#1 Cochran evolves to customer expectations, pushing others to follow suit

 

Rob Cochran doesn’t consider himself a car guy — despite being in the car business for almost 30 years. The president and CEO of #1 Cochran says it’s the process of trying to make something better that motivates him.

“My fascination with our industry and what I do has very little to do with the shiny products in our showrooms and much more to do with working as a part of a team to create a great culture and to try to evolve our industry,” he says.

Cochran focuses on creating better experiences for customers and a good place to come to work. He says he would enjoy that whether he was selling cars, shoes or something else.

As one of the top private dealer groups, #1 Cochran operates 17 showrooms and employs nearly 1,000 people.

#1 Cochran also is looked at as the automotive retail leader in Western Pennsylvania, and Cochran knows as a business leader, he needs to stay true both to who he is and the organization’s culture of innovation.

“There’s a boldness to that and because of that, we have to push things. We have to be willing to have the courage to do things that others may take a wait-and-see attitude on,” he says.

Being the first can be risky and it isn’t right for every business. But it’s right for #1 Cochran. The company identifies with pushing the market, and it wants to attract people who enjoy being progressive.

“It’s important to understand what your business represents and what you think the DNA of your business is,” Cochran says.

“Whatever it is that the business represents, both in what it sells and more so in who it is, you need to make the decisions that reinforce that,” he says. “Sometimes it’s easier to do that than other times, but when you can stay true to the course of that business and who the business is, you’ll have better long-term results.”

Transparency transformation

As a market leader, #1 Cochran embraces change. Management works hard to understand what’s happening and how to evolve.

Recently, the digital movement transformed the car-buying experience. People can read online about the right price for any type of car, which car is better and what a car should be traded in for.

When Cochran first started, inexperienced customers would bring somebody they considered experienced. The industry called it quarterbacking, because salespeople had to sell to the quarterback who would then tell the customer it was a good deal.

“Now people don’t need a quarterback; they just need their iPhones. They can get all of the information that they need,” Cochran says.

He thinks this evolution, which is pushing the industry toward transparency, will continue with more and more car buying done online.

#1 Cochran recognized the trend three or four years ago, so it took a risk and put its inventory prices online. Cochran says this was the transaction price for all 3,000 vehicles, not the manufacturer’s suggested retail price or MSRP.

Traditionally, a customer would try and figure out an appropriate discount on the MSRP, depending on the vehicle’s make, model and demand. Now, #1 Cochran uses third-party reference guides like Kelley Blue Book and Edmunds® to price everything upfront and put it on the internet.

“It’s clear, it’s easy and it’s understandable, both for the customer and equally as importantly for the salesperson,” he says. “The salesperson has a sense of confidence in why we’re pricing a vehicle a certain way.”

Others in the market have followed #1 Cochran’s decision, but Cochran says they teetered over the decision before taking the risk. The response, however, was more resounding than anticipated in terms of sales and positive feedback.

In the time since, the company has evaluated the methodology of its pricing to determine more scientific ways to update it.

“To us, it’s much like a stock market. People want to buy several ounces of gold, there’s a price today, and in a week the price is going to be maybe a little higher or a little lower,” he says. “Our products are really no different than that. There’s a price on a car and based on what happens in the demand of those products, they can get a little bit more valuable or a little less valuable.”

The key is to closely monitor and get the price as reflective of the market as it can. The data needs to support the logic.

“When somebody comes in and says, ‘Why is this this?’ We want to be able to share what the thinking is behind why that is,” Cochran says. “When it comes to buying a car, people do a lot of research — most people anyway — and being tuned in to the data helps support the credibility in the offer.”

While upfront vehicle pricing was the biggest market-leading initiative, #1 Cochran also began using iPads in the service lane and will pilot the same technology in the showrooms this year. Cochran says it’s all part of a more consultative approach to selling.

What a customer wants

Customers today want flexibility. Like any other retail, some people want full service, while others want to do more on their own. Companies need to be able to provide both.

That’s something #1 Cochran needs to continue to work on: the speed of the transaction. Some people don’t want to take three or four hours to buy a car, which actually can make salespeople more productive, Cochran says.

“That doesn’t mean everybody needs to be in a hurry. If people want to come in and take their time and spend all day, we’re happy to have them all day,” he says. “But that is something we hear from customers, is ‘How can I get in and out more quickly? I know what I want. I’ve done my research. This is what I want. I understand what the price is. Let me just get in and out.’”

With a plethora of administrative needs and paperwork that customers need to get through, Cochran says getting that more synced is a big initiative.

