Using Data to Hold Vendors Accountable: An Actionable Framework
What is Vendor Accountability? What are some of it’s goals?
Thinkbetter Marketing defines Vendor Marketing as: The Alignment, Execution, Measurement and Refinement of a set of expectations and results in a product or service provided by one of our vendor partners. Vendor accountability can be more easily achieved by following some best practices and procedures that can simplify it’s execution.
It’s goals include ensuring a shared understanding of what services we are paying for, what result we should expect, and how we will measure those results.
Why we need Vendor Accountability
Listening to a marketer who has a great success story with their product or another auto dealer that has sold 800 units in a single month can feel like listening to someone tell you what numbers they used to win the lottery. The stars aligned, allowing them to have that level of market performance.
You probably don’t have same circumstances they do: Different Market, Different Brand, Different Inventory, Different Staff, etc. etc. All valid reasons that can explain some differences in our performance.
While it’s true, some of these vendors or dealers had a unique set of circumstances that allowed them to achieve that level of success, you can still maximize your market efficiency and maximize your own results by building a repeatable system that allows you to assess information quickly, in context.
This is a living process we go through with our dealers and their vendor partners to ensure they are receiving proper credit for their marketing efforts, and how they fit in to our business goals. We call this process Vendor Accountability:
For simplicity, we usually view the process in the following steps:
(Note: This is a continually updated process that will eventually be built into free community guides, checklists and tools. Check back often or sign up to our mailing list!)
Phase 1: Gather Information
While you may be under pressure to make marketing changes quickly, it’s important that first we ensure that the we are making our decisions based on the best data possible. To begin, we want to understand exactly what we are currently paying for:
Step 1: Take Stock of what we are paying for
- Gather up the last three months of invoices (to start), and verify what we are spending. Pay close attention to individual line items on each invoice. We will generally want to group these by category, such as Traditional Media Advertising, Digital Advertising, 3rd Party Inventory Providers, etc. Protip: Ask about any advertising that may be hitting your parts statement, and how that is invoiced as well!
- Collect the last three months of marketing budgets (to start). You do have a marketing budget right? If you need a sample, click here: Marketing Budget Sample. Compare these figures to the invoices for each product. Protip: If using this template, you can easily see differences in expected cost vs actual, as well as cost by advertising category.
- Assess if there are any differences between your estimated cost (from the marketing budget), and the actual cost (from the invoices). Protip: After completing these assessments for the first three months, you can decide if you need to go back and evaluate a longer time frame, or start to evaluate each advertising source by department (New Car, Used Car, Service/Parts) on the statement.
- Gather the last three months worth of End of Month Statements. Compare total marketing spend on the marketing budget vs the number you actually paid in invoices. Protip: Start with the total spend, and once those numbers match, you can go back and match spend by department
Along the way, ensure you resolve any legitimate invoices not on the marketing budget, expected marketing expenses without invoices, discrepancies between expected costs and actual costs, and discrepancies between what hits the statement and what your invoice totals show.
We should now have a cost value associated with everything we currently spend money our marketing dollars on. We will use this information as we move forward in assessing marketing effectiveness.
Step 2: Gather all the (mostly free) marketing accounts you currently have
In this step, we will be ensuring we have access to all the common free tools we use to assess marketing effectiveness, and will make sure they are all appropriately interconnected.
As a bonus, this step can be used for a permissions audit on all your accounts to make sure no old/unused vendors still have access.
We will want to connect most of these accounts to Looker Studio (Formerly Data Studio), so ensuring we have appropriate access now is critical.
At a minimum, a US Auto Dealer should have administrator access to the following:
For each website property:
- Google Analytics (Both Universal Analytics and GA4)
- Google Search Console
- Dealer Google Ads Accounts(Even if not currently running PPC).Note: If running Service/Parts, we recommend a separate Google Ads account for each department
- Vendor Google Ads Accounts (If running Vendor PPC)
Note: As you become more familiar with the tools involved, you may wish to add other data sources such as YouTube, Facebook page public or ad data, TikTok, Call tracking, Bing Webmaster tools and more. For the latest list of connectors, check inside Looker studio’s public repository.
