Some would rather out source that task to a competent company and work more on appointments and closings.

Comment by Jesse Biter on March 15, 2012 at 8:55am

We will disclose it on March 28th.  Until then, we have to make sure our team (and theirs) is ready.  Until we're ready to publish the entire deal (the savings, the terms, the conditions, the lowest price guarantee, etc) - publishing the SEO winner will only cause speculation and raise questions we're not ready to publicly disclose the answers to.  It's a lot easier to release everything at once.  We don't want to give birth to half a baby.

Comment by Ralph Paglia on March 15, 2012 at 8:51am

The following statement is an insult to the thousands of dealer principals, general managers and automotive marketing professionals working in dealerships who have realized the importance of proper SEO offsite/onsite practices needed TO SELL MORE CARS:


"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."

Furthermore, leading off with that "above all else" statement is patronizing and hypocritical when viewed in context with the actual gist of the statement...

Let me go on record in stating that (in my opinion) the education of automotive marketing and sales professionals in core digital marketing principles, such as how good content published in the right places (such as customer reviews) can impact the overall SEO footprint of a dealership online, is highly valuable, generates tremendous ROI and is imperative in order for dealers and managers of dealerships to remain competitive in the marketplace.  I am angry that any so-called automotive industry proponent would even suggest that learning about basic marketing principles is above a dealer's capabilities or might even remotely be considered a waste of time.

Comment by Ralph Paglia on March 15, 2012 at 8:47am

I agree with Anthony... How about eliminating the speculation and simply disclosing who the selected SEO supplier is?

Comment by Jesse Biter on March 15, 2012 at 7:39am

Ralph,

Thank you for holding us accountable.  I'm asking everyone in the automotive industry to constantly hold us accountable for our words as well as our actions.  Other than any of the vendors who didn't get picked in our vetting process, everyone else should ensure we are truly doing what's BEST for our DEALER MEMBERS.  Of course, opinions will vary, however, in the end, OUR DEALERS should ALWAYS WIN.  I can assure everyone that, although Steve Stauning leads the vetting process, it's very much a team effort.  I made the final decision on the SEO company based on the exhaustive work that Steve did, the response from our dealer members about who they use and how much they like them, and based on my own knowledge of the subject.

Stan,

First of all, HEY!  It's always great to see your name.  Secondly, to answer your question, we look at our job as though our dealers are one big Mega Dealer.  If I worked for Auto Nation I wouldn't pick three SEO companies, I'd only pick one, the best (sorry Manny ;-) --- the most appropriate SEO company to handle the job.  The company we picked has solutions for all dealers no matter how large or small they are, no matter what market (city or rural) they are in.    Furthermore, because we are directing ALL of our members to this company, we were able to negoiate the BEST PRICE, which of course benefits all of our dealers.  

To answer another question, yes, we get a % of the backend of the purchase the same way Visa or your travel agent gets paid, however, the dealer is still getting the BEST PRICE.  In each of our deals we negotiate a favored nations clause which ensures our dealers pay a LOWER PRICE than ANY OTHER DEALER including the mega dealers.  Nobody can complain about that.

Keep asking questions and keep holding us accountable.

I love you all!

--Jesse

Comment by Stan Sher on March 14, 2012 at 10:46pm

I just know how much politics we deal with in competition for who is better at what.  I think that having choices is great.  How about selecting 3 companies?  Perhaps companies that huge dealers can afford to spend money with and then companies that smaller dealers can afford to spend with.  By picking on solution, you limit the possibilities.  I know that some solution work better for certain dealers while others do not.  Let's use PCG as an example.  I believe that PCG is a leader SEO and online repuation management but I also know that they are not for everyone and that is ok.  Choices help make better decisions.

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