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The Voice of Experience

June 7, 2017
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This is a funny little story with a serious message.  I improvised this coffee timer, pictured below, for the break room here at Safe-Guard.  On days when I arrive before Yarileen and make coffee, she can see that it’s from this morning, and not left over from the night before.

There is general agreement that “whoever made that thing is a genius.”  Well, actually I picked up the idea from another client some years ago.  This reinforces what I wrote in Why I Freelance.  If you keep moving, and keep your eyes open, you can’t help but pick things up.  I may not be the smartest knife in the shed, but I have been consulting a long time.  Más sabe el diablo por viejo que por diablo.

Dealer Megatrends Part 3 – Process Change

May 26, 2017
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In my previous Megatrends article, I wrote about how advancing technology is changing the role of F&I.  This week, we examine some new business practices.  You already know what I mean.  We’re going to talk about:

  • Hybrid Sales Process
  • No Haggle Pricing
  • Salaried Employees
  • Flat Reserve

High line manufacturers have tried to promote “one face to the customer,” since I was at BMW in the twentieth century.  Lexus Plus is the latest iteration.  Tellingly, BMW called it Retail 2000.  I fondly remember hearing a radio spot for “the last BMW dealer” in San Francisco, because we had styled all the others as retailers.  “If you want to pay retail, go to a retailer,” the ad went, “to get a deal, you need a dealer.”

So, it goes in cycles.  Lexus, or Scion, or AutoNation, will roll out a new process only to be outmaneuvered by the wily dealers.  Then they retrench and, five years later, someone else tries the new process.  They could literally be passing around the same procedure manual.  Look at me.  I have been advocating price transparency since Zag.

One Sonic-One Experience offers no-haggle pricing with one sales rep using an iPad who takes the customer through the entire vehicle sales process, including financing and the F&I product presentation.

A good example of the new process is Jim Deluca’s exposition of the Sonic One Experience.  In their EchoPark process, Sonic also eliminates dealer reserve.  The fight over flats and caps lasted from roughly 2012 to 2014.  See here, and NADA’s endorsement of caps here.  Next, Sonic will leverage their heavy investment in training to roll all of this into an online process called Digital One-Stop.

I suspect that Sonic would soon like to fire all their trained F&I professionals in their self-interest of saving a buck.

Forum comments reveal that old-school practitioners dislike the new process.  It’s funny to hear an F&I manager accuse a dealer of shameless self-interest, but there it is.  On the other side, Sonic’s Jeff Dyke reports good results from hiring people with no prior automotive experience.  Meanwhile, at rival consolidator AutoNation, 70% of the sales staff opted to go on salary.

Well-known F&I trainer Tony Dupaquier is here, advocating the hybrid process at First Texas Honda, and here is Findlay Group’s Las Vegas Subaru.  Savvy dealers everywhere are experimenting with at least two or three of the four new practices (online selling and iPads come up a lot, too).

Smart people have told me that the hybrid process will never produce four-digit PVRs, but many dealers – and certainly the consolidators – reckon that’s a price worth paying for a streamlined process, reduced turnover, and improved customer satisfaction.

Why I Freelance

April 3, 2017

Recently, Linked-In reminded me that I have been an independent consultant for fifteen years.  Thanks to all who called and wrote with congratulations.  In fact, I have been either consulting, at a startup (or consulting for a startup) since business school.

I used “freelance” in the title because this word is in need of some rehabilitation.  There was a bitter post on Linked-In about how “freelance photographer” means “unemployed guy with a camera.”  I get that all the time.  I spoke with a recruiter recently who was startled to learn this is really what I do, and not just a placeholder on my resume.

According to McKinsey, there are 49 million of us “free agents,” equal in number to those who do it out of necessity.

I started consulting for a Big Six firm, back when there were six, and I noticed that our projects were always a big deal for the client staff.  They felt lucky to be on the client’s once-in-a-lifetime project.  We consultants, meanwhile, were continuously assigned to the good projects, client after client.  It becomes addictive.

If I were recruiting here, I would recount some groovy projects and then pitch the glamour and excitement – but I have a much more practical argument.  When you work for a long time at one company, you accrue specific knowledge about its organization, procedures, and history.  If you ever leave that company, the value of this knowledge falls to zero.

I was engaged by GMAC just before the crash.  Suddenly, my entire department was shuttered – desks empty, lights out.  It was a disaster for the faithful, lifetime employees.  Some were out of work for a year.  The consultants, however, rapidly found new jobs.

Job security no longer exists, and the good wages, generous benefits and secure retirement that used to be guaranteed with full-time employment are in decline or have disappeared.

It is a little scary not knowing where I’ll be working next year.  I won’t deny that.  My point about GMAC is that the people who thought they had job security were mistaken – and they were the ones most at risk.

Tom Peters writes that job security does not come from allegiance to your company.  It comes from having skills and accomplishments, plus a network of people who know about your skills and accomplishments.  This is where the exciting projects come in.  When I call around looking work, I want people to recognize me as “the guy who created Provider Exchange Network,” or something like that.

