I actually find it funny how often great leadership is the number one factor that drives a particular business’s success, yet at the same time, how many senior managers in unsuccessful businesses feel like their companies’ failures are the result of everything but a lack of leadership. As demonstrated in the 2011 Automotive Internet Study David Kain and I released, leadership is so intertwined with success that it would be reckless to try to find success where leadership didn’t matter. (Hint: there are no examples of sustained business success that occurred without great leadership.)
For dealerships seeking Internet sales success, our study proved that these results do not simply come from generating more leads, gaining 5,000 Facebook fans or even having the best e-mail templates. No, acquiring and maintaining Internet sales success is the result of following a strict formula of progressive leadership plus innovative marketing plus continuous process improvement. And while a truly superior Internet sales team can deliver innovative marketing and process improvements, only a store’s management team can deliver the progressive leadership necessary to create sustainable success.
During the study, we identified and isolated two different dynamics with respect to leadership: senior management buy-in and middle management oversight/buy-in. What we found (in general) was that when managers at all levels provided progressive leadership, the Internet sales efforts were not only successful, they enjoyed sustained success and month-over-month revenue growth. Interestingly, it took progressive leadership from both levels before a dealership could enjoy long-term success with their Internet sales efforts. Additionally, each level of management had a different effect on a store’s Internet sales success.
Senior management buy-in
The plea for senior management buy-in is so overused that it is almost a cliché. In fact, as our study demonstrated, senior managers merely “buying-in” was meaningless to a store’s success if that buy-in did not also include unwavering support for the Internet sales efforts. (For the purposes of our study, we designated dealer principals and general managers as the senior management team, all other store managers were considered middle managers.)
As I wrote last month, buy-in is much more than admitting that the Internet is important or even that 90% of your customers are online. No, buy-in (as we defined it in our study) includes elevating the Internet sales team to a status equivalent to your new car or used car teams and including this team’s leader in your managers’ meetings. If you happen to be a senior manager reading this article, it might be helpful for you to quickly evaluate your level of leadership in order to understand the level of true buy-in you are providing to your Internet sales team. Give yourself one point for each of the following statements that describe the reality at your dealership:
- I spend as much or more time each day with the head of my Internet sales efforts as I do with any other middle manager in the dealership.
- I ensure that the Internet sales team has as many leads as they can effectively manage, regardless of budgets.
- I’ve moved the responsibility for non-sales activities (like fixing the phones, taking digital pictures or managing our online reputation) to experts outside of the Internet sales team.
- I consider myself to be a resource to the Internet sales team, not their boss.
- The head of my Internet sales efforts has as much authority and training to desk deals as our traditional desk managers.
- We have processes in place to make every Internet appointment feel special, and I’ve instituted a no-tolerance policy for skating that everyone follows.
- The head of our Internet sales efforts participates in all sales manager meetings, and is responsible for creating and committing to a sales budget each month.
- We have sufficient budget set aside to regularly test and pilot innovative ideas, processes and marketing.
If you gave yourself eight points, congratulations, you are likely the kind of progressive leader who will see tremendous and sustained Internet sales growth. Anything above five means you’re on the right track. Of course, if you gave yourself four or fewer points, then you have a great opportunity ahead to achieve true Internet sales success. As they say, knowing is the first step.
Middle management oversight/buy-in
If you read the study, then you already know that middle managers have a greater impact on a store’s Internet sales success than do senior managers. In fact, middle managers – more than any other group in the dealership – are in control of whether you enjoy a sustained success or whether you suffer the Internet sales peaks and valleys (mostly valleys) common to most dealerships. Additionally, it is the mature leadership of the middle managers that can do the most to stem the tide of turnover and deliver most of the other “must haves” for Internet sales success.
Success-creating factors like accountability, staff training, tracking and measurement, and adherence to a written process do not occur on a consistent basis without the oversight and buy-in from the store’s desk, F&I, new car and used car managers. While this oversight and buy-in means closely managing these activities, it also means providing mature leadership to those on the Internet sales team.
This is where we usually start to lose the typical middle manager. It seems everyone is interested in listening when you want to teach some secret formula or shortcut, but no one gives a crap when you start to speak about concepts like leadership versus management. Interestingly, most businesses (even car dealerships) fail to understand the difference between management and leadership; and it is this fundamental flaw that dooms most managers to a lifetime of mediocre results.
The word “leadership” (like “training” or “accountability”) can mean different things to different people, so I felt it would be helpful if I explained what leadership at the middle management level looks like in successful Internet stores. My hope is that this will give you and your team a blueprint to driving success. For middle managers, you can provide the most value and guarantee yourself a much brighter future when you can follow a few simple leadership truths that we discovered across the successful dealers in our study. More often than not, the middle managers at successful stores demonstrated the following:
- Most leaders are never completely satisfied with their own level of leadership, and are constantly working to improve their leadership skills and execution.
- A healthy ego and a competitive spirit are important when trying to sell more than the guy up the street, but they have no place when used as weapons against members of your own team.
- Leading humbly and understanding that your job is to provide support (not bark orders) attracts quality employees eager to achieve more.
- Making others look good always makes you look good.
- We’re all in this together, and the sale of an Internet unit benefits everyone at the dealership.
- Great people want to be held accountable, and you don’t want to disappoint the strongest players on the team (so hold everyone accountable).
- Instead of trying to find reasons why something will not succeed, great leaders find reasons it will.
- Training your team has a greater impact on your future success than trying to do it all yourself or hoping the cream will rise to the top.
- If you believe someone will fail, they usually do; so strive to find reasons everyone on the team will succeed.
As “squishy” as some of this may sound to someone who grew up in the car business, it is amazing the positive impact the desk, F&I and other middle managers can have on an Internet operation when they take a mature approach to managing. Likewise, middle managers who take pleasure in torturing and sabotaging the Internet sales efforts often succeed in chasing away great people and reducing their own bonus checks in the process.
Leadership next steps
For dealers still struggling with turnover issues and inconsistent sales results from their Internet teams, the issues are probably obvious (to everyone outside the organization): a lack of leadership exists somewhere. Is it at the top? Could be. Does it exist throughout the middle management ranks? More likely. Regardless of where your leadership deficiency lies, it cannot be overcome by driving more leads, gaining Facebook fans or creating the best email templates in the business.
Your team deserves mature leadership that buys into the need for an Internet sales effort, and supports that effort unwaveringly. This means adequate budget, backing, buy-in and an unquestionable desire to grow your store’s sales via the Internet.
Without these, you shouldn’t expect to be part of the next Automotive Internet Study we conduct.