Case spotlight: Drivers of Success: Restructuring the Cars.com Field Sales Organization

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This case was featured in the March 2024 issue of Connect.

Who – the protagonist

Alysia Smith, the Director of Sales Operations for Cars.com.

What?

Cars.com was a US-based automotive classified website that connected car dealers with potential buyers.

Cars.com’s flagship service was its digital automotive marketplace search engine that empowered car buyers to make informed purchasing decisions and helped sellers to engage with a substantial portion of their target customer base.

The website, which was visited by more than 11 million car shoppers each month, included a searchable database of 2.6 million new and used car listings.

car sales mobile

Why?

Alysia needed to make several major recommendations about the sales organisation at Cars.com, and the timeline was tight ahead of the upcoming fiscal year.

Cars.com had experienced strong sales growth, and was expected to achieve revenues of $USD 418 million in the current year. The company had also strengthened its brand by advertising during the Super Bowl for the fifth consecutive year.

As a result of its impressive recent performances, ambitious growth objectives had been set for the coming year, but Alysia couldn’t shake the suspicion that the Cars.com field sales organisation was not optimised for success.

When?

Cars.com was launched in June 1998, with the portfolio growing to encompass Auto.com, DealRater.com, NewCars.com, and PickupTrucks.com.

Where?

Cars.com was headquartered in Chicago, but sold vehicles to buyers all across the country.

The Cars.com salesforce consisted of 280 full-time employees who managed a total of $22.3 million in revenues each month, or about $267 million annually (retail revenue). Most of these representatives were assigned a geographic territory and were expected to maintain and grow business within that territory.

Key quote

“Americans love cars but hate buying them.”
An article in Forbes on the growth of car buying online in the US.

What next?

Alysia had to decide between resizing or restructuring the field sales organisation.

Should she add 128 sales representatives to the direct sales organisation over a two-year period, and who would be responsible for existing and new accounts in geographic territories with the largest maximum potential? Or should she relocate the effort of current salespeople and create an inside sales team who would focus their attention on relatively lower-value existing customers, freeing up the rest of the sales representatives to spend more of their time with the higher-value accounts in their geographic territory?

AUTHOR PERSPECTIVE 

On the reasons for writing the case…

Mathew said: “Prior to writing this case, I had worked with the Cars.com sales organisation for several years as an external speaker and strategy consultant. As a result, I had a good understanding of the company and culture.

“I found it fascinating that when relying on the same data, leaders at Cars.com often disagreed about the best way to optimise the size and structure of its sales organisation because of the different assumptions they were making.

“I decided that it would be valuable to prepare a teaching case outlining the complexities and challenges inherent in making decisions about sales force size and structure.”

On the case writing highlights…

Mathew continued: “A nice feature of this case is that it was developed to be taught in varying depth depending on the goals of the course or session. It can be used for a one-hour introduction to basic concepts such as workload activity analysis or account stratification (based on current/potential value). Alternatively, it can occupy an entire class session in which students dig deeply into the case to come up with specific and justifiable recommendations for the Cars.com sales organisation.

“A major component of this case involves the review and analysis of a dataset in Excel (which accompanies the case). Thus, if a more in-depth approach is used, students will need to possess the ability to perform data manipulations and basic analyses on a spreadsheet before participating in this case.”

On teaching the case…

He added: “I’ve enjoyed teaching this case because it is quite versatile. It can be used in an undergraduate or graduate course in sales management, personal selling, promotion management, revenue management, marketing strategy, marketing management, or principles of marketing. The case perfectly complements the important question about how firms should balance the often-conflicting goals of sales effectiveness and efficiency when allocating their limited marketing resources against specific customers or targets.”

quality speed efficiency cost

On how students react to the case…

He commented: “Students seem to really like this case because it includes a large dataset with transformed and anonymised data on Cars.com’s current and prospective customer accounts.

“This unique dataset allows students to ‘roll up their sleeves’ and perform different quantitative analyses before coming up with a defensible decision. I like to give students time in class to work together in groups and come up with recommendations for Cars.com that they can present to the rest of the class. These groups tend to be extremely engaged, and there is usually a robust debate about the best path forward for the Cars.com sales organisation.”

On case writing tips…

Mathew explained: “It is important to provide sufficient background on the company and industry so that even case readers who are unfamiliar with the specific context of the case can derive value from it.

“Additionally, it is crucial to clearly lay out the different options that the company is considering and to provide guidance to students on how they might go about choosing from these options.”

Final word…

Mathew concluded: “Writing a strong teaching note is just as hard or harder than writing the case itself. However, the teaching note can make a big difference in terms of whether a case is adopted and successfully implemented by others, so it’s worth putting in the requisite time and effort.”