For each physical location you serve the public with a separate access, you will want owner access to the following:
- A Google Business Profile
- Popular Review Platforms / Review Aggregation Service logins (We will not be addressing these here, but now is the time to ensure you have them)
- A Photo library of Daytime and Nighttime photos
- An Online Media Drive of all store and brand logos, any recurring sales event media, Drone footage or other appropriate media.
Now that you have access to those accounts, take the time to evaluate who else has access to those accounts. Any vendors or names we don’t recognize or are no longer in business with? Now would be a great time to remove them.
With access to all our accounts secured, make sure to interlink them to provide maximum insight. At a minimum, we recommend the following:
Google Ads to Google Analytics, Google Search Console and Google Business Profile (For location extensions)
Google Search Console to Google Analytics (Great post from analytics mania on how here)
Additionally, Dealers should ensure Google Analytics 4 is connected to Google Ads, Search Console and Big Query for data past 14 months.
Step 3: Get Reporting Access to your CRM
The level of access and ability to report on this information will very by CRM platform, but for most platforms, it’s possible to export leads individually, with a variety of meta information about the leads.
- Ensure your account has full custom reporting and/or dashboard access
- See what current lead tracking reports are available for your CRM. At a minimum, we want to be able to look at a months data (one billing period), and see total leads, sales, by lead source.
- Create exportable reports that contain no Personally Identifiable Information (PII) that contain a date field, and lead source information. Other possible fields to include: lead status, vehicle Year, Make, Model, Trim, VIN. Pivot this data by lead origination date, and spot trends, and issues. We will use this data later for trending.
- If Possible in your CRM, upload cost data to the CRM. While the values fed back from the DMS may not be able to fully represent profitability data due to how things are structured, this will give us a way to quickly gauge outliers or problem lead sources, or significant deviations from the norm. Try and match Lead Sources to Line Items, as we want to know how much each item we pay for is performing, to eliminate in-vendor waste.
Mastering your CRM reporting can also help you sanitize your data (Find sales with the same vin marked final), see how many customers are buying the vehicle their initial lead came in on (through lead vs sold VIN comparison), and much more. Of all the areas to invest in for the CRM, a marketer who masters reporting will be well ahead of their peers.
Phase 2: Get your house in order
Vendor Accountability begins with us! While the vendor bears primary responsibility for our results, there are some things we need to take care of ourselves that will make our lives easier, and help make sure we are getting what we expect from our Dealer partners.
Step 4: Find your presence on vendor properties
Many 3rd party inventory vendors provide accounts on their own websites, as well as representations of our dealership, our inventory and other information that may impact how potential customers view us.
- Either using your own spreadsheet, or using our sample (3rd Party Listings Master), generate a list of all third party inventory listing sites you are signed up for.
- Fill out the sheet, verifying your account access, Dealer Name, Address, Phone Number, Hours, etc. Verify calls and leads hit the CRM properly. Ensure you have a properly UTM tagged HTTPS link back to your website. Protip: You can find your own dealer page easily by searching for it in google. Simply use the site: modifer , followed by your dealer name. E.g. Site: Autotrader.com “First Ford of Foundry”
- Check your inventory levels across the sites (usually located in the side bar), are any of them far off on inventory numbers? This could indicate an issue with your feed, listings or package. Note this down to get resolved with our reps in the next step.
- Find your inventory and read descriptions. Is everything correct for that vehicle? Is the proper dealership mentioned? Are all location and phone number info provided correct?
- Submit a lead for every product you use. Send a lead, call your number and verify in call tracking if used. If calls are connected to the CRM, verify that information. Verify vehicle information was sent correctly, and your CRM is parsed correctly. Verify CRM lead source grouping if applicable. Protip: Develop a naming convention that can tell you the lead source even if the lead source is unclear. For example, use New Carguruson as the First and Last Name to test a New Cargurus lead. Ensure you coordinate with who ever is answering internet leads prior to beginning.
