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TrueCar.com Founder Reinvents Himself After Almost Killing His Company – Automotive Digital Marketing Professional Community
TrueCar.com Founder Scott Painter Gets A Do-Over After Almost Killing His Company
The ADM Professional Community was at the center of the storm a year ago when the retail auto industry joined together to both critique and reject the public facing TrueCar business model. Since that time, numerous changes have been made at TrueCar in multiple areas. I have previously published an article on ADM asking the industry to consider reevaluating TrueCar based on over a dozen significant changes to their business model which have each been designed to benefit car dealers and their customers.
One of the most striking of all changes at TrueCar has been the attitude, demeanor and statements made by Scott Painter relevant to the retail auto industry and car dealers. I spent over an hour of one on one time in Scott Painter’s office last July and was struck by his candor, willingness to acknowledge the mistakes and miscalculations he had made in the past.
The following article was recently published by Forbes Magazine and offers some deep insights into the changes that have occurred within TrueCar and rare insights into the changes that have been made on a more personal level by Scott Painter:
Serial entrepreneur Scott Painter, founder of TrueCar.com, has spent much of his career trying to tell auto dealers how to run their business.
Written by Joann Muller, Forbes Staff
Over the past two decades, he has founded 37 companies, many of them auto-related, and has raised over $1.25 billion from investors who share his conviction that buying a car is a painful experience in need of an overhaul.
Few would argue with that assertion. But Painter’s latest attempt to disrupt automotive retailing by sharing transaction data over the Internet stoked enmity among thousands of car dealers, who complained that TrueCar’s marketing tactics had triggered a price war that was driving them out of business. Mike Jackson, chief executive of AutoNation, the country’s largest dealer group, spoke for many when he blamed TrueCar for creating “a race to the bottom.”
Even Painter now sees that his original business model was unsustainable. “If 10 to 15 percent of cars are sold at a loss, it threatens the survival of the ecosystem,” he said. TrueCar’s business model is based on the simple premise that car pricing will find its own equilibrium in a free market that is transparent. But the system tended to favor car buyers by promoting the lowest price on the block, giving them leverage to go find an even better price. By running roughshod over the interests of its own network of car dealers, whose cooperation is critical to his success, Painter ended up nearly destroying the company he had spent seven years and $126 million building.
“It’s embarrassing,” says a chastened Painter, blaming his own “arrogance” for TrueCar’s near-collapse earlier this year, when one-third of its dealer network jumped ship, car sales plunged and it piled up $40 million in losses.
Now, after enlisting help from auto dealers, manufacturers and other industry leaders, Painter is relaunching TrueCar.com with a more conciliatory approach that he says balances the interests of dealers and consumers. A new dealer council provides ongoing advice, and new management with experience in both auto retailing and manufacturing were brought in to repair fractured relations with the industry.
In a new $8 million national advertising campaign, bricks-and-mortar car dealers are portrayed as TrueCar’s “trusted partners” while the emphasis for consumers is getting a “fair price,” not necessarily the lowest one.
The site still publishes data about recent transactions but it no longer shares what the dealer paid for the car nor does it promote the cheapest price as the benchmark for other dealers to beat. Instead, it gives both network dealers and consumers enough information to strike what it calls “a fair deal” by letting them know what others recently paid for similarly-equipped new cars in their geographic area. Dealers pay $299 for every customer lead that results in a car sale.
Other car-buying websites like Edmunds.com and kbb.com share recent pricing data with consumers, but Painter says TrueCar’s figures are better because it shows actual transactions, rather than an average of recent sales. These transactions are posted on a bell curve, displaying the percentage of sales in four price ranges: below market, great, good, and above market. Both buyers and sellers then have the parameters to agree on a fair price, which Painter says typically settles in the lowest quartile of all transactions (the left side of the bell curve) compared to the lowest 6 percent of transactions before the change.
The ad campaign, which broke this week, marks a new beginning for TrueCar.com, which began in 2007 and grew quickly, doubling revenue every year. Although TrueCar.com is the public-facing business, about 80 percent of the company’s revenue comes from managing car-buying programs behind the scenes for affiliates such as AAA, Consumer Reports, American Express and military credit union USAA.
By the end of 2011, revenues were $76 million, TrueCar.com had turned profitable and, with 5,600 dealers in its network, it was selling 30,000 vehicles a month (2 percent of U.S. sales) through its website and the websites of its affiliates.
But trouble arrived in late 2011 as some dealer groups and regulators began to question the legality of TrueCar.com’s business model, suggesting it was acting as an illegal broker. Fearful of incurring fines, some dealers started bailing out of the TrueCar network. Others were angry about TrueCar’s marketing tactics, including an ad campaign that told buyers how much they could undercut the dealer’s price if they bought their car through TrueCar’s website.
