“It’s A Difficult Time of Reflection”

by Tracey Schelmetic

Cox Automotive CEO Sandy Schwartz: “It’s A Difficult Time of Reflection”

While there’s a lot to disagree about in 2020, most companies would agree that they’ve had some challenging lessons about finding new ways to do business. Two events — the global COVID-19 pandemic and the now-global protests for social justice — have sent many business owners and executives to the drawing board to reinvent their business processes, their marketing, and their hiring. For many entrepreneurs, it’s also meant tapping rank and file employees for solutions that are focused on human needs.

Digitization Should Remain Focused on the Human Factor

Cautious customers are finding they can do many things they used to do in person virtually. While companies built on this premise such as Amazon are seeing business soar, some laggards have had to reinvent themselves in a hurry. In a recent podcast for Dealer News Today, Sandy Schwartz, CEO of Cox Automotive, noted that the embrace of digital platforms has been uneven in the automotive sales and service industry. With the new importance of digital channels during the global COVID-19 pandemic, businesses that were further along with their digital path are likely to be experiencing fewer disruptions.

“There’s a new way of doing business,” noted Schwartz. “We’re not like Zappos, where you buy a pair of shoes, have them delivered, and if you don’t like them, send them back. You can’t do that with a car. But our customers have the expectation that we act that way. So, we have learned, after some initial challenge, how we need to act and what we need to do to go forward. We have no one to blame but ourselves if we find ourselves backsliding.”

Cox Automotive, a leader in vehicle remarketing services and digital marketing and software solutions for both dealers and consumers, has taken its own advice. Schwartz noted that the company is now selling 100 percent of its wholesale cars digitally.

“We went from 500 of our Auto Trader dealers using our digital tools to – within a month – 10,000 of them having a group of those digital tools,” he said. “And it shows that you can do business that way. Part of the way forward is all about accelerating the digital adoption.”

While it’s critical to move to a business model that helps customers find what they want online and in virtual settings, Schwartz notes that companies shouldn’t lose track of their ultimate goal. Technologies such as digital adoption, virtual collaboration and sharing real-time marketing analytics and insights with users are tools to help make human connections in an omnichannel customer experience environment.

“The big picture is selling cars,” he said. “The big picture is getting service to cars. The big picture is to keep the economy moving.” However, he noted, dealerships should remember to “be human at your core.”

Embracing Social Justice

“Being human at your core,” according to Schwartz, also means embracing the community zeitgeist, which today means supporting those seeking social justice. Many consumers and advertisers are withholding their spending from companies that don’t do enough positive work for communities, as Facebook is discovering the hard way this month.

“This has been a very difficult time of reflection,” said Schwartz. “Of trying to understand what the right thing is to do, and also making sure that voices are being heard.”

Schwartz noted that what your organization has done in the past and what it’s doing today aren’t as critical as what it’s going to do in the future. Successful companies should be asking themselves, “How do we get real systematic change in the whole environment going forward?”

While it’s important to take a short-term approach and engage in activities today that show your support, it’s also critical that dealerships cultivate a long-term approach to ensuring that minority voices are heard at the table and continue to be heard, both among customers and employees.

“What I’m trying to do now is listen,” said Schwartz. “It’s not a time for me to espouse all my views. What’s important is for me to listen, to understand how people are feeling, to understand what they see, to understand what they feel like when they walk in the building. To me, it’s all about inclusion. We need to get better at hiring and get better at keeping [minorities] and promoting them.”

Dealers are inexorably linked to their communities, so every effort should be made to reflect those communities. Ultimately, customers will choose to do business in places they feel welcomed and trusted.

“Every one of us has a place in this,” said Schwartz.

Dave Cantin echoed the importance of building community.

“Dealers spend millions of dollars annually to operate their dealerships,” he said. “The most important component of maintaining that is to ensure that their community welcomes them to do business.”