Changing jobs enhances your value by exposing you to new people, technology, and business models.  This has certainly been true for me.  F&I is a small community, but it includes dealer groups, software companies, and finance sources.  This is great because it allows me to move around without violating any non-competes.

This article in Harvard Business Review echoes Peters’ observation about job security.  The author is a B-school prof, who writes that the gig economy is the future.  Focus on finding work, she says, not a job. I am lucky that this attitude (and related skills) were drilled into me at Coopers.   In case you’re inspired to quit your day job, I’ll follow up with a “how to” article.

Dealer Megatrends Part 2 – Fintech

March 22, 2017

Car dealers today face a growing array of new systems and capabilities.  These are primarily in F&I, thanks to disruptive new entrants in financial technology – fintech, for short.  Mark Rappaport has a nice roundup here, from a lender’s perspective, and I maintain a list on Twitter.

  • AutoFi – Auto finance plug-in for dealer web sites. See Ricart Ford for an example.
  • AutoGravity – Customer obtains financing (via smart phone) before visiting the dealership.
  • Drive – Online car selling, with delivery, from the Drive web site.
  • Honcker – Customer obtains financing (via smart phone) and they deliver the car.
  • Roadster – E-commerce platform for dealers, with full sales capability (as I anticipated here).
  • TrueCar – Customer sets transaction price (via smart phone) before visiting the dealership.

The new entrants blur familiar boundaries in the retail process.  They’re basically lead providers, but all aim to claim a piece of the F&I process.  AutoGravity, for instance, provides a lead already committed to a finance source.  TrueCar provides a lead already committed to a transaction price.  If you’re unfamiliar with the canonical process, see my schematics here and here.

In my previous Megatrends installment, Consolidation, I cited the influence of PE money.  It’s the same with fintech.  AutoGravity, to name one, is backed by $50 million.

The new F&I space is also home to “predictive analytics.”  Automotive Mastermind examines thousands of data points, to produce a single likely-to-buy score.  Similarly, Darwin Automotive can tell you which protection products to pitch.

The technology’s proprietary algorithm crunches thousands of data points, combining DMS information with … social media, financial, product and customer lifecycle information

My specialty is F&I, but it seems pretty clear that predictive analytics has a place in fixed ops as well.  In terms of the earlier article, you can see that consolidators have an edge in evaluating new technology.  Speaking of fixed ops, they’re also better positioned to obtain telematics data.

McKinsey says fintech can help incumbents, not just disrupt them.  That’s why I have focused on technologies a dealer could employ, versus apps like Blinker that are straight threats.  Of course, you have to adopt the technology.  Marguerite Watanabe draws a parallel with the development of credit aggregation systems.

Fintech will induce dealers to adopt an online, customer-driven process.  I see this as an opportunity. On the other hand, those that fail to adapt will be left behind.  This article is aimed at dealers, but the challenge applies equally to lenders, product providers, and software vendors.

Stop Using Combo Products

January 25, 2017

I have had a hand in designing a few menu systems over the years, and I have always disliked combo products.  You know what I mean: the VSA form, plus maintenance and PDR, on which Marketing has found an extra square inch to offer road hazard.

Menu people hate combo products because the whole point of menu selling is for the F&I Manager to combine products into menu columns, not the combinations defined by the provider’s form.  What if she wants to sell the factory’s VSA, but her own choice of ancillary products?

One cavil I sometimes hear is the definition of “a product,” but this is straightforward.  If it can be sold separately, like key protection, then it’s a product.  If it always rides on another contract, like car rental, then it’s not.

What I try to tell my menu clients (and reinforce with my API clients) is this:

  • The unit of work for presentation is the product
  • The unit of work for contracting is the form

The correct data structure thus has discrete products at the top level, then coverages with their rates, and form codes at the bottom.  Obviously, you can have different forms based on coverage, and you can have the same form for multiple products.  Then, in the contracting phase, you collect the products onto the forms as indicated.

combo-productsCombo products persist because providers legitimately want to reduce the number of forms they manage.  The two-phase approach solves this.  Also, there are old-timers who design products based on the form.  I have even seen F&I shops where the completed contract form is used as a selling tool.

The package discount is the only serious challenge to the menu system.  A workaround here is to include a phantom product with no display and a negative price – although that may be as much work as developing an explicit feature.  Of course, if the manager chooses to discount a package other than one subsidized by a provider, then that discount is her responsibility.

I’ll close with an exception to the rule or, rather, a refinement.  Menu systems are compromised when we mistake forms for products.  On the other hand, there is a practical limit (six) to the number of products offered on a menu.  So, I can see the logic in a product that combines dent, coatings, windshield, and road hazard – especially PDR and windshield, if you think about how the services are delivered.

In this case, we are not merely combining products based on a form.  These products hang together in the same semantic class, appearance protection, and may indeed use separate forms.

Ten Networking Tips for the New Consultant

January 17, 2017
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My son, Paul Virag, has hung out his shingle as an independent.  Paul’s challenge is differentiating himself as an ace developer, in a market dominated by price competition and cheap labor.  My boss at Coopers lamented the same thing, years ago, as a “buy it by the pound” business.

