Jeff Wyler Automotive Family is a Top 50 auto group based in Cincinnati, Ohio. The group offers 15 locations and a huge inventory of thousands of new cars, trucks, vans, SUVs, and commercial work trucks and vans across multiple car dealerships in Ohio, Kentucky, and Indiana. Their brands include a wide range of imports and domestics: Buick, Chevrolet, Chrysler, Jeep, Dodge, RAM, Kia, Mazda, Nissan, Cadillac, Toyota, Honda, Hyundai, GMC, and Mercedes Benz. The business remains one of America’s highest rated automotive families.
As the eCommerce Director for Jeff Wyler Automotive Family, Kevin Frye helped increase the company’s internet sales by more than 200%. Prior to joining Jeff Wyler, Kevin attended Boston University on a four-year Navy ROTC scholarship. From there he went to Navy flight school and ultimately flew for the Navy for eight years. Active in Desert Storm, as well as Operation Southern Watch, he flew over 200 combat hours in the P-3C Orion. Kevin earned an MBA from the University of Cincinnati and worked as a consultant for Fortune 500 companies before joining Jeff Wyler in January of 2007.
In the following interview, Kevin talks about his approach to digital marketing, as well as his insights into what it means to be a leader.
Question: Thank you for agreeing to this interview, Kevin. This will be our second interview with you; the first was in 2010. As an eCommerce director, what major changes have you noticed in digital marketing since your last interview with us? What was it like then, how is it today?
Answer: When I first came onboard, I was managing small teams of people at each store to work our internet opportunities, while only a small portion of our overall marketing budget was dedicated to digital. Fast forward to today, every sales rep works internet opportunities, and each sales rep and sales manager is trained in how to work with internet opportunities and digital marketing. It is an all-hands effort, now.
The other big change is that more than half of our marketing budget is dedicated to digital. I used to be a single-person operation, and I now have a full department. We even have an internal studio and a video team: a director, a producer, someone to do all the graphics. Video is a key element of what we’re doing digitally.
Question: It sounds like you have an agency in-house. How many people are on the team?
Answer: We do. We have seven people in our eCommerce department. In addition, at each one of our dealerships, we have an internet team leader, who is our key contact with that store.
Question: As a former Naval officer who served in combat, you must have strong opinions about leadership. What traits does a true leader exhibit, and can leadership be learned?
Answer: It can be learned. I learned several things about leadership as a Naval officer. Number one, take care of your people. Number two is to lead by example. Number three, be decisive. You also have to be courageous.
The Jeff Wyler Automotive Family was a great fit for me because they are not afraid to fail. They always had this culture of being progressive. As an organization, we are willing to push the limits to find better customer-facing solutions, which enable us to be the best in our market. And it takes a lot of courage to do that, and I’m proud to be part of that culture.
Question: So, you believe leadership can be learned?
Answer: I do. In fact, we have a full-time leadership trainer in-house here. That’s a key difference. The reality in automotive is that most people are promoted to sales manager positions because they were great at selling cars. That doesn’t necessarily mean the same person is going to be a great leader or a great manager. So, we make best efforts to empower our people and give them the tools and training they need to succeed as good leaders. Training is a core value and a differentiator for us.
Question: This kind of feeds into my next question. What is your management philosophy?
Answer: My management approach is simple. To be successful, you must help those around you to succeed. It’s a selfless approach to management. In automotive, I’m all about “Don’t tell, sell.” Rather than telling someone what to do, I believe in taking the time to educate our teams, all the way down to the salesperson level, on why we are doing things. When they understand and believe in what we’re doing, you’re in the best position to succeed. I think a lot of dealerships don’t give their people the benefit of fully understanding why they’re doing things. We do. We just came out of sales training the last couple of days and we shared exactly what we’re doing and why and make them part of the process. Having clear goals and direction is why we’re one of the Top 50.
Question: You’re a strong advocate for disrupting the industry with strong leadership. What suggestions do you have for creating change in the marketplace?
Answer: It is highly competitive in this industry because there is always another dealer ready to take you on. More important, today, there are more and more outside disruptors who want to come in and take a piece of our market. We, as dealers, cannot be afraid to test new concepts.