- If other vendors such as chat integrate with this provider, also send a lead through each of these and verify it reaches your CRM.
Step 5: Automate as much as possible
There are a lot of moving pieces that are required to come together to be able to accurately measure and assess our marketing. Some of these things momentarily breaking can be catastrophic to our analytics and making business decisions based on bad or missing data. Automation also provides consistency in the way we look at our data over time. Taking steps to automate as much error checking as possible is crucial to our success.
- Automate as many web checks internally as possible. These include things like web domain renewal, SSL certificate renewal, www to non-www redirection checks, http to https redirection checks, placement of analytics tags, etc. Use a service like littlewarden starting at $35 a month, or ensure one of your vendor partners is monitoring and reporting on these things.
- Google Analytics can not only make custom reports to show things like 404 pages by lead source (How much are you paying to put customers on broken pages), but also allows for custom alerts for things like large drops in goals, events, page views or sessions, and can allow us to catch issues quickly. For more no custom alerts, check out a great article by thegood.com, HERE.
- Google Ads has custom notifications available via it’s mobile app, and can track similar changes in performance
- Automate reports from the CRM or Vendor that can show changes at the end of the month or week, have them appropriately labeled, and emailed. A quick minute check can tell us when problems are starting, and allow us to catch problems that could otherwise go undetected for months. Protip: If you added cost data to the CRM, you can easily compare Cost / Lead, Cost / Sold, and more.
- Build Automated reports to that can pivot and assess your data over time using a free tool like Google Sheets, such as CRM lead data, or mailer redemption data from vendors. By slicing data via lead source provider, Inventory condition (New/Used/Certified), Used Make, Model, Lead Type (Internet, Phone, Walk-in) or any other field we can export, we can see changes we may other wise have missed in the data.
Step 6: Build your Yardsticks
Now that we have access to all our analytics accounts, it’s important that we begin to build out our measurement capabilities. While it’s true that there can be issues in how traffic registers in our sources, and many vendors will point out there may be inaccuracies, by using the standard set of tools in how we measure across our vendors, we can get a measurement of performance even if our yard stick is only two feet long.
- Build or Update your own Google Analytics views. You will likely need at least two different views, each with it’s own set of goals aligned with either sales or service. Goals are normally as conversion focused as possible, but will differ depending on your implementation. Some common goals include:
- Chat Leads / Sales
- Lease Special Submissions
- Digital Retailing Lead Submission
- Finance App Submissions
- Trade Tool Submissions
- Web Form Submissions
- SMS Leads
- Clicks to Call
2. Depending on the marketing we are running, and how comfortable we are with Looker Studio, we can either setup a separate analytics view tailored towards softer conversions, or create filters that show the following:
- Digital Retail Tool Interactions
- Vehicle Brochure Downloads
- Payment calculator use
- Photo Gallery views
- Vehicles Saved
- Vehicle Condition Report views
- Window Sticker clicks,
- Videos viewed.
- Direction Page Views
Luckily, the upcoming Google Analytics 4 Framework will address a lot of these conversions, making tracking with compatible vendors a breeze.
3. Decide on fair ways to measure your traffic depending on it’s intent.
- For Lead Generation Traffic: Primarily look at Leads and sales in the CRM, while looking at secondary referral traffic to your website and it’s performance
- For Branding/Awareness Traffic: Look at things like Search Impressions for branded terms, Search Volume, Increases in Direct Traffic, overall increases in traffic, CTR or conversions
- For a more difficult to monitor channels, check out this excellent article by Rand Fishkin at Sparktoro Here
4. Analyze other referral traffic
- Look at the origin and destination of all your referral traffic. Are there are providers that are sending traffic that we did not find in Phase 1? If so, locate them and see if we can find our page. Protip: We have an easy 3rd Party Referral Dashboard available in Data Studio (Looker Studio) available here: Referral Traffic Dashboard
5. Discover your Direct traffic
- Check and see if you can discover your direct traffic’s origins by looking at things like landing pages with click id’s or unique landing pages.
