Rae Selvey started working in the car business when she was 19, and immediately bucked some stereotypes. She wasn't going to be the girl who answered the phones and she wasn't going to strong-arm customers. Twenty-two years later, she is working in a new job at Edmunds.com, promoting what's been her bedrock belief from her earliest car selling days: Car buying can be -- and should be -- simple, smooth and fun.
Selvey was one of the few car-selling women back then. And while more women are in the business now, she's still often the only female in the room during the sales calls she makes at dealerships on behalf of Edmunds Direct, which is a flat-fee subscription advertising program for dealers that want to be listed on the Edmunds site in their regions. The program puts them in front of consumers who are researching the cars they sell and evaluating dealers in their area.
As Selvey talks about the program with clients, she doesn't focus too much on gender, she says. "I look at what I want to accomplish."
But she says she remembers that first job interview. "It was grueling. They kept saying, 'You'll answer phones.' This was in Texas. And I kept saying, 'I'm not going to answer phones, I'm going to sell cars.' They'd never hired a woman before. But they hired me and I didn't answer phones. Still, the everyday work environment took its toll. It wasn't easy. You had to work a little harder."
Undeterred, Selvey kept demonstrating her independent spirit. "I never wanted to sell cars the way I was trained to sell them," she says. "I worked to do it the way the customer wanted it, not the way the dealer wanted it. I was in trouble a lot with my manager, but it ended up working. I was making sales without using typical, old-school high pressure. It wasn't what a Texas (dealership) manager in the 1980s wanted, but he found that it worked for me, so he let it happen."
A move to Seattle coincided with her advancing interest in e-business and Selvey went to work for Reynolds & Reynolds. She coached general managers and dealers on e-business and its impact on customer expectations. "E-business made perfect sense to me," says Selvey. "I got it right away and I excelled in it."
AutoNation recruited her to work as an e-business district manager, overseeing Internet sales departments for 28 stores in North Texas. It was during her time with AutoNation, around 2001, that she fully realized that the Internet was going to change the car business forever.
Her experience in the development of e-business led to her next challenge: Developing an Internet store for an auto group in Portland, Oregon. Selvey was bucking up against an entrenched tradition of single-store autonomy. First, the sales were Internet-based and second, her operations were driving sales for the group, as opposed to any one store.
"I built an Internet dealership from nine stores and 12 franchises. They gave me a building, a budget and free rein,"' she says. "They put faith in me.
"We had 20 Sales Managers, two GMs and two finance managers. It was a fun unique environment and the customers felt the difference and said so. Based on Internet inquiries, we knew customers were coming to see a vehicle. We went down the street and got vehicles from the franchises for them. We always had cars in front of the store for walk-ins, too."
Selvey says teamwork was vital. "If you were in eyeshot of a customer, you helped them out. You'd give someone's customer a cup of coffee and not expect half a car deal," she says. Profit margins were where management wanted them to be equal to the traditional showroom floor profit margins, Selvey says. And "the Internet dealership outsold four of our franchise stores," she says.
Selvey says she was enthusiastic about Edmunds Direct from the moment she first heard about it. Edmunds launched the program when it saw that it was uniquely positioned to relieve the pain points at retail and improve the car-buying experience for both the customer and the dealer.
When there was an opportunity for her auto group to sign on to Edmunds Direct, "I jumped on it," Selvey says. The program includes inventory listings, exposure as a Premier dealer, Web site links, leads and trackable phone numbers for both new and used cars.
"It had a significant impact on our stores," she says. "For one, it kept the traffic on the showroom floor healthy, but it drove customers to us in all the ways that they can come to a dealership."
And the customers were better positioned for purchase discussions. "The customers had more accurate information," she says. "They were equipped with the Edmunds True Market Value price for the car they wanted to buy and the value of the car they were trading in. They referenced the program and when we became part of it, it made a difference."
Selvey says that even when sales management teams in the stores were unsure about the value of the program, she coached them to maximize it. "It is a significant force," she says. "The customer has a third party on their side. It empowers them. If I hadn't seen it for myself, I probably wouldn't have believed it."
Edmunds invited Selvey to participate in a Dealer Round Table meeting associated with the program. She provided Edmunds with feedback on the program and shared stories with other dealers about the value of Edmunds Direct. There's more to growing a customer base than just leads.
"In the meeting, one dealer said they needed more leads from the program. And I kept saying, 'Don't you get the intangible? You're the recommended dealer on the Edmunds site -- that's a significant psychological factor in addition to the walk ins, calls, website visitors, etc. you also receive.' "
At the Dealer Round Table, Selvey says she joked with Edmunds' management that since she was such a believer in Edmunds Direct, she should come to work for the company and sell the program to other dealers. And that's just what happened. In March of this year, Selvey joined the Edmunds organization.
"I was very happy where I was, but here I am," she says. "I saw how well it worked, having been in the dealerships. And having been a dealer myself, it's easy to talk to dealers about the program. It's simple for me to talk about how it makes sense. I know their priorities."
Selvey is now the Regional Director of the Northwest and Northern California for Edmunds Direct, which Edmunds has been rolling out across the nation during the course of the year.
"We list only a certain number of dealers for a specific make in a geographic region on our site," says Leah Lesch, Senior Director of Client Services for Edmunds' Dealer Partners. "Dealers who work with Edmunds, which is strictly an automotive site that has won the trust of its visitors, have a great advantage."
After 22 years in retail car-selling, going to work for Edmunds was a huge transition for Selvey, but she saw it as the culmination of her efforts to transform the transaction process -- to make the car selling process a whole lot better for the customer and the dealer.
"People work so hard to buy a car," Selvey says. "It is an extension of their personality. That's why I came to Edmunds. I saw it as an opportunity to spread the experience. I was so impressed with the way it worked in our dealerships. In whatever small way I could, I saw this as an opportunity to have a greater impact."
New York City-based writer and frequent contributor to Edmunds.com and Edmunds' AutoObserver.