Unfortunately, the biggest critics to change in our industry are often our fellow dealers, which has allowed outside disruptors to move in. I would say, stop being so cynical, be willing to make aggressive changes, and take a look back at every successful traditional retailer that has gone bankrupt. You hear these famous stories about how Blockbuster failed, or Polaroid failed, whatever the case may be. The key thing they share across the board is that they were too stubborn and arrogant to recognize they were failing to keep up with modern-day consumers’ expectations. We cannot repeat that mistake.
Question: That’s very on-point today. Do you think it’s changing, as new generations come on-board?
Answer: It’s getting better. You asked earlier about the biggest changes in automotive since our last interview in 2010. Hands down, the biggest change is the advent of mobile. I can tell you today that your average dealership website is between 60 to 70% of the shoppers visiting from a mobile device. And for those who are currently shopping for a car, we’re seeing between 70 and 78% of those shoppers are mobile. That means everything a smart dealer does today should start by looking at the smartphone first. What is the size of your message? How fast is that content loading? These are key elements in meeting their expectations where they’re shopping.
The second biggest change is the transition from how early shoppers online were primarily conducting research. Today, they’re conducting research and they are completing part of the car-buying process online. Hence, the advent of so many online marketing retail solutions. I could go on and on, but those are the two biggest changes we have to address.
Question: This makes a good transition to my next question. How does Jeff Wyler utilize social media, and do you outsource your social media?
Answer: We were one of the earliest players with social media, all the way back to MySpace. We manage most of our social media efforts internally with our eCommerce department. One of the things we believe is very important is to have outside assistance. We use Kate Frost, Inc. The reason why we believe this is important is that she is not automotive-exclusive. We think that’s key to being successful with social media efforts. With most of the automotive-exclusive social media efforts, there is no differentiation with what they are doing with each other. We prefer to employ someone who has a mix. She’s really big in fashion and style and has been tremendously successful in managing social media there.
Question: If I understand what you’re saying, you like other industries involved so you don’t lose sight of what the consumer wants to see. Is that correct?
Answer: Yes. It ties into what your goals are with social media. I know this is something that makes us different from a lot of other dealers and we’re not exclusive on this. But with our social media efforts, it is not about making direct sales; it’s about building relationships with our community. It is a “social” channel. That is where you will find your success.
Question: What are some of the ways you’ve been most successful in building that community?
Answer: I can give you some great examples. You can have an animal adoption event at a local dealership and share that information with a picture. You can make donations to an animal shelter for every car sold. We just worked with a local hospital on a match drive for bone marrow transplants. We’re doing the lemon challenge for The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society to help support them. This is all about giving back to your community, to the people who make you successful.
Question: Then you highlight all of these things through your social media channel?
Question: What are you doing to bring in more millennials, as either consumers or employees?
Answer: We look at it several different ways. We look to be wherever they’re at. We have a big focus on the use of video, mobile and a strong presence with social media.
The other key way we look to bring in more millennials is to meet their higher expectations with the customer experience. This leads into two areas where we are very progressive.
Number one, I believe we are the first dealer in the country to bring augmented reality solutions in-house, which we are testing at our dealerships. What we’re doing there is looking to enhance the showroom experience by building value with an augmented reality solution that most millennials are familiar with. That means using the same tools they grew up with: iPads, smartphones, etc.
The other key thing we’ve been testing – and I believe we’re the first in our market to do this – is virtual reality on our website. We primarily feature this as part of the mobile experience, and you do not need virtual reality headsets for it to work.
Question: That’s awesome. So, how does this work online without using a headset?
Answer: You can do it from a PC and just move your mouse around. But if you do it from your smartphone, you literally start driving the car. You can move your phone, physically, and look at the front of the car, the back, up, down or you can take your finger and slide it to the left or right, up or down. We’re actually enabling someone to test drive from the comfort of their couch. We have partnered with FlowFound, and they are based out of Atlanta.
Question: You’ve noted elsewhere how traditional automotive retail is under attack. Could you talk about these attacks and, more specifically, what recommendations you would offer to other dealerships for fending off these attacks?
Answer: The number one complaint we hear from the modern-day car shopper is how long it takes to buy a car. Most of the outside disruptors are looking to provide a better consumer-facing solution that saves the consumers time and aggravation. Meanwhile, dealerships have used the same road to the sale for thirty-plus years. Even with the advent of digital retailing, where shoppers can complete some or most of the car-buying process online, we are finding that when these shoppers arrive at a dealership, they most often are taken back to step one of the road to the sale and they still endure a three-to-four-hour car buying experience. That is a fail.