Knowing what your customers want is important. Cochran says #1 Cochran uses data and surveys from manufacturers and independent parties like J.D. Power. However, the company doesn’t do any surveying itself.

“One thing that we’re sensitive to is over-surveying. I think a lot of people are like, ‘Please don’t give me another survey,’” he says

Cochran says when salespeople and sales managers are focused on developing customer relationships, they can provide feedback on what’s working and what needs to be refined more.

It’s the responsibility of the organization’s leadership to stay attuned to the people in the customer-interfacing positions and what they’re hearing and learning.

Developing skills

Changed customer expectations and sales transactions also require different employee skills.

“Being candid about it, within the automotive industry, there were more people that fit a profile of a strong negotiator versus somebody that was just consumed with customer care,” Cochran says of the salesperson profile from 20 years ago.

As more factual data is available, the different viewpoints on what a vehicle is worth are getting closer. The adage, “I’m a great salesperson and I’m going to save you a bunch of money versus what anybody else can do,” isn’t as easy to deliver today.

Cochran says it’s more important for salespeople and sales managers to connect, engage and create a great experience that turns into a long-term relationship.

In fact, people coming into the business don’t really want to negotiate, he says. They want to get excited about the product they’re selling, and not go through the back and forth the process used to entail.

The employees who are more adept at today’s sales process can quickly transition into management, he says. It’s an imperfect science, however, to have consistent values across an organization with many locations.

“Last year, we had a couple very top salespeople that were producers and we ended up saying this person does not fit the culture of the organization,” Cochran says. “A lot of times (these selection decisions) cause short-term pain, but we believe that the long-term victories and the long-term success that stem from having a group of people that are collaborating around a core set of values, as consistently as we can, that leads to success for the greater good, the greater organization.”

To set its employees up to succeed, #1 Cochran’s sales training is comprehensive, with each step laid out.

“It’s very defined,” Cochran says. “It’s not just go out and try to put the guy in a headlock and get him to buy a car today. It’s very detailed. The customer does this; here are the options for what you do.

“The fact that our processes are so defined, it makes it easier for us to get people to come in, because it’s not as intimidating,” he says. “We’ve found that to be a big benefit.”

When you have comprehensive training and education, it’s also more conducive to moving people through a career path.

“As our business has further professionalized, what we’ve been focused on is the development of our people because that’s what’s going to separate us,” Cochran says.

 

Takeaways:

  • Know your business; make decisions that reinforce that identity.
  • Be ready to evolve with customer and industry trends.
  • Develop the job skills you need to succeed with customers today.

 

The Cochran File:

Name: Rob Cochran
Title: President and CEO
Company: #1 Cochran

Born: Homestead
Education: Bachelors in both industrial management and applied mathematics, concentrating on operations research and management science, from Carnegie Mellon University.

What was your first job and what did you learn from it? I worked at Churchill Valley Country Club in the golf shop. I cleaned clubs and did odds and ends at the golf course. I learned a little bit about customer handling and customer skill. There were certain people who were particular about what they wanted with their clubs.

If you could go back to your career’s start, what advice would you give yourself? You have to belief in yourself — I’ve always generally had that — but there are times as you go through your career that you might scratch your head and self-doubt creeps in. That’s natural. When you have a defined course and your course makes logical sense and it also connects with what you want to do emotionally and who you are as a person, then you just have to stay true to that. When the doubts come or in the periods of weaker performance, you have to be strong enough to look forward and through it.

Where is the industry going with autonomous vehicles? Everybody likes to talk about autonomous vehicles. There’s a buzz about them. We see Uber cars driving around with what looks like a spaceship on top on them. It’s good cocktail party conversation. It’s either, ‘I want to be one of the first ones to get one of these,’ or ‘there’s no way in the world I’m going to ever get into a car and have it drive me somewhere.’

They are coming, though. Manufacturers have different levels of technology from advanced cruise control to a car that actually drives itself. I don’t know how a rollout would occur. My suspicion is there will be some early adopters, and a lot of people saying, ‘OK, I’m going to wait and see,’ before they put their lives in control of a machine. There are a lot of barriers as far as infrastructure, liability and legality.

It’s been suggested the vehicle market would grow slightly because seniors could continue to have cars, but the changes will be subtle. I’m not sure if I went to my mom and I said, ‘Here, jump in and let the car take you to church,’ I’m not sure she’d be eager to get there.

What are you driving right now? I’m driving an Audi Rs7. The first one I had, I got a flat tire and that’s the last time I saw the car. Olli Maatta, of the Pittsburgh Penguins, bought it.