Dealer Ops

Shaking It Up AT Hillside Honda Pays Off For Internet Department

My journey began in the car business in 1994 when I was hired as a detailer/lot attendant for a large automotive group in Connecticut.   By 2001 after working in the service, parts, and sales departments, I had made the transition to general sales manager and possessed a broad knowledge of what a dealership was capable of.

At that time the one area I really knew nothing about was Internet sales. Not to say that Internet customers were not important, but there was not a system put in place at our dealership to handle these customers correctly. My process was similar to what the majority of other managers at the time were doing which was print out leads, disperse them to the sales consultants and follow up periodically.  Eventually the follow-up was always discontinued.

Our dealership was missing out on a lucrative opportunity because we didn’t know enough.  Things like pay-per-click, search engine optimization, organic searches, flash media, blogging, black list and more held no meaning in our dealership. These would all be things I would eventually have to know and understand to be an effective Internet manager.

In late 2004, Josef Shuster, general manager of Hillside Honda, decided it was time to “shake things up” a bit.  He could see the potential of Internet sales; all he needed was the right people on his bus.  The first step of his agenda was to find an Internet manager with a strong sales background.  Someone customer focused, loyal, driven and most of all had the ability to work a deal from A to Z.

In December 2004, I had convinced him that my 10 years of experience combined with more than three years as a sales manager made me the candidate he was looking for.  Internet sales appeared to be challenging, and given the opportunity, I would be allocating all of my time to working with Internet customers one on one.  The drawback to the offer was the 74-mile one way commute to the dealership, which would add 20 to 25 hours each week to my schedule.  The most exciting part of the offer was I knew, if done properly, selling cars online would be a fantastic opportunity.  I accepted the offer, commute and all.

When I began at Hillside, I analyzed every aspect of the Internet department. The store already had a combined BDC and Internet department in place, but didn’t have a concrete plan to take the department to the next level.  For this department to flourish, we would need to concentrate on the following areas:

  • Staffing
  • Dealership Web site
  • Incoming lead follow-up process
  • Lead providers
  • CRM/e-mail templates
  • Tracking results


There are so many benefits to finding the right people for the right job.  When you do, it can be very rewarding for both the employer and employee. It was important for our department to have an upbeat approach to selling cars and for everyone to have broad knowledge of all Honda models.  It was also important that every member of our team be able to do what every sales consultant did, except negotiate price and deliver the vehicle.

Danielle Ginocchio made my initial search easy. Ginocchio started out as a Business Development Center (BDC) representative.  Then, she was purposely moved to the sales floor to expand her product knowledge as well as her understanding of the entire sales process.  Her heart never left the BDC but she understood how important it was to our team for her to expand her skills.  She was very successful in sales but we pulled her back to the BDC as planned.  This process made her much more confident on the phone and because of the knowledge she gained selling cars she has become the “go to girl” regarding product knowledge.

Since then, we have added three additional representatives in the BDC/Internet department. They are self-motivated, multitasking employees who arrive ready to generate as much business as possible every day. With our upcoming expansion, we will be adding an additional four representatives very soon.

 Dealership Web site

The Web site that was in place when I started was informative, easy to use and had a clean appearance, but I wanted a Web site that would have more “calls for action” to capture customer information. With the assistance of Izmocars, our Web site was revamped.  This made it easier to navigate, more visually appealing and included more calls for action. The main focus was to keep the customer stimulated to increase the amount of time spent on our Web site.

I researched a variety of sites from different automotive groups prior to designing our Web site. The main goal was to have a clean simple feel, with everything important located on the homepage. An important design element for our Web site was to avoid having excessive animation or pop-ups with music in the background.

Our management team is always brainstorming for simple ways to collect a customer’s information and increase traffic to our Web site. As a result of this activity, the “For Your Eyes Only” campaign was created. This campaign was simple and generated a major increase in the amount of leads our Web site received. It consisted of a pop-up on our homepage with the Honda logo, a blue background and an “enter” button encouraging the customer to click on it. The customers enter their information for a private sale. Our general manager went as far as pulling all newspaper ads and replacing them with one big page mirroring the campaign on our Web site. The goal was to send every customer to the Web site, thus allowing us to collect their information.

Following the success of one campaign, we decided to launch two additional campaigns. A Special Finance micro site with a domain created to attract customers that are credit challenged and a “We Buy Used Cars” campaign.   The “We Buy Used Cars’ campaign was developed to prompt customers to schedule a time to bring their vehicle to the dealership then get them excited about a new