Channel | Industry

Agent Evolution in a Changing Automotive Landscape

By: Tom Cullen

Agent Evolution in a Changing Automotive Landscape

“What is it you do?”

That was the seminal question posed by dealers that plagued me when I first started calling on them 20 years ago. My original answer was: I was a “credit insurance/service contract” representative of XYZ Company. Dealers quickly categorized me and sent me on my way unless they were desperate. I quickly refined my answer to; “I increase dealer income, drive down expenses and help limit the liability associated with the retail sale of vehicles in this area.”

That answer served me well for almost 20 years, but our industry has changed and the needs of our dealer clients have changed almost overnight. While it remains true that our clients need increased income more than ever before and that keeping expenses low continues to be a concern, liability and compliance issues are still on the forefront of our minds.

Pressures on the auto industry over the last three years have shifted the focus to the health of the ENTIRE dealership, not just these three mentioned areas.

The attrition rate in dealerships across the country has created a “sifting” effect in our industry with agencies being forced to evolve or die. The most successful agents now are the ones who can demonstrate increased dealer retained earnings and higher PVR income through the agent’s proprietary developmental process. Common traits of these successful agents are persistence, the ability to think “out of the box” and accountability.

Your dealer clients should be able to count on you as an agent to provide, for the entire dealership, aggressive yet reachable goals that should include a specific written plan for achieving those goals. The key to differentiating yourself is to demonstrate to the dealer, and to the market, that the dealer and his or her success is the most important thing the agent has to discuss.

An example of a revision to the original answer we have used is: “We drive qualified buyers to our dealer’s stores, increase their sales rate and profitability, impact service absorption to 100 percent while making sure the customers you sell to have finance options available so that you get paid.”

It is a precise and powerful answer that differentiates us from our competition. To deliver on that answer, we analyze the dealership’s current needs and expand our consultative practice to set up goals and plans in a number of key areas inside the store, not just in the F&I office.

Dealers need qualified customers more now than ever. With shrinking inventory levels, qualified and focused consumers are gold on a dealer’s lot. We have focused on bringing to dealers marketing tools that generate quick consumer calls and dealership traffic. We do research looking for the most cost effective and successful providers we can bring to our clients. In circumstances where we can’t find any that we are satisfied with, we develop our own. In the case of our regional market, we have developed our own media company to provide a combination of online and print advertising to the consumer on behalf of our clients. This gives us more control as we track all generated traffic leads to use as validation for marketing effectiveness as well as a training and accountability tools for continued staff improvement. We also take advantage of current trends in technology such as the explosion in social media resources such as Twitter and Facebook to use for our dealer’s benefit.

Closing at a higher margin. The dealership’s financial statement is the single most important piece of information the dealer looks at. As an agent, it is important to understand all of the challenges our dealer customers confront on any given day. The road to F&I goes directly through the sales department. Helping define the delivery, sales and desking processes ensures front-end profit for the dealer. Plus, it stacks the odds in the finance and insurance department’s favor. All training and lead generation programs we deliver to the dealer help him earn the greatest front-end revenue. So once a customer is in the dealership, we deliver tools to close the customer quickly and at a higher gross profit. These tools include a comprehensive “certified program” that we customize for the dealer to make their inventory stand out against the competition.

Always be looking for new tools. The products I sold back when I started in this business are still important today; however, they no longer define who we are. They are the tools we use in the business. As a successful agent, you always have to be on the look out for new ideas, products and techniques that you can use to achieve the goals you set for your dealers. As an example, besides developing our own lead generation media company and our certified program, we have developed a new F&I product for our dealers that can be sold to customers who cannot afford, or who do not qualify for, a vehicle service contract. This product creates higher penetration and gross profit and is designed to drive used-car customers back into the selling dealer’s service department, where retention can be poor.

As an agent, having a new product that the competition and OEMs do not have separates you in the marketplace. Finally, we complement our new products with a portfolio of fully insured standard F&I products and training to give F&I increased penetration, higher PVR and improved CSI.

Service drive consultation. The largest buzz word for dealers now is “fixed absorption” and has become the focus of every dealer. Bringing programs to the dealer to help with service department efficiency and profitability creates huge returns for the dealer and cements our value to the dealership on a total revenue basis. As an agency, we have searched for and found an outside provider that delivers on all aspects of dealer service training. This is a guarantee to the dealer for increased absorption in service. Expanding our development in this area to give service advisers the tools and strategies to achieve that 100 percent absorption gives us an advantage in the marketplace.

Providing financing options. Accelerating cash through the dealership keeps the dealer’s engine running. We have had to develop solutions to help finance customers who don’t fit the captive mode. We ensure that all deals written in the store that can be financed are finalized. We have had to secure lenders for our dealer customers and staff an off-site finance option for the dealers in our area. Our agency ensures dealers that when they sell a vehicle, they get paid.

Going forward. The most significant hurdle an agent is going to have to overcome is the old saw we hear all the time: “This is how we’ve always done business.” Well, we will never again see the way we did business five years ago or even last year. Our business is reinventing itself daily and we have to reinvent ourselves daily just to keep pace. It is essential that we look at all things from the dealer’s perspective.

By providing services based on our dealer’s needs, we have solidified the relationships with our current customers and increased the value proposition to our prospective customers.