Mind your Rolodex.  Along with maintaining a marketable skill, this never-ending job tops the list of must-dos for the independent contractor.

The solution, of course, is assiduous networking.  The quote above, complete with antique Rolodex reference, is from the Tom Peters Seminar.  In today’s post, I present my networking routine.

call-roster

  1. I check Linked-In every day for news about people I know, and then I write or at least “like” the update. It has gotten Facebook-y over the years, but Linked-In is still the best (only) site for professional networking.
  2. I am not a “Linked-In whore,” though. I actually know most of my connections.  I call or email at least one of these people every day, especially when I am not looking for work.
  3. Maintain a web site, obviously. Mine is overdue for its periodic update.  Something like Mike Cohn’s blog will be more relevant to Paul.
  4. As a developer, Paul will also want to be noticed on Github and Stack Overflow – though this means mostly peer developers, not hiring managers.
  5. I post roughly twice a month on my blog. It gets about 100 views per month.  WordPress shares my posts to Linked-In.  They get more views on Linked-In than they do native on the blog.
  6. I collect relevant content for my Twitter feed, and then I load Hootsuite to make at least three posts every day. I find content using my RSS reader and the blogroll from my blog.
  7. This is in addition to spontaneous tweets, retweets, and conversations. I follow a great group of people, whom I rely upon for industry news, so for me this is a natural process.
  8. A few tweets every week lead back to my blog. I use bit.ly to track the hits.  Twitter provides analytics for free.
  9. Keep your resume up to date. People still like to see a resume.  When I was starting out (Coopers again) I maintained different versions tailored to our practice areas.  “Virag specializes in nothing but healthcare,” … and auto, and retail, etc.
  10. Go to conferences, and get on the podium if you can. My main one is the F&I conference held every fall in Las Vegas.  This is also an opportunity to hike Red Rock Canyon.

All of this activity takes time, especially writing original content.  I spend five or six hours per week.  Hootsuite helps because I can stoke Twitter on the weekend, outside of billable hours.  Bonus eleventh tip: write blog posts that start with “Top Ten Tips.”  People love that.

Dealer Megatrends Part 1 – Consolidation

January 4, 2017

In the 2006 data, NADA noted a “moderate consolidation trend.”  Since the recession, sales have recovered but the dealer population has not.  My chart, below, is based on the last eleven years of NADA data.  You can go back as far as you like.  The dealer population has been shrinking steadily for fifty years.

chart

This means the surviving dealers are selling more cars per store, but the real story is consolidation – the powerful trend toward fewer owners and bigger groups.

In 2005, the top 100 dealership groups were 9% of the total.  In 2015, they were 17%.  The Automotive News ranking is by gross revenue but, for simplicity, I am counting stores.  I imagine that the big, efficient groups command more than 17% of the total gross.

Gee group’s purchase of 16 Tonkin stores, backed by private equity, is instructive.  Both groups are family owned, with seven and 21 stores respectively.  Brad Tonkin will join the combined entity as president.  The Automotive News article also describes a Soros-backed purchase by the McLarty group, bringing its count to 19 stores.

The owners may be public, like AutoNation and Penske, private equity, or something in between.  Larry Miller group, for example, is still family owned but independently managed.  An IPO seems the next logical step.  Broker Alan Haig predicts his buy-sell business will continue strong in 2017.

This is about economies of scale, obviously.  The New York Times mentions efficiency in staffing, technology, and inventory management (as I did, here).  There is a lot of money chasing this trend, and only so many operators who know how to exploit scale.  That’s why Haig also has a recruiting arm.

Small dealer groups can compete online only by joining platforms that aggregate inventory.

If you are running a small group, you might want to start thinking about M&A.  That’s not my area, though.  I am interested in the related trends toward technology and process change.  I’ll examine these more in my next post.

One example is online retail.  Small dealer groups can compete online only by joining platforms that aggregate inventory, like TrueCar or Autotrader.  What I am proposing is that the (relatively) little guys compete with the consolidators by consolidating themselves online.

Dealers should seek help from their OEMs and software vendors.  Well, maybe not the OEMs.  GM’s Shop Click Drive only searches inventory for a single dealer, and it makes you choose the dealer first.  Not only will it not give you a price, it won’t even present a model list until you’ve selected a dealer.  No one shops this way anymore.

Modern shoppers will have found a model and trim level, a price, and even a lender, before landing on a dealer.  While Shop Click Drive has the machinery to structure a deal, and even sell protection products, some genius decided to make the “choose dealer” button its primary focus.  Most GM dealers I looked at were also on Autotrader.

I did a survey of platform capabilities last year, with Cox Automotive far in the lead.  The other guys seem still to be in the world of single-dealer web sites.  I also noticed that these sites are mostly hideous, and lacking consistency in even simple functions like credit application.

The consolidators have strong tech teams devoted to online shopping.  Dealers may fail to see the threat, because it’s not a physical presence.  If you owned a hardware store, and Home Depot went up across the street, you would notice.