Last year’s Agent Summit included a highly anticipated tag-team presentation featuring Jimmy Atkinson of AUL and Eric “Frenchy” Mélon of IAS. In “Selling to Dealers,” the executives leveraged their combined decades of experience to share advice for independent general agents seeking new ways to open dealership doors, create a value proposition for their agencies, and execute the kickoff for new clients.
The session was a hit, and with Agent Summit 2018 around the corner, Agent Entrepreneur circled back with Atkinson and Mélon to revisit the topic.
A New Kind of Agent
Our executives agreed that the agent body has, for the most part, done a commendable job of adjusting to a shifting retail landscape. Taking no prospect or relationship for granted, Atkinson says, agents have made a greater effort to research dealerships and groups online, customize their product lineups, and seek out niche products that can get them in the dealer principal or general manager’s door.
“Dealers get hit with a million people a day. You have to differentiate yourself,” says Atkinson, who serves as AUL’s COO. “Be thoughtful, be prepared, and ask questions. That seems to work for some of my best agents.”
“If you’re just a product vendor, it’s not going to fly,” says Mélon, IAS’s president of sales, who advises agents to think in terms of solving problems, such as advanced training for underperforming F&I professionals and compliance certification for front-end managers and staff.
“There are two types of agents: One type is just riding it out, while the new, up-and-coming agents are trying to find solutions they can bring to dealers,” Mélon adds.
Your Foot in the Door
Getting the all-important face-to-face meeting with the man or woman in charge remains the principal goal of dealer prospecting. Atkinson recalls a favorite story of AUL’s founder, Luis Nieves, who achieved the impossible many years ago, when he landed an appointment with legendary Southern California dealer Cal Worthington.
Known for his commercials featuring a rotating menagerie of household pets and wild animals, all named “Spot,” Worthington finally bit after Nieves sent him a giant bottle of Tylenol for the dealer and a small bottle for “Spot.”
“I don’t think the success rate for gimmicks is super high anymore,” Atkinson says. “I think the key now is to have a good plan once you get in front of the dealer.”
Mélon suggests approaching the meeting as a consultant would, creating intrigue for your agency while uncovering the dealer’s objectives and qualifying them as a client.
“I hate to tell you, but the main thing I look for is the drive and ambition of the dealer. If they are happy and content, they will have no desire to grow. After one meeting, I’ll know.”
Atkinson reminds agents that dealers will “reflexively” object to whatever they’re pitching. Persistence and follow-up are the cure for rejection, and no matter how rough the exit is, it doesn’t have to be your last. “If it’s a key dealer in your market, it’s worth pursuing the business.”
Seal the Deal
When IAS signs a new dealer, Mélon sends in his “recon” team to hit every department in one coordinated attack. The “transfer” of trust is immediate and unmistakable, and it’s more effective than meet-and-greets with small groups, which can open the door to resistance.
“If you go in to pitch, they’re going to look at you and say, ‘It’s not going to work,’” he says. “When you go in fast, you get an instant lift and they get instant results.”
“Scheduling the kickoff should be the very first thing you do after the ‘Yes.’ Get started as soon as you can and get your competitor’s stuff in the dumpster,” says Atkinson, who advises agents to hold a save-a-deal meeting with managers, register staffers for F&I school, and take turns in the box — all on Day One.
“You probably won the business because you promised the dealer a higher PRU,” Atkinson says. “You’d better roll up your sleeves and make it happen.”
Anyone who has worked in sales long enough can think back to a prospective client whom they probably could have landed if they had just asked one more time. So says Atkinson, who suggests a quick mental review of the fundamentals of selling before your next dealer call.
“You’ve got to always remember to ask for the business. Make them say ‘No.’ Overcome their objection and make them say ‘No’ again,” he says. If you can close the sale, he adds, close it. If not, set up the next appointment. “It’s basic sales. But sometimes we forget the basics.”
Mélon advises agents to look down the road, 10 years from now, and ask whether their agency will still be in business. The auto finance industry has evolved, he says, and in addition to patience and persistence, selling dealers requires a sophisticated approach.
“So you offer F&I training. That makes you special? No. You have to help dealers succeed and stay competitive,” Mélon says. “The independent agent who relies on golf trips is going to be vulnerable. Provide solutions and surround yourself with people who can deliver, or you’re going to be left behind.”