We must adapt to modern day customers’ expectations, which is a quicker delivery and a more convenient buying process. And I have good news. When you look at other industries, convenience is sold for a profit. So, this is a great way for dealers to raise their profitability.
Question: What part does inventory management play in your digital marketing efforts?
Answer: It is a huge part of our efforts and a huge part of any modern-day dealership efforts. This is also part of the biggest change from over ten years ago. To be successful today, you have to have an optimal mix of inventory and digital marketing to get the most profitable retail turn. Economics 101 says you grow through efficiency to raise your profitability. Inventory management is the fuel behind that engine.
Question: How can online marketers bring more value into the dealership?
Answer: I always say the simplest way to describe online eCommerce is that if a car is not seen, a car is not sold. As dealers, our inventory and our message need to be seen. If you have hundreds or thousands of cars on your site, what use is it to us if our messages and inventory are never seen? That is how online marketers bring value to us.
Question: In your opinion, do car dealers still need third-party lead providers?
Answer: I’ve spoken on the national stage about this. AutoTrader, Edmunds, Cars.com, Cargurus and others, all of these and more can still play a valuable role in getting eyes on a dealer’s inventory. However, the decision on whether to use them is driven by the size of the dealership’s budget and how they perform. I believe in prioritizing digital spend based on these two factors. Marketing solutions and tools that drive traffic directly to your dealership website are going to drive the best quality leads with the highest closing rate and the lowest cost per lead and lowest cost per sale. So, those would be your first priority. Your OEM and Tier 2 solutions would be the next best. You would then use third-party solutions to round out your mix based upon your budget and your greatest needs.
Many large stores can afford two inventory aggregators while smaller dealerships might only be able to afford one. You have to look closely at performance. That goes back to what I was saying before: if the car is not seen, the car is not sold. That aggregator is useless to me if my vehicle is not being seen.
Now, I would offer a challenge to dealers—and I don’t believe many dealers are thinking about this. But it is very relevant in today’s market and that is this: With many dealers today that are achieving used car turn rates of 12-times or better, this often leads to even more difficulties at acquiring more used inventory at a good price to feed that engine. If you, as a dealer, are struggling with this and you keep spending more and more money on third-party solutions to increase your turn, you’re only exasperating the problem of acquiring more inventory at a favorable cost. At the end of the day, it’s about profitability. There’s a ton of dealers who don’t heed this message. They keep trying to raise the turn and raise the turn and spend more, while they can’t get more cars to put into the cycle; they start paying more and paying more and making less money, it’s a dangerous cycle.
Question: In what ways does the Jeff Wyler Automotive Family use technology to improve its operating efficiency?
Answer: We’re a very progressive organization that’s constantly testing new technology and solutions. The key value for us in improving our operating efficiency is having standardized tools and solutions in place, which enable us to not only drive economies of scale and lower cost, but, more importantly, greater efficiencies in the use of the tool, training on that tool and managing the performance of its usage.
Question: What steps have you implemented to improve ROI?
Answer: I can tell you, that process never stops, especially in this market with compressing margins. I am a big believer in focusing on performance. There’s a lot of great data you can gather from your CRM, Google Analytics, vendor reports, and more. We get a tremendous amount of value by meeting with our team leaders every quarter to review what is working and what is not. When you talk to the people on the front lines of that battleground, that is where you are going to get your best input. I take notes every month while reviewing monthly ROI and year-to-date ROI. Each quarter we’ll sit down and literally review each provider and their performance and make decisions on whether to expand or reduce.
Question: If you could create your own CRM package, what would it look like?
Answer: In the years past, dealerships always centralized around the DMS. Today, the CRM is the focal point of the dealership. If I could create a CRM that combined the functions of both the DMS and the CRM into one seamless solution, I think dealers would be thrilled. Current solutions do really well at integrating many of these different modules. But you would have to almost build it from the ground up for everything to work seamlessly.
