Like Pope Francis, Executives should try ordinary confessors.

Once again Pope Francis is in the news "shocking the world" by actually living the Gospel.  In today's blockbuster, Pope Francis broke from the tradition of the Holy Father having a specific, carefully chosen confessor to walking up to "an ordinary priest" in St. Peter's to make his confession.  I marvel that this should be news at all.  After all, the Church has always taught that even the Bishop of Rome himself is a sinner in need of confession.  The pontificate of Pope Francis has clearly been marked by his having adopted Saint Francis' maxim of "Spread the Gospel always, when necessary -- use words".  It makes sense, therefore, that having just exhorted the faithful on the importance of the Sacrament of Confession that he should approach the sacrament himself.  No pageantry, no lofty ceremonies -- just simply confess one's sins and experience the love of Christ through the sacrament.

So what does this have to do with digital marketing?

The Sacrament of Confession begins with an examination of one's conscience.  What have I done that has caused me to stray from the devout life?  What could I have done better?  How have I followed or not followed The Way?  While I would refer you to St. Francis DeSales, GK Chesterton, Dietrich von Hildebrand, or C.S. Lewis for the finer points of spiritual development my interest in this story is in exploring the importance of an executive examination of conscience.

I am not referring to issues of faith and morals, but the ability to take a candid, objective and curious look at one's marketing and sales processes and truthfully analyzing the results!

A quick perusal of my work history and one might speculate that either I interview like Dr. Jekyll and work like Mr. Hyde or I am particularly fond of exploring new opportunities.  A dealer principal will bring me on board because he/she wants to improve their digital marketing methods and get better results.

 I gather some baseline data and explain their current situation, and present my proposal for how to improve.  From this point we are the best of friends.

The problem begins when I conscientiously do my job.  Let me explain.

A good digital marketing program runs on good data.  It is in the collection of this data and in its analysis that often other issues or deficiencies often become apparent.  For example, increasing visitors but decreasing engagement could be a web design issue but it could also be an indicator, in the automotive sales business, that perhaps your inventory is lacking.  It could be a sign that pricing is not in line with the market, or that the inventory lacks diversity or appeal. It could be the manifestation of an existing or developing image or reputation problem. What if the closing ratio is decreasing?  Or margins are contracting?

So often we want an immediate answer.  Someone came in that didn't like a picture on the website therefore the website needs changed immediately!  A follow up on an unsold appointment revealed that the customer did not like what was said when they arrived therefore the sales staff is to blame!  Good data only becomes statistically relevant when you have collect....

What does that mean?  It means that one story or one opinion is a sample of just that: one.  Often a dealer principal or experienced manager relies far too heavily on their opinion.  With your competitors collecting and then objectively mining their data, they could be gaining valuable market insights that will give them an edge while you sit confident that since you started your own business or have managed one successfully for a while you must be right.

In just a few short years the habits of the internet customer have morphed considerably.  While the psychology of closing a deal has not changed the activity leading up to it has.  Smart phones combined with the increasing number of people who are familiar with internet searches have changed the automotive sales customers' habits significantly.  Trusting your gut is fine, so long as you first ingest enough relevant data!

As I said good data analysis will sometimes bring to the surface issues that have heretofore gone unnoticed.  Your data may be telling you that a good manager needs to reconsider his/her strategies or even improve on performance.  It could also mean that the dealer principal might be wrong.

This is the part I love: sharing data that indicates profitability might increase if we change our dealer culture or practices.  It is always received well.  I am thanked for the information and told how my ideals will be considered and that someone will get back to me. 

Typically they do get back to me, too.

Now for the record I have spent countless hours asking myself in what ways I am to blame for this pattern.  (I even read Dale Carnegie's classic How to Win Friends and Influence People.)  I have wondered if perhaps my intensity is to blame.  This is a genuine struggle, because if I am asking someone to pay me to make their organization the very best then that is precisely what I am focusing my energy on doing.  I always ask if the dealer principal or manager truly wishes to engage in a purposeful and candid conversation, or do they prefer to slowly explore ideas for improvement?  Invariably they boldly request an aggressive and candid analysis of data.  Ultimately, it seems,  I end up -- despite great results -- with no support.

When I saw Pope Francis set aside formality and simply do what he told the faithful ought to be done I had to wonder why in the hell this is so hard to do in business?  Looking at data to see trends and improve or implement processes is not about telling employees that they are bad at what they do -- it is empowering them with information to help them do better.  Are executive egos really such that they are beyond reproach even by something as benign and objective as numbers?  My inner cynic would tell you, "absolutely."

So here is my outline for a digital marketing version of an

Executive Examination of Conscience
  • Have I put tools in place to measure as many aspects of my performance as possible?
  • Do I routinely check for trends in online or on site activity?
  • Do I ask "why" not only on downward trends but on upward trends as well?
  • Do I make sure my data sample is large enough to be of relevance?
  • If there are different theories of what is causing the trends, have I tested the opposing causation theories?
  • Do I seek out the thoughts of employees or customers at all different levels and experience?
  • Can I listen to this anecdotal evidence objectively without my feelings getting hurt?
  • Am I interested in making growth decisions or is this business all about feeling important?
  • Have I made recommendations based on sound reasoning?
  • Did I thank my employees or subordinates for engaging in a candid, growth oriented dialog?

 While I still respect the right of every entrepreneur to risk his/her capital as he/she sees fit, I will forever wonder about those who seem abjectly incapable of being humbly introspective.

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