The impact was devastating: the dealer network shrunk by one-third in the first three months of 2012 and vehicles sales through its TrueCar.com network plunged 80 percent, from over 13,000 per month at the end of 2011 to just 2,000 a month in June. Revenues from its core auto-buying programs also fell by one-third. On the precipice of death, Painter obtained an emergency bridge loan from existing investors, which include Capricorn Investment Group, GRP Partners and an affiliate of Guthy-Renker.
Then he spun into disaster control mode. In January he launched a series of meetings with dealers around the country to listen to their concerns. That resulted in creation of a dealer council comprised of 20 members representing 24 states, 35 brands and 281 franchises. In February he hired Pat Watson, a 39-year veteran of the South Carolina Dealers Association to keep the dialogue going. He also hired Larry Dominique, a former Nissan executive, to be a liaison with manufacturers.
To address regulatory concerns, TrueCar also made important changes to the way dealers quote prices on its website. Instead of offering prices relative to “dealer invoice,” they now promote guaranteed savings off the manufacturer’s suggested retail price (MSRP). In a few states, TrueCar had to move to a subscription-based business model instead of the $299-fee system to satisfy regulators. TrueCar also gave dealers powerful analytic tools so they can adjust prices according to changing market conditions to ensure they remain in the competitive “sweet spot” while protecting their profit margins.
The changes are working, says Painter. Dealers are returning. Over the past eight months, TrueCar has replaced more than 1,000 of the dealers it lost earlier in the year, ending the third quarter with 5,200 dealers. Vehicle sales have rebounded too. It’s back to selling 20,000 cars per month through TrueCar.com and the auto-buying program for affiliates is on track for record sales in the fourth quarter.
Remarkably, Painter is forecasting fiscal 2012 sales will be up 15 percent over 2011, and TrueCar.com will be cash flow positive again by the end of December.
Was it all a terrible dream? Sadly, no. It really did happen. But Painter no doubt learned a hard lesson about how difficult it is to force change in the auto industry.
About the Author:
Joann Muller, Forbes Staff
I write about the global auto industry
I have seen many issues polarize dealers, and at times energize them during my 30 years in the car business. Very few issues have rallied so many people in the auto industry to cry out than the advent of TrueCar’s advertising campaign in the Fall of 2011. In fact, since the creation of the two automotive professional networks I am involved with, AutomotiveDigitalMarketing.com and DealerELITE.net, there has been no other issue that has attracted even a tenth of the visitors to these sites, or engagement in the form of comments and subsequent posts… From October 2011 through January 2012 the most popular subject matter on many online sites catering to people working in the car business was the thorough vilifying of TrueCar.
Meanwhile, the outcry from dealers reached a crescendo of volume that was enough to get many State Dealer Associations and a handful of state regulators to “investigate” TrueCar for potential violation of everything from brokering without a license, to operating out of compliance with advertising regulations.
Amazingly enough, despite all the name calling and personal bashing that executives at TrueCar received, not a single “cease and desist” letter was sent, or lawsuit was filed by TrueCar against those of us who pushed our criticism of TrueCar beyond the boundaries of civilized and professional discussion or debate. In hindsight, I am very surprised that TrueCar took such a beating without resorting to legal measures against some of the worst name callers and accusers, including yours truly!
After receiving several phone calls and speaking with Scott Painter in December 2011 I put off visiting TrueCar’s headquarters at their invitation until just a few weeks ago. My first encounter with TrueCar executives on a face to face basis was in March 2012, at the Automotive Leadership Roundtable in Miami, FL. Bernie Brenner from TrueCar’s board came over to my table and asked me if I would sit with the TrueCar team during the lunch session and discuss changes they were making to their business model. Curiosity piqued, I accepted. Looking back on that lunch, I gave the TrueCar executive team a fairly strong rebuttal… I was polite, but explained my objections to their business model as inserting an unnecessary dealer expense. Mike Timmons, Bernie Brenner and a couple other TrueCar executives were polite, rational in their explanations and determined to convince me that they had seen many of the problems with their pricing models and were making changes so that TrueCar would make sense for dealers as a means of acquiring incremental business at about half of what the NADA average cost of advertising is Per Vehicle Retailed (PVR). At the time I remained resolute in my stated opinion that TrueCar was a bad deal for car dealers. However, I will admit that maintaining that opinion in the light of new information, changes TrueCar was making and the logic around their affinity model was already starting to erode the certainty I had in my position on TrueCar… Not that I was admitting any of that at the time!
