AutoTrader Revs Up Its Staff for a Sales Tune-up

Gib Finley, director of business applications at AutoTrader, discusses how the online automotive marketplace is preparing its team for a new sales order management system.

The business of buying and selling cars is competitive, and despite a sluggish economy, sales are picking up. In fact, U.S. auto sales rose 10 percent in September and the annualized sales rate hit 13.1 million vehicles, the strongest sales rate since April. To meet this increasing demand, dealerships must compete on service, price, and differentiation, and they must speed their time to market.

At the center of this hypercompetitive market is AutoTrader which is continually looking for new ways to help its automotive dealer and manufacturer customers compete. Consequently, the online automotive marketplace plans to deploy a new electronic order (ESO) system for its sales force. The solution, part of IBM's Smarter Commerce initiative, is designed to help simplify and accelerate the ordering process for AutoTrader's dealers and manufacturing customers by allowing the company's advertising consultants to more quickly select and configure promotions without toggling between multiple systems.

Gib Finley, director of business applications at AutoTrader, is leading the deployment of the company's ESO system. He explains that the company's order management process is primarily paper based, so advertising consultants rely on multiple systems to create an order for an advertisement. This takes, on average, seven to eight days to complete and ultimately slows the process of getting its customers' promotions onto the site.

The upcoming deployment will require the advertising consultants to leverage new technology and change current processes. Finley expects adoption to be a challenge, so his approach to the ESO system rollout is careful and deliberate.

Finley also took into account that AutoTrader's sales methodologies differ between each of the 23 districts within its five sales regions. So, he has assembled a steering committee to gather feedback from the advertising consultants in the regions over many months. The goal is that AutoTrader will better understand how each region operates and therefore can tailor the ESO rollout for each of them, as well as customize the internal communications prior to the four-month-long deployment scheduled for next summer.

Here, Finley talks with Managing Editor Mila D'Antonio about the strategy behind AutoTrader's ESO system rollout.

1to1 Media: How have customer expectations forced your company to examine new ways to meet their growing demands?

Gib Finley: We are trying to better connect with [our dealer and manufacturer] customers and provide them with better service. As a result, we want to smooth out the ordering process [for purchasing ads on our site] and make it as quick and as simple as possible, and collect feedback.

1to1: AutoTrader manages five sales regions. What steps are you taking to ensure that the ESO system deployment meets the requirements of all regions?

GB: We released this functionality to the service organization and the next step is to release it to sales. We didn't want to hand it off to sales and leave. We wanted to make sure that we worked out any kinks in the system and make any necessary systemic or business process changes.

1to1: How is service leveraging the solution?

GB: Service is taking the paper contract that the agents get from sales, and instead of entering that into four or five systems, they're able to put the order directly into the software and start the process. The less systems to operate, the more manual processes go out the door. We get "lessons learned" for the upcoming sales deployment as service works through the process.

1to1: How else will you manage the idiosyncrasies of the various sales practices in the ESO system deployment?

GB: We assembled a steering committee that represents the advertising consultants from the various regions. There are 12 members. They interact with the regions and meet monthly to report about the dynamics of how they work daily. Instead of having a one-time discussion to try to figure out what they'll need, we conduct an iterative process that includes folks from the sales strategy group, the sales steering group, and product management. They're all continuously engaged in a process to understand exactly what specifically the regions need and to find out the length of time [we'll need] to build [a customized] order management system [for each region].

This will help in the deployment because the way that an advertising consultant in Southern California handles interactions may differ from the way someone in the Northeast handles them, so we're trying to make sure that we streamline the process, and that we don't look at a narrow set of requirements

1to1: How critical is the steering committee in effectively deploying this solution?

GB: It's critical in that this is a significant change for the sales force. The fact that they were engaged from day one will improve our success rate in terms of adoption.

1to1: How will gathering feedback now help meet the different requirements of all the sales teams when rolling out the software to the various regions?

GB: This has been an opportunity for sales to come together and to establish a better sales process. There will be more coordination across these regions now. That wasn't an intention; it was a by-product. The regions coming together to streamline the rollout, in turn, helped us. It was critical to that standpoint and from a business-readiness perspective. We wanted to learn how these people would accept the system, about the challenges ahead of us, and the communications we will need to support the sales folks.

1to1: What specific knowledge came from the steering committee's meetings that will help in the solution deployment?

GB: We are going through an exercise early next year to understand the elements we will need to build up to this ESO pilot. The initial thinking is there will be a series of communications-FAQs and information reference documentation. We will also set up a specific support model so [advertising consultants] get an immediate response to their questions. The last thing we want to do is put them in a difficult spot when they are face-to-face with dealers.

1to1: What will be the next steps to grow the sales strategy after the solution is deployed?

GB: The intention from there is to really have more integration points. Order management is one piece of the puzzle for our sale organization. There are CRM activities to consider and there is ongoing reporting or revenue around specific data. We think the next step will continue to integrate so that the sales force gets more data and views that holistically. Order management only solves a series of problems, not the whole ball of wax.

1to1: What trends do you predict we'll see in the order management space?

GB: Everything is moving toward a quicker response time and our goal is to make sure we meet those as they change. We need to be responsive to those things. The general concept of being able to respond more quickly and offer numerous product offerings is the key.

1to1: What advice can you offer for other organizations struggling to streamline their sales operations?

GB: Due diligence is key to handling a project the right way. Understanding the sales process, the customer, and the pain points is also key. Try to be targeted on what you're trying to resolve.