- You can also slice your traffic by Browser, OS, etc. to look for things like privacy blocking, misconfigurations for certain technical stacks, or pages with missing or broken tags.
For More Information on discovering direct traffic sources check out this article from Ruler Analytics. Click Here
Phase 3: Develop Baselines
We have found consistently that we receive better performance from our vendors, or are able to move on from non-producing or vendors with a poor fit quickly, because we maintain monthly meetings and have clear expectations with our reps. Once we have these expectations, we can add them to our notes, or more advanced reports.
Step 7: Use your Reps Effectively
Our Vendor Reps, or Happy Funtime Accountability Partners, are our conduit into vendor communications, and how we achieve our vendor results
- Ask lots of questions, make sure we are on the same page. Fill out a basic vendor Questionnaire for each vendor and refer back to it before meetings or when making marketing decisions. Protip: You can find different questionnaires for different types of vendors here: 3rd Party Inventory Providers
- Schedule and attend monthly meetings. Use standard Monthly Meeting notes that allow us to document expectations, changes, and results.
- Discuss what Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) they find leads to success on their platform. Protip: You should measure monthly performance for their KPI’s using their baselines, as well as your own.
- Identify comparative metrics that you can use to gauge product engagement on endpoints you control like the CRM and Analytics, vs what they show, like clicks to your website or phone calls made. Protip: Quantifying the difference between the number of clicks the vendor claims they sent vs ones we can track can provide us an Click Arrived On Site (CAOS) figure. Determining and monitoring this statistic can highlight vendor configuration issues, slow landing pages, broken parameterization, or even possible bot or low quality traffic.
- Decide on what UTMs will be used by the vendor. Ensure they follow best practice on things like capitalization, hyphenation and taxonomy. For a terrific primer on UTMs, read THIS article by utm.io. Protip: Develop a dealer standard for UTMs, and record UTMs used by your vendors. This can help resolve mystery traffic down the road.
Step 8: Agree on Expected Outcomes
We have likely all been on meetings and heard those faithful words: “We aren’t focused on leads.” While there are plenty of mediums where this may be appropriate, we certainly see this used as cover for bad pay-per-click, wasteful display, or poorly converting inventory listing sites. Take the time to eliminate any confusion about what we are getting, and make sure your dollars are being spent on the segments of the funnel you need to focus most on.
- Use Human Readable Outcomes to set goals for results:
We are working to Improve: PPC Traffic to our VDPs
By performing/doing: Adding Bid Adjustments for In Market Shoppers and increasing spend by $600
From which we should see: An increase in leads and conversions from PPC traffic
Which we will measure by: Leads and Sales in our CRM, Goals and assisted conversions in Analytics, and Call Tracking reports
And we will know is successful when: We receive 40 more used cars leads expected to sell 4 vehicles at $150 a car (10% closing rate for our store)
This will ensure we have a plain language understanding with what change to expect, when to expect it, and what results we should see from the product or service provided. These outcomes should reflect OUR business goals, not just vendor expectations. If there is a significant misalignment between these two things, it may be time to find another partner more inline with your goals. These are the results we will hold the vendor accountable. Protip: If the vendor is having trouble meeting expectations on goals like cost per sold, evaluate if your expectations need to be re-evaluated, or if money should be reallocated to another, more cost appropriate medium.
2. Ensure that you have a firm understanding of not just WHAT adjustments will be made, but also WHEN they will be made. Too often we see changes agreed on in one meeting, not implemented until just before the next, making it difficult to judge effectiveness. Protip: Add annotations of changes to Google Analytics, on a calendar, or on a dedicated spreed sheet that can add context to charts in data studio! See an excellent article from Márton Kodok HERE.
3. Explain the other metrics that you have decided to look at for vendors or services of this type. A General comparison against how similar vendors in the space are performing for you in the same period, with the same inventory are often the most fair way to compare. Protip: The Vendor Meeting Form can be easily repurposed with custom metrics by adding or altering the table
4. Certain types of vendors should have different metrics they use to measure to measure their outcomes specifically. There are many fantastic ways to map outcomes for SEO in a terrific article by the SEO Sprint Here.
