Nearly five months into the COVID-19 world and everyone is taking a cough-free breath of mildly tainted air. While the most uncomfortable news dominates every media channel, countless workers face their own worst fears when it comes to their livelihoods. Compounded by civil unrest and endless uneasy revelations, many find themselves contemplating the very deepest, darkest facets of their minds. When two of my most respected friends say the only way to make it in the car business is to completely warp the truth, well…it’s something I need to write about. If we know so many of our leaders are morally bankrupt, why do we keep supporting them? How much is too much?
My role in retail automotive has been a blessing and a curse. My college self would’ve never imagined me working inside an OEM headquarters or business incubator, addressing a search engine’s team, or traveling all across North America. That is unless there was a party with free booze involved. But, with that access has come a great deal of disappointment. You find out that your favorite manufacturer is comprised of political fashionistas who could care less about cars, and that even the brightest people are expendable, and that good ideas are just that, and that there is nothing glamorous about travel. But, among all that disillusionment, the worst part is having to hear all of the awful, truly despicable, things that people have done to get ahead. It’s no wonder why people move on from automotive.
Everyone knows the stereotypes about car sales culture. The slick talk. The jocular lifestyle. The gaudy jewelry. It’s all been discussed.
What Jane Q. Public doesn’t know about are the entities that support that car sales culture. The even slicker talk. The hedonistic, old-white-guy lifestyle. The outrageously obnoxious jewelry. What every car salesperson has to buy into. None of that gets discussed. Until now.
We know that retail automotive is extremely cutthroat. I’m not proud to admit that I had to engage in less than scrupulous behavior to make a sale. As it was said to me, “if we don’t do it, somebody else will.” It was true. Dozens of other dealerships would gladly engage in even worse practices, happily paying the difference in audit fees, while a few danced a little close to the fire and got burnt. With that beloved commission-based pay plan, taking care of one’s family looms large when it comes time to make an ethical decision. After a few instances of succumbing to pressure, I decided I wasn’t going to lie, cheat, and steal my way to success. I wanted to be a force of good. Even though I made my peace with what it would do to me financially, I’ve been told I’m too ethical to be truly successful in automotive, which leads me back to the conversations mentioned above.
As both my friends recently pointed out, they can easily adapt their products or services to, essentially, print money. They can prove any vendor right. They can make dealerships look like superstars. They can use their skills and knowhow to bend any data or analytics to tell any story. People in the industry have already made fortunes doing it, and dealerships couldn’t be happier to open their wallets. They said I could easily do it, too. Instead of seeking the truth for dealerships and vendor partners, just charge an arm and a leg to prove them right. No one would be none the wiser, because due to our acumen, no one could prove us wrong.
As countless former dealership superstars will attest, selling cars and selling other products or services are wildly different things. A car is tangible. It’s solid, takes people to and from work, protects our children, and, naturally, has resale value. Providing a vehicle has fuel and is in working order, it drives the same from Oregon to Oman, New Mexico to New Zealand. The tools that support car sales can’t do the same thing. Most only exist on a screen. It’s doesn’t have any intrinsic value when unused, despite the dreadfully expensive nature. It’s highly doubtful it would adequately function outside of North America.
For many years, these conditions remained mere ingredients, not mixing under most circumstances. Then came along a catalyst: the Influencer. The Influencer comes in many forms. The social media personality. The conference fixture. The vaporware pusher. The paid shill. The Influencer becomes the face of questionable technology, mixing it with dealerships desperate for an advantage. The Influencer leaves a smoking trail of waste, creating new and fresh takes on the recipe for disaster. All the while, the Influencer continues to get lauded and put on a pedestal.
Unlike what we know as a real social media Influencer, automotive Influencers have little-to-no experience mixing and matching dealerships to technology. A good portion have never used the products and services they are advocating for in a dealership, let alone in a capacity the tools are intended. If they have, it was for a few months, or one brand, in one market. While the Fortune 500 world leans on those who wear makeup to endorse makeup, or anglers to stand behind a certain brand of fishing line, or for a gamer to have the highest score in a massive multiplayer online game…literally anyone outside of retail automotive technology…relevant experience counts. Are we that desperate?
It turns out that we are. As the weeks of watching tools, processes, and presentations fail to deliver value, turned into months, years, and decades, the Influencer flourished. The Influencer started a string of companies, failed, and quietly rolled them together. The Influencer took over every media channel. The Influencer reinvented themselves every time a new practice emerged, or a new shiny object was minted, copying and replicating everything they could. Despite the fact that the Influencer got caught with their pants down, got sued, or got dropped by a major company, a legion was there to prop them up. Finding that competitive edge paid someone to defraud businesses. It paid for a dozen Breitling watches. It paid for a Four Seasons presidential suite to ruin a marriage. It still pays for openly misogynistic, racist, and homophobic rants. EVERY. FUCKING. DAY.
How much is too much?
Like many communities today, we need to decide which side of history we want to be on. Right now, we are actively funding the ignorant to get bigger, louder, and more sophisticated mouthpieces. If we continue to subscribe to the “if we don’t, someone else will” mentality, the movement for change will continue to be a colossal waste of time, energy, and money. I promise you that the “attaboys” and “give ’em hells” you religiously post only fuels the lust for more power. The Influencer only seeks personal wealth and power. Nothing more, nothing less.
We give these people voices. We put them on the pedestal. We tolerate their behavior. And, for what? To stay in their good graces? To ride in their wake? How does that boot taste?
A decision must be made. We can remain the vassal of those who are only there to protect their own interests. Or, we can choose to band together to strip the power of those who it has been given. Leaders are nothing without followers. Unfortunately, you may not be able to vote with your wallet. But, we all subscribe to the same feeds. Who you support does not go unnoticed. With every encouraging comment, with every picture of an embrace, with every autographed book, you let people know whose voice you are supporting. How much is too much? I’ve made my decision. You need to make yours.