If you were a child, at some point, you found yourself at a dinner table with a plate full of food that looked less than appetizing.
As you looked at your plate, lazily pushing various items with your fork, your parents gave you a look. You know, the LOOK. After one of your parents stealthily asked you, in a whisper, why you are not eating, you responded “because I don’t like it.” With a wry grin, your parent then gently said “you will eat it. YOU DON’T HAVE TO LIKE IT.”
A new year comes, and with it many changes. Some changes will be initiated by you…a new child, a new house, or maybe a promotion. Some changes will happen regardless of your opinion…a new iOS, SEO dies, or a favorite TV show will get cancelled. Regardless of how you feel about it, changes will happen, and you don’t have to like it.
I began writing this piece before I went to the 2016 Automotive Outlook Conference, and after attending it, my feelings couldn’t be any more solid. Like the ocean slowly converting stone to sand, the changes are quietly and deliberately happening right before our eyes. Barring an alien invasion, in 20 years, the transportation industry will have as much in common with today’s business as the Wright Brothers’ Kitty Hawk has with the SpaceX Falcon 9. If you’re in the business of building, maintaining, and/or selling mainstream cars, you most certainly won’t like it.
Oh, but we just had a record year!
Sure we did. The horse and carriage once had a record year, too. Then our transportation needs started shifting. Horses need space, shelter, and regular nurturing to stay healthy (coming from a reluctant horse owner, a stiff breeze can render them lifeless). They also defecate…a lot. As people left the farms for the cities, having horses didn’t make much sense. I mean where would they put the manure?
The transition from horses to cars, of course, took a few decades to happen. For those in the countryside, it probably seemed to take forever, but it happened nevertheless. We may be going through one of those shifts right now, but it’s happening so slow, we may not even see it. The convergence of mobile computing, telecom, the Internet, machine learning, and that innate human desire to seek convenience are rendering the vehicles of yesterday obsolete. Do you think GM sunk $500M into Lyft for its cute pink mustaches? It’s a matter of months before a clever lawmaker suggests future modes of wheeled transportation are classified as something new, and thus circumvents the franchise laws protecting dealerships (in my opinion, the legislative ball started rolling on 1/14). Then shit will get real.
Let me ask, how important is that test drive when the car drives itself?
Yes, Barney, we’ll still have regular old cars on the road. Rural areas aren’t a super high priority for anyone because those populations are shrinking rapidly, so it’s likely those fine people will still have to keep refraining from drinking and driving. Plus, not every vehicle, work trucks for instance, can be automated (until our robot overlords have functioning arms and legs). Your local plutocrats will still want to show off drive their luxobarges and sports cars. However, those three types of vehicles make up a little less than half the market. The rest of the people movers will be replaced with something else, purchased, leased, or rented in a completely different way. Fewer cars, means fewer dealerships, fewer factories, fewer suppliers, and fewer sales professionals.
There is still time to embrace change. The Sacred Cow selling 30 units a month (with a process that doesn’t require using the phone) will be retired soon, or likely put out to pasture by a dead OEM. Let them be, and pay attention to you. Customer service needs to become an obsession. You must know your product, and its direct competition, better than the Internet. You need to seamlessly transition from the farmer, to the nouveau riche, to the brand enthusiast. Those who constantly chase sales will run out of people to chase. Those who are committed to leading a following of loyal customers will thrive like they never have before. It’s not too late to position yourself to own what is left.
If you’re going to work to push tin, move metal, and/or brag about your degree from the school of hard knocks, it’s time to start doing something else. Take your raw hustle, and move on to greener pastures. In a future where cars are optional, “sales” won’t likely be part of a job title. Swear at me all you want because, eventually, I’ll be a victim of it, too. We don’t have to like it.