The next time I saw any TrueCar executives was at Digital Dealer 12 in Orlando last April… Bernie Brenner approached me and asked me to bring any dealers who were avid TrueCar haters to him so he could meet them and listen to their grievances. Seemed like an odd request, but he was sincere and the entire TrueCar team was looking for people with negative perceptions of their company so they could show them all the aspects of their business model that had been changed, so that with new information these dealers might reevaluate their perception of the benefits of doing business with TrueCar.
What I have since learned is that from the beginning of January through May of 2012, TrueCar experienced a large number of dealers cancelling their TrueCar agreements and dropping out of the TrueCar program. This, combined with various state legislative issues is what prompted TrueCar to make so many dramatic changes to the way they do business. They simply had to change in order to move forward. Something that more people in the car business ought to consider!
When I accepted TrueCar’s invitation to visit their headquarters in Santa Monica, CA the timing was perfect… I arrived the day before a “all hands on deck” meeting where every TrueCar employee who works out of the headquarters was traveling in to attend. During my visit and tour I was able to spend more than an hour of quality time in detailed conversation with Scott Painter. Mike Timmons arrived a couple hours after I did and took me on a tour to meet various team leaders and department heads in the two building that TrueCar operates out of. I met many people and watched a team of TrueCar employees working directly with dealers all over the country, helping them to put deals together and sell cars. The people I met were intelligent, well spoken and knew what their part of the TrueCar mission was, and how it tied into selling cars. What I found was hardly a bastion of evil, nor were there any indicators that they were trying to eliminate car dealers or harm anyone working in a dealership. Like many companies I have visited, such as Edmunds, Kelley Blue Book, Dealix, AutoUSA, Cobalt, Reynolds, ADP and others, what I found at TrueCar was over 250 people who are educated and intelligent going about their specific duties and focused on generating more car sales for their participating dealers.
So, what about all these so called “changes” that TrueCar has made since the end of 2011? Let’s take a look at ten of them, why TrueCar made the changes and their intended impact.
10 Key TrueCar Changes – January to April 2012
In late 2011, TrueCar started receiving significant feedback – much of it critical – from the automotive retailing industry including dealers, dealer associations, manufacturers and industry consultants. In the first half of 2012, TrueCar made substantial changes to address industry concerns. By no means is TrueCar finished with implementing changes and revisions, but they do feel they have taken the necessary actions to ensure TrueCar is acting as a key auto industry partner. Listed below are 10 key recent changes:
1. Changed Website Experience Nationwide and Billing Model in Certain States to Address Regulatory Compliance Concerns
What TrueCar Heard: Through trade publications, dealer association communications and social media sites, there was a lot of attention on whether TrueCar’s novel business model complied with the existing regulatory framework in certain states.
What TrueCar Did: Completely overhauled its website experience to address state-specific concerns related to advertising regulations. Among other changes, dealers no longer communicate price offers relative to invoice through the TrueCar website experience. Additionally, “bait and switch” concerns have been addressed through website features expressly clarifying that TrueCar users who use our website to explore the new car market are configuring “virtual vehicles” – not vehicles that are actually in inventory at our participating dealers. TrueCar has also implemented a subscription-based billing model in certain states. 30 of the 50 states continue with TrueCar’s pay for performance model, while 19 other states have variations designed to comply with that state’s laws. Lousiana remains a state not served by TrueCar.
2. Overhauled Display of Information on TrueCar Price Curves and Dealer Portal to Address Dealer Concerns
What TrueCar Heard: Though not our intent, TrueCar heard loud and clear from dealers that the TrueCar price curves and Dealer Portal did not provide the most contextualized, relevant, and informative display of information to assist consumers and dealers.
What TrueCar Did: TrueCar’s continued success depends on providing services that result in a better car buying experience for dealers and consumers. TrueCar changed the TrueCar price curves in January to provide more robust, comprehensive data that allows consumers to understand what constitutes a “fair” price in the current market. They also switched from providing “network-pricing” information in the Dealer Portal (which focused on the pricing of other TrueCar dealers) to providing “market-based” pricing information driven by recent transactions in the dealer’s local market area (not just transactions by TrueCar dealers).
3. Reduced DMS Data Received From Dealers
What We Heard: A small number of industry consultants used social media sites to spread misinformation that participating dealers’ sales matching data is used to create the TrueCar price curves and/or that TrueCar actively markets to customers found in the dealers’ DMS. To be clear, these are both myths.