THE CASE 

The case

Who – the protagonist

Alysia Smith, the Director of Sales Operations for Cars.com.

What?

Cars.com was a US-based automotive classified website that connected car dealers with potential buyers.

Cars.com’s flagship service was its digital automotive marketplace search engine that empowered car buyers to make informed purchasing decisions and helped sellers to engage with a substantial portion of their target customer base.

The website, which was visited by more than 11 million car shoppers each month, included a searchable database of 2.6 million new and used car listings.

car sales mobile

Why?

Alysia needed to make several major recommendations about the sales organisation at Cars.com, and the timeline was tight ahead of the upcoming fiscal year.

Cars.com had experienced strong sales growth, and was expected to achieve revenues of $USD 418 million in the current year. The company had also strengthened its brand by advertising during the Super Bowl for the fifth consecutive year.

As a result of its impressive recent performances, ambitious growth objectives had been set for the coming year, but Alysia couldn’t shake the suspicion that the Cars.com field sales organisation was not optimised for success.

When?

Cars.com was launched in June 1998, with the portfolio growing to encompass Auto.com, DealRater.com, NewCars.com, and PickupTrucks.com.

Where?

Cars.com was headquartered in Chicago, but sold vehicles to buyers all across the country.

The Cars.com salesforce consisted of 280 full-time employees who managed a total of $22.3 million in revenues each month, or about $267 million annually (retail revenue). Most of these representatives were assigned a geographic territory and were expected to maintain and grow business within that territory.

Key quote

“Americans love cars but hate buying them.”
An article in Forbes on the growth of car buying online in the US.

What next?

Alysia had to decide between resizing or restructuring the field sales organisation.

Should she add 128 sales representatives to the direct sales organisation over a two-year period, and who would be responsible for existing and new accounts in geographic territories with the largest maximum potential? Or should she relocate the effort of current salespeople and create an inside sales team who would focus their attention on relatively lower-value existing customers, freeing up the rest of the sales representatives to spend more of their time with the higher-value accounts in their geographic territory?

AUTHOR PERSPECTIVE 

Author perspective

On the reasons for writing the case…

Mathew said: “Prior to writing this case, I had worked with the Cars.com sales organisation for several years as an external speaker and strategy consultant. As a result, I had a good understanding of the company and culture.

“I found it fascinating that when relying on the same data, leaders at Cars.com often disagreed about the best way to optimise the size and structure of its sales organisation because of the different assumptions they were making.

“I decided that it would be valuable to prepare a teaching case outlining the complexities and challenges inherent in making decisions about sales force size and structure.”

On the case writing highlights…

Mathew continued: “A nice feature of this case is that it was developed to be taught in varying depth depending on the goals of the course or session. It can be used for a one-hour introduction to basic concepts such as workload activity analysis or account stratification (based on current/potential value). Alternatively, it can occupy an entire class session in which students dig deeply into the case to come up with specific and justifiable recommendations for the Cars.com sales organisation.

“A major component of this case involves the review and analysis of a dataset in Excel (which accompanies the case). Thus, if a more in-depth approach is used, students will need to possess the ability to perform data manipulations and basic analyses on a spreadsheet before participating in this case.”

On teaching the case…

He added: “I’ve enjoyed teaching this case because it is quite versatile. It can be used in an undergraduate or graduate course in sales management, personal selling, promotion management, revenue management, marketing strategy, marketing management, or principles of marketing. The case perfectly complements the important question about how firms should balance the often-conflicting goals of sales effectiveness and efficiency when allocating their limited marketing resources against specific customers or targets.”

quality speed efficiency cost

On how students react to the case…

He commented: “Students seem to really like this case because it includes a large dataset with transformed and anonymised data on Cars.com’s current and prospective customer accounts.

“This unique dataset allows students to ‘roll up their sleeves’ and perform different quantitative analyses before coming up with a defensible decision. I like to give students time in class to work together in groups and come up with recommendations for Cars.com that they can present to the rest of the class. These groups tend to be extremely engaged, and there is usually a robust debate about the best path forward for the Cars.com sales organisation.”

On case writing tips…

Mathew explained: “It is important to provide sufficient background on the company and industry so that even case readers who are unfamiliar with the specific context of the case can derive value from it.

“Additionally, it is crucial to clearly lay out the different options that the company is considering and to provide guidance to students on how they might go about choosing from these options.”

Final word…

Mathew concluded: “Writing a strong teaching note is just as hard or harder than writing the case itself. However, the teaching note can make a big difference in terms of whether a case is adopted and successfully implemented by others, so it’s worth putting in the requisite time and effort.”

THE CASE 

The author

Mathew Issac
Thomas F. Gleed Chair of Business Administration
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