|In the late ninetys, Larry Taylor counted himself as a casual player in the realm of cyber-commerce. He’d ordered a few things online, marveling at how much more convenient it was compared to a store. It seemed only logical that his business could benefit from a virtual location on the World Wide Web.|
“I remember thinking, ‘this is going to be more and more of the process,’” recalls Taylor, vice president and general manager of Beau Townsend Ford and CEO of Townsend’s Nissan dealership.
Today, Beau Townsend Ford has a group of Web sites, and they’ve been developed into a powerful sales tool. During one month at Beau Townsend, its Web sites played a role in roughly three out of every four sales. And Beau Townsend walked away with the second place finish in the recent Internet Achievement Awards with 4,415 units sold over the Internet in 2004.
For Taylor, the payoff is the direct result of some eye-popping trends – and a lot of hard work. J.D. Power and Associates continues to indicate that most of the new car buyers do some form of research on the Internet before making their decision.
Meanwhile, local media markets like his in the Dayton, Ohio area have splintered into a multitude of entertainment channels angling for people’s time; everything from hundreds of cable channels, to CD players, computers and a host of online activities. The days when a dealership could run a campaign on a local news station and hit the bulk of its target demographics are gone. The Internet now offers one key replacement in the brave new world of auto sales.
“It’s imperative to get involved,” says Taylor. “Our business is changing. It’s a revolution, radically different, and the Internet is going to be the future.”
But Taylor’s Internet success didn’t just happen by chance.
If you want to do Internet sales right, says Taylor, you’ll need someone very special to put in charge of it. You’ll need someone who understands car sales, understands computers and understands the kind of people who like to surf their way to their next car deal. And they have to relish every minute of the round-the-clock game.
“It takes a designated person, with a short response time,” says Taylor. “Timing is everything. You have to respond within an hour or two. You have to have your designated person with a laptop, checking e-mails and responding back over at least 12 to 14 hours a day. You have to have somebody that’s really got a passion for what they’re doing and is computer literate, product literate and knows what’s available in inventory. And they need to understand leasing, residuals. It takes experience in the car business, yet with computer savvy and a passion for it.”
You’ll need somebody like Jeff Gates.
By that time, Gates had already built his own Web site for fun. And for sales experience? Gates is good. In one stellar month on the sales line, he was credited with 37 sales. Just getting into Beau Townsend required a top sales record, one he had achieved at a local Pontiac shop where he was a top sales hand averaging 27 sales a month.
FordDirect.com had already given the dealership a big leg up with a site for the dealership – beautownsendford.net, but Gates was fast developing a unique site of his own: btford.com. Beautownsendford.com would follow. And finding ways for people to find the sites, and extra ways to use them, was a big factor in driving business off of the Internet.
Gates reasoned that if people were using the Internet to gather information, the more he could offer them, the better the response. “We offer everything possible,” he says. “There’s Kelley Blue Book. There’s a free Carfax. Anything we thought could help.”
Promotional materials were adapted to include a dot-com in every ad and to let people know that the dealership never closed. Bulk e-mails were directed to old customers with special incentives to draw them back.
And when they’re ready to drop a line, Gates is ready. He’s never far from a pager or a\phone, and he checks his e-mails constantly.
“You’re really almost on call,” says Taylor. “Whoever responds back to the customer first is way more likely to get the sale.”
Gates’ experience has also helped crystallize his ideas for organizing an Internet sales program.
Once the volume of queries reaches a critical mass too big for any one person to handle, Gates suggests a rotation system to hand out leads to sales people in turn. That way, everyone on the team stands to benefit from the Web site. And when you have a sales team that consistently ranks in the top tier of the Ford system, like the group at Beau Townsend, the Internet sales manager has the inside track on closing a high volume of Web-inspired leads.
Which leads us to Gates next point: If dealers really want to be serious about the Internet, they need to have a system to carefully track every lead to see exactly how many were closed. “Right now,” says Gates, “everything is trackable. And that’s important.”
FordDirect tracks everything coming through the motor company’s Web site, and Beau Townsend averages a closing ratio of 17 percent to 18 percent on those leads. Some months, that figure has gone as high as 47 percent.
Gates uses Web Tracker to identify who comes onto their own site and how long they spend browsing. Autotrader also tracks leads. Gates had used other tracking services as well, until he found out that they were providing leads to Ford as well. He ended up paying for duplicate leads, a practice he quickly shelved, saving the dealership a couple of grand a month.
To generate more of his own leads, Gates keeps cooking up new incentives.
One example was a vacation giveaway for an all-inclusive trop to Cancun. “We put it on the Web site to capture e-mail addresses. People enter the contest then we send out once-a-month e-mail letters,” said Gates. To make sure that people don’t opt out of the monthly e-mails, Gates keeps them richly supplied with recipes and coupons for free or discounted service, like free oil changes or a special deal on a transmission flushes.
Keep in mind that these Internet customers are a unique lot. They’re well educated, says Gates, affluent, already likely to know something about what they’re looking for and expect to be treated with respect.
All in all, they’re exactly the kind of leads dealerships want most.
To get set up for Internet sales – with faxes, printers, pagers and the like – would probably cost a dealership about $5,000 up front, Gates estimates. The bulk of the Web design can be done by a skilled amateur like himself, but Gates recommends some professional help in designing some of the “bells and whistles” that beckon surfers to stay on a site.
To keep the dealership’s Internet edge sharp, Gates also spends $400 to $500 a month with the top online search engines to make sure that Beau Townsend figures in the top 10 links displayed for a particular vehicle search. That strategy has worked at home and it’s paid off with a brand new type of customer. Every month, new customers come from hundreds or even thousands of miles away to pick up that special truck deal or that special sports car they can’t find as easily or as inexpensively as at home. It’s not a lot of people, but it’s steady.
“I’ve had them come in from Hawaii,” says Gates. Texas customers that find them online sometimes call up looking for the kind of truck deal hard to find in the Lone Star state. And they come in through the Dayton Airport across the street, pick up their vehicle and drive home.
To keep them coming, Gates is also that the vehicles potential customers see online are the cars they know they want to buy.
“When you’re selling the house, you don’t have the rug torn up or the door torn off the hinges. As soon as we get the car in, it’s detailed, taken to a designated area and it doesn’t move from that spot until its shot.”
Altogether, he posts nine photos for every car. A customer gets to look over the dashboard, towing packages and a variety of angles. That way, most of their questions are already answered before they ever reach for a phone.
Online shoppers want details about mileage and vehicle histories and a way to verify the information – another reason why the dealership offers a free Carfax to customers.
“We try to have all of our ducks in a row,” says Gates. It’s an approach that has paid off handsomely.
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