What TrueCar Did: TrueCar only requires dealers to provide customer contact information (name, address, phone, email for buyer and co-buyer) and basic vehicle information (VIN, make/model/trim, year, new/used, stock number, sale date) in order to perform the sales matching, billing (in states with performance-based billing models), dealer scoring and analytics and reporting aspects of their business. TrueCar does not directly access dealer DMS systems and we never have. All data extraction and compilation is handled by respected third-party vendors, Digital Motorworks (DMi) and Netlink. All dealers also have the option to “push” their sales matching data via FTP to TrueCar’s third-party vendors; the data received by TrueCar is the same whether the dealer chooses automated or manual sales data reporting. To address concerns that TrueCar was receiving extraneous data from its third-party vendors, TrueCar worked with both Digital Motorworks and Netlink in February to remove all unused fields from the data feeds sent to TrueCar, reducing the fields to just those listed above.
4. Rolled Out More “Dealer-Friendly” Dealer Agreement, Including Indemnification
What TrueCar Heard: Some dealers told TrueCar that the dealer agreement needed to be more fair.
What TrueCar Did: In February, they rolled out a new dealer agreement, the key aspects of which include: (i) dealers can cancel at any time for any or no reason; (ii) more clarity and control on how dealers provide sales reporting data to TrueCar; (iii) confirmation that the dealers’ sales reporting data is NOT used to create TrueCar price curves; and (iv) confirmation that dealers’ sales reporting data is NOT used to send marketing-related communications to customers. In April, we added a limited indemnification provision to the new dealer agreement. The decision to indemnify dealers is another manifestation of TrueCar’s commitment to their dealer partners and underscores that they are fully invested in standing behind the valuable services that TrueCar provides.
5. Launched TrueCar National Dealer Council
What TrueCar Heard: Many dealers, dealer associations and manufacturers expressed concern that TrueCar was making major product, process and policy changes without incorporating feedback from dealers.
What TrueCar Did: In April, 2012 TrueCar launched a National Dealer Council with 20 Members representing 24 states, 35 unique makes and 281 franchises. The purpose of the Council is to ensure TrueCar is actively listening to dealers, and the Council is chaired by Gary Marcotte (former SVP Marketing & Strategy at AutoNation). The inaugural full-day Council meeting in April was excellent, with great feedback from the Council Members. Going forward, the Council will meet periodically with TrueCar senior executives to provide guidance on how TrueCar can improve the services it provides to dealers.
6. Initiated Dealer Associations Outreach
What TrueCar Learned: TrueCar had not historically communicated with state and large metro dealer associations and paid a price for not directly engaging this important constituency.
What TrueCar Did: In March, TrueCar hired Pat Watson, VP of Industry Relations, to directly communicate and work collaboratively with dealer associations on how to help our mutual partners – dealers. Pat is the former CEO of the South Carolina Automobile Dealers Association, where he worked for 38 years.
7. Started Participating In Key Industry Conferences
What TrueCar Learned: Prior to 2012, TrueCar did not have an active presence at key industry conferences, which was perceived by some as an indication that TrueCar did not care to engage directly with the industry.
What TrueCar Did: In 2012, TrueCar has sponsored and actively participated at key industry conferences, including Automotive Leadership Roundtable in March and Digital Dealer 12 in April, and the upcoming AutoCon 2012 in September. TrueCar will continue to have an active presence at future conferences, including Digital Dealer 13, Driving Sales, J.D. Power Automotive Internet Roundtable, various 20 Groups, trade associations and dealer group events.
8. Improved TrueCar’s Social Media Response and Presence
What TrueCar Learned: Social media can be a powerful medium for individuals in the automotive retail industry to share opinions and shape stories.
What TrueCar Did: Mike Timmons, EVP of TrueCar and an auto retailing veteran (VP Operations AutoNation; independent auto dealer; new car sales and management) has taken ownership of monitoring and responding as appropriate to social media related to TrueCar and industry-related issues. Additionally, Mike has directly reached out to key TrueCar detractors to understand and address their concerns, as well as to correct any misinformation, and he will continue to do so. In the future, TrueCar will be taking a more proactive approach to leverage social media to showcase our product and company changes.
9. Increased Communication With Manufacturers
Before: Previously, TrueCar’s communication with manufacturers was sporadic and reactionary, sometimes leading to significant misconceptions.
What TrueCar Did: In the past four months, Larry Dominique, EVP Data Solutions, with over 27 years of OEM experience (former VP Advanced and Product Planning and Strategy, Nissan, plus stints at GM and Chrysler), has met with key decision makers from 20 manufacturers to listen to their concerns and inform them as to what TrueCar is all about. Going forward, TrueCar will continue to directly engage with manufacturers to discuss ways that TrueCar can improve the services it provides to dealers.
10. Added More Dealer Support
What TrueCar Heard: Dealers have told us they want more face time and support from TrueCar dealer-facing personnel.