Step 9: Use Dashboards and Snapshot Reports to find Issues quickly
Dashboards and Snapshot Reports may not always tell the full story of everything that is happening, but can be used as a “Canary in a Coal Mine” to spot issues, major changes or shortcomings in terms of performance.
- Many default reports or dashboards can be easily modified and permanently referenced with new parameters or filters. Having a report that can already conversions by Ad group, Find all inbound Traffic that is arriving to missing or broken pages, or paid traffic that is targeted at your homepage can let you do quick spot checks and fix issues or bring vendor reps in to corrective actions quickly.
- Looker Studio (Formerly Data Studio) can allow for complex categorization of traffic, web pages, and more with more advanced functions. Many of the charts available can add baseline data, making measuring performance vs the expectations we set easily digestible at a glance. Protip: There are advanced connectors available from companies like supermetrics that support Google My Business, Multiple Ad and Call Tracking Platforms and More!
- There are many great examples by other people you can use to find issues, or you can create a custom dashboard for your own needs. Some great examples of dashboards available freely online are here:
- A Great Non-Automotive Specific All-In-One Marketing Dashboard overview with PPC, Social Media, SEO, Device Analysis, etc. HERE
- A Thinkbetter Automotive Specific Referral Analysis tool, configured primarily for Dealer Inspire sites. Protip: Got a different website vendor need to update a report? Contact Thinkbetter Marketing and see if we can customize!
- A fantastic Search Console Explorer that can help you visualize your traffic, find cannibalization, explore search opportunities and more from Hanna Rampton HERE.
- Dashboards can even be diagnostic in nature. When studying the impact of IOS 15.5 privacy control changes on analytics tracking, we used a Google Data Studio dashboard that allowed us to look at changes at scale, across many clients. You can see that (and connect your own GA to see how you were impacted) on this Dashboard. Here is a terrific dashboard that we can’t remember where it was from originally (sorry!) that helps discover issues with your universal Google Analytics accounts
Phase 4: Monitoring and Adjustments
Using the skills, processes, procedures and tools outlined in the previous phases, actively use these to monitor performance, and make adjustments based on findings. You should also add new vendors to the process, keep your records updated, and update categorization of traffic in dashboards, and spend.
- Keep up Monthly meetings with our Reps. When reps are replaced on our account, go back through the questions in your questionnaires with them, and review past monthly reports to ensure they are aware of changes on our account, our expectations, and how we monitor them. If we are adding new services, start again at Phase 1 with that product, and follow it from invoice, to crm, to expectation setting and tracking, to ensure we are maximizing our vendor relationship
- Start Small, and make adjustments on one thing at a time, on the smallest measurable unit expected to show impact. When making changes for Google Ads, for example, we have a lot of levers we can change to see results, such as:
- Adjust Ad Copy to Improve Quality Score or Conversion
- Add or Update Ad Extensions
- Add day parting, restricting ads to certain times, such as when we are open
- Increase or Decrease bids per Audience, Device or Location
By limiting the levers we change, and careful observation, we can more easily isolate the changes, and then extend those changes across other accounts, campaigns or ad groups and follow up expected results. Target one model before all of them, one campaign, or ad group. A/B Test your ads in a single ad group and see how changes directly to conversion.
3. If interviewing a new vendor, be sure to ask for references. Not sure what to ask, check out our guide: Questions to ask Vendor References.
Utilize this example workflow, or another workflow that works for your specific dealership, focusing on achieving our business goals through a focus on vendor accountability. Clear expectations, delivery of those expectations, and having a clear plan to monitor and adjust on the fly will ensure you are maximizing your vendor relationships, achieving optimal ad spend and maximizing market share.
Interested in helping evolve this framework? Got questions about Vendor Accountability? Want to join our Thinkbetter Office Hours, where we have live chats, tutorials and free business evaluations? Drop us a line, and join the Vendor Accountability movement!