The future of the car business is being written every day by the men and women who work on the front line of our industry. Three years ago, the industry was like “Humpty Dumpty” sitting on a wall. When it fell, it broke into many pieces. The big corporations do not see the value in the scattered pieces and are unwilling to pick them up and put “Humpty Dumpty” back together again. The opportunity to pick up the pieces has fallen to us, the agent entrepreneur. We see the value of the pieces and the opportunity provided to use our skills to put our industry back together again, one piece at a time. Seize the day and charge forward with confidence and courage because our industry and dealers need us more than ever.

This article was written by:

- has written 2 posts on Agent Entrepreneur.

Tom Cullen is the president and co-founder of Vision Marketing Group & Associates, LLC. Tom is also the president of Repair Assurance. He has more than twenty-five years of experience in the automotive industry and through his endeavors with Vision Marketing Group & Associates and Repair Assurance.

Contact the author

The views expressed by the authors and those providing comments are theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Agent Entrepreneur or any employee thereof.

20 Responses to “Agent Evolution in a Changing Automotive Landscape”

  1. Joe Robinson says:

    I agree, the “sifting” in all agency business the last two years forces all of us to take a good, long look in the mirror, and change our approach to the “new normal.” Evolve or die!

  2. Charlie Callahan says:

    Great article. Every business has to continue to evolve and often reinvent itself in this economy and unlike many businesses who are trying to hold onto the success of the past , Tom is definitely forward thinking.

  3. Deb O'Halloran says:

    This was a very well-written and informative article!

  4. Steve Lynch says:


    You do an excellent job of explaining how important it is to keep up with the constant changes in the dynamic business of of selling and financing automobiles. With an increasingly homogenous product, the value add is the primary differentiation we can offer. Thanks for the insightful article.

  5. Doug Sharp says:

    Great article. Business is evolving and everyone should take to heart the points made in this article. Nice Job!

  6. Dean Ribich says:

    Very good read. Definitely “outside the box” thinking. Leading edge thought process and execution is what separates sucessful businesses from the staus quo creating a “niche” market.
    Entrenchment – “doing things because that is always the way they have been done” does not work anymore and hurts business. Adding value to both dealer and customer is important today. This type of thinking is what the industry needs. Enjoyed the read. Makes you think doesn’t it?

  7. Patrick Klinger says:

    In an industry so important to the economic core of this country, adaption is critical to ensure stability and success. Business as usual will simply result in “out of business.” It’s imperative to continue to search for ways to maximize revenues while providing customers what they want and need.

  8. Don McNeil says:

    Fantastic article. I agree!

  9. Bill Hren says:

    Great Article. This is not only applicable to the auto industry but all industries as well. A company cannot simply do the same things it has done in the past and be successful for the long term. Tom Cullen and his companies have always been leading edge market changers and as the article shows they will continue to be that in the future.

  10. Different dealers have different needs. Some need product solutions, some need income development support. The successful agent of the future will deliver both and everything in between.

    John Braganini
    Great Lakes Companies
    Kalamazoo, MI

  11. Tom,

    I love, love, love your introduction. That alone will set up apart from the competition since it is all about the dealer and how they will benefit from working with you and not about YOU!

    Most introductions go on and on about how great the person is and how long they have been doing it. Yours is all about results.

    The rest of the article is right on target. This should be required reading for everyone at the Dealership.

  12. Dan Flanagan says:

    This article says it all. This bad economy has made all business’ change the way they operate if they want to survive, none more dramatic than the auto dealers. Well written.

  13. Tom Donohue says:

    This concise, thought provoking and well written article embodies Tom Cullen’s approach to work. The auto industry needs more innovators like him. I’ve done business with him; he’s a straight shooter and knows his business.

  14. Tony Fiorillo says:

    Awesome article and very well written, I could not agree more especially faced with today’s challenges and market conditions.

    Well Done!!

  15. Tim Duncan says:

    Very interesting and informative — hits the nail on the head.

  16. Bob Miller says:

    Great article that unabashedly drives home the need for customer service to be the core of any business relationship. If you can deliver the level of service, prescience and outside the box thinking that Mr. Cullen writes about, why would a client (in any industry) look anywhere else? Nicely written piece.

  17. Elizabeth Williams says:

    The point made that business must evolve as customers evolve is important. Consumers have become far, far more knowledgeable and their needs have changed. Consumers research everything in this market. More and more often every angle of profit in a dealership is researched before that client walks in the door. Dealers that aren’t changing their approach as a result are paying the price. Agents that aren’t showing their dealers new solutions are short-lived. Times are hard in our industry, but in every difficulty lies opportunity. it si up to us as agents to show our dealers the new opportunities that are available. More articles like this, please…we all know enough about the “core” products. We need more on the future.

  18. William Minteer says:

    This article points out what the industry needs to do.. adjust to the changes in the industry or fail…

  19. Thomas L. Cullen says:

    Exquisit articulation of how every member of industry must assess and adapt to changing environments. If you’re not willing to look at the environment, yourself, your product, your customer’s perceived needs vs. their actual requirements, and your ability to adapt in a timely manner to multiple requirements employing a multiplicity of tools…you’ll find yourself out of touch and out of business.

  20. Steve McKeown says:

    Tom’s point on “reinventing” ourselves everyday should always be true but is especially so in the current environment. There are opportunities out there for those willing to think differently and seek them out.


Leave a Reply