What TrueCar Did: In the first four months of 2012, they added 13 new employees to the TrueCar Dealer Development Team, including Ken Potter (VP Dealer Development; former VP & GM of Internet Brands / CarsDirect; former GM of two dealerships), Amir Rizkalla (Director Account Management; formerly of Fisker Automotive and Toyota), two Area Sales Managers and four Account Managers. TrueCar is currently looking to hire 9 additional dealer-facing employees in the next 60 days, including six more Area Sales Managers (Philadelphia, Charlotte, Atlanta, Seattle, Des Moines, and St. Louis) as well as two more Account Managers, to ensure that we continue to provide dealers with the support they want and need.
After traveling to TrueCar headquarters on a Monday in July and then visiting Southern California dealers, I returned home to Phoenix on Tuesday evening. Later that week I had an appointment with the owners and management team at Courtesy Chevrolet in Phoenix. This is the same Courtesy Chevrolet that I worked at from 2005 to 2007, and I have a close bond with the leadership team there… During my visit, which was to convince them to attend AutoCon 2012, I mentioned visiting TrueCar headquarters earlier in the week. The response I received from the owner and several managers was “we really like the TrueCar program, they have gotten a lot better about invoicing us and the business we get from them seems to be purely incremental… deals we would not otherwise have made.” These statements and the discussions I had with the team at Courtesy, as well as all the information I had witnessed firsthand during my meetings at TrueCar, and from the conversations I had with at least a dozen TrueCar employees lead me to a conclusion I feel very certain about. It would be foolish for any dealer to ignore the changes that TrueCar has made and not reevaluate whether to do business with TrueCar based on the new information available and the changes TrueCar has made to the way they do business.
Researched and written by Ralph Paglia
Be sure to take advantage of the “2 For One” AutoCon 2012 registration promotion that is good from now through Tuesday… This is the best buy on the best automotive conference for dealers in 2012! Go to http://bit.ly/2Ftues
Jim Ziegler Guidance: Ten Areas We Need to Concentrate on to Bring This Monster to It’s Knees…
1. Government investigation of ALL Data Aggregators taking consumer information from dealers’ DMS. Sadly enough, dealers who do business with TrueCar are exposed to liability charges. Cut off all access to unecessary data, no matter who takes it from the dealers DMS and make it illegal to “resell identifiable consumer data” and “transactional data”.
2. If anyone takes financial transactional data, they expose the dealer that allowed it to violations, especially if it is passed on to other vendors or shared.
3. Educate Consumers to what they’re doing with their information…
a. You buy a car from a dealer, do you really want your personal information, and maybe
even your financial information, passed along and sold and shared by “God knows who?”
b. These People Charge the Dealer $300 which the dealers have to build into the deal
c. Your Privacy and the Security of your Information could theoretically compromise your identity if you do business a company that takes data from the dealership.
4. Educate Investors and potential investors they could possibly be mislead if anyone is telling them this is a safe investment because of all of the dealers pushing back, associations pushing back, and government regulators in many states coming after TrueCar’s business model as NOT compliant, in some cases they’re saying it is Not Legal.
5. AMEX, USAA and all of their affiliates do not want the bad consumer relations this push back is creating with their members and customers.
6. Cancel your dealership’s Affilation with TrueCar. Tell people with certificates YOU don’t honor TrueCar and you feel the company is NOT reputable. Educate consumers as to perceived data exposure if they buy from a TrueCar dealer.
7. Make the dealers selling at huge losses take all of those deals. Big problem right now is too many Nissan Dealers and others are taking huge losers to get the factory money. The TrueCar reverse-auction business model will continually push those numbers down until the factory money is non-existent. Consumers need to hear from many dealers, “We don’t do TrueCar”
8. Keep calling your National and State Dealer Associations demanding they get involved and stay involved… No excuses.
9. Get the Manufacturers into the game. If GM, Ford, Toyota, and other majors change the rules about how we advertise and do business to protect the dealers, we can cut off their ability to set pricing. So keep it up at every dealer meeting. Call your Dealer Council Members and protest to your factory reps.
Tell the manufacturers, if they want showroom and facility improvements, we need the ability to make fair profits.
10. Tell everyone you know. Educate other dealers and industry people. Watch the Painter interviews…I believe this the first time a vendor has publicly announced they intend to bring down the dealers and hijack our business, taking our profits and starving us out with our own data. Painter has said manufacturers and dealers should bankrupt and he, in his God-like way” will control distribution.
When their Yahoo Deal kicks in we need to stand firm and “Just Say No” we don’t honor TrueCar deals.