Automotive Retail: Tips for a Stronger Field Force
Automakers spend massive amounts of money and resources on supporting their franchised dealers. On the front line of that effort is the field force: zone managers, area managers, and dealer operations managers—automakers have a variety of terms to describe this critical link to their retail network. (I will use the terms interchangeably here).
Consumers experience automotive brands at dealerships, where they buy and service their vehicles. They form lasting impressions based on the interactions they have in the dealer’s facility with dealership employees. So, optimizing dealer performance is of critical importance to automotive brands.
One could describe the field force as the OEM’s account managers for dealers, but that description hardly does the role justice. The job scope is incredibly wide-ranging: from selling stock into the retail channel, to supporting dealer efforts to improve the customer experience and auditing dealer standards.
Knowing the care with which automakers craft their brands and the resources they spend to maintain them, most people might imagine a modern field force comprising deeply experienced, highly skilled pros—the Delta Force of the organization. However, spend a short amount of time with any field organization, and you’ll find that unfortunately, nothing could be further from reality. Zone managers are usually among the most junior people on the OEM’s payroll, and they often appear to operate with inadequate support and be overwhelmed with competing priorities.
In essence, the least senior people are responsible for the OEM’s most important relationships.
With the profound changes underway in retail, now is a good time to fundamentally rethink the role of a field force. At GP Strategies, we often talk about the need for retooling retail, and that certainly encompasses the field team. Here are a few tips for making your existing field force rock:
- Create an approval gateway for assigning monthly tasks. I have observed in some OEMs that virtually any manager can assign a new task to the field team, and these tasks are almost always flagged as “urgent.” This practice is not only disruptive, but it also gradually erodes the zone manager’s motivation to plan and act proactively. The zone manager should be assigned a limited number of tasks at the beginning of each month. It’s healthy to have a vigorous debate about what’s important, but in the end, some managers’ priorities won’t make the cut. So be it. Because the field force has a much greater chance at real success when they’re held accountable for achieving a manageable number of agreed-upon objectives.
- Revisit authority levels. Many field teams only have a fuzzy idea of what actions they are authorized to take on the company’s behalf. Delegation-of-authority documents should be clear, written in plain language, and mapped to operational reality. The leaders designing the delegation of authority should err on the side of speed. Most authority documents focus only on avoiding risk, but they should consider the energy and momentum created when a zone manager can say, “Yes!” When it comes to the field force, what frustrates dealers the most? When the only response their zone manager can muster is, “I need to check back with head office.”
- Deliver meaningful training. I see some OEMs with a strong commitment to proactively training their field force, and others who choose the hands-off, let-the-dealers-train-them approach. Given the importance of the dealer relationship, regularly upskilling the field force is critical. They must be developed in soft skills such as negotiation and building trust—and positioned at the front of the queue for new product launch and business process training.
- Manage the reaction to errors. Even with great training and clear delegation of authority, field force employees will make mistakes. I vividly remember an expensive mistake I made early in my own field career, involving my dealer on the West Coast of New Zealand’s South Island and whether a certain model had leather seats. How managers react to these mistakes determines whether the field force pushes to explore their capabilities or shrinks into a safe comfort zone. A leader should support the decisions made by an area manager wherever possible; then they can impart the lesson of how to improve for next time. Luckily in my case, my manager approved the dealer claim and (through a clenched jaw) told me I needed to better understand that particular model lineup.
- Use the available tools. There are still zone managers manually writing up visit reports and plugging numbers into spreadsheets. This is wasted time. There is a plethora of tools available that automate audit checks and visit reports. The data is entered as part of the dealer visit and parsed to central portals for senior management to view. As I mentioned above, the field team can only juggle so many tasks. Old-fashioned paperwork shouldn’t be one of them.
As I talk with automotive leaders, I don’t perceive a huge appetite for tearing up the current field force model. Most leaders agree it can be improved, and that at some point, it might need to be overhauled, but it’s low on the current list of priorities. That may be, but there’s still plenty of scope for improving the effectiveness of your current field force, even without disruptive changes to the overarching structure.