I used to share an analogy from when I flew in Desert Storm. I flew in a 35-million-dollar plane, over 200 combat hours, and I can tell you that 90% of the time, the computer was down. We were literally dropping iron bombs left over from the Vietnam War using bombsights that were Korean War-vintage. The reason why is that there were so many different solutions and tools on the plane with different coding and setup that they did not communicate well together, and they would fail. That’s what happens when you try to plug in all these different solutions; they never work really well together. If you had it all built together at the same time, it is going to be most efficient and reliable.
Question: How important is training or on-going education to the success of your eCommerce program?
Answer: It is tremendous. Training is a core value of the Jeff Wyler Automotive Family. We have a dedicated, modern training center where every sales rep, every sales manager, and every fixed ops manager has mandatory training at least four times a year in that facility. We also feature guest speakers, including speakers from Google, a 28-year Navy SEAL Team Six veteran, and an NFL Hall of Famer. We had national trainer Joe Webb, of DealerKnows, in recently. We have a full-time leadership trainer, as I mentioned before. Part of our eCommerce team visits stores every month on-site for training. When we got to the store, we’re looking for where the immediate needs are. The other thing that’s important to emphasize that makes us so different is when we have the training here at our training center. Jeff Wyler, or his son, David Wyler, will personally introduce each session. That sends a message from the very top about how important training is to us.
Question: I think that’s great because training is definitely a top-down commitment and if you don’t have buy-in from ownership, it’s going to fail.
Answer: We literally designed our new headquarters here several years ago with their offices right outside the training center, so they could walk right out and into the training center. That’s how big training is here at Jeff Wyler
Question: What do you look for when hiring new employees?
Answer: Someone who understands the realistic expectations of retail. Retail is all about the customer, and that means to be consumer-facing, you must be available when they’re ready to shop. That can mean working evenings and weekends. Just like restaurants and department stores, retail hours are part of the job. We recently introduced some screening tests to help us identify those who are the best fit for sales, service, etc., which is helping us. It’s a personality test. I wasn’t the one who selected it, but it has made a big difference.
Question: If you could only choose one technology tool to help Jeff Wyler succeed, which tool would it be and why?
Answer: Instead of choosing a tool, I would make one. If there was a magical tool that would give us the best digital marketing mix with the highest return that would be unbelievable.
Question: You just gave a million programmers their next big idea.
Answer: Well, they’ve been trying to do it for years, with attribution and so on. I don’t know if that will ever happen— however, I would share, they came close. When Google came out with their initial data attribution models, their goal was to be able to show the online buying process from front to back. However, with the rise in data privacy protection, that will likely not happen. I think I might have been the first person in our industry to get on a stage and talk about data attribution. And I talked about that vision of seeing the buying process from front to back. I feel as if I might have stirred up a lot of trouble because now it has changed so much and attribution is being abused. It’s a slippery slope.
Question: What attracted you to the auto retail business initially and why did you choose to make it your career?
Answer: Initially, it was the challenge. And that’s the former Naval aviator in me. Jeff Wyler gave me carte blanche to do whatever it would take to put them at the forefront of eCommerce. That was the clear direction they gave me. They said, you let us know what you need; you have our entire support. You put us at the front. What made me decide to make it my career was the people. I have grown to love the people I work with and lead. Jeff Wyler is leading the industry in automotive eCommerce. I see my role as transitioning. I was one of the early pioneers in eCommerce. I challenge my friends and my peers, it is now our responsibility to mentor and uplift the next generation that’s going to take this over. I try to find young speakers and people who are out there, that’s the fun. It’s selfless, not selfish.
Question: What is the future of automotive retailing?
Answer: From a dealership perspective, to be profitable we have to continue to grow and become more efficient. I think you’re going to see fewer dealerships overall. More consolidation in the industry, with that drive toward efficiency. I think you’re going to see more and more car purchases taking place online. I think you’re going to see new car prices eventually become fixed, to protect the franchise dealers.
And the last thing I would share is that consumers want affordable and flexible car ownership solutions without long-term commitments. That’s why we’re testing Wyler FastLane, the first auto subscription service in the Midwest, to see if we can better meet those customers’ expectations.
My biggest challenge to others right now is that as an industry the best people to disrupt automotive is ourselves, and we need to do that with strong leadership. If I’m going to be Moses on the mountain, that is my message.
Author: Digital Dealer
Digital Dealer exists to help dealers and their managers sell more vehicles more profitably by creating the best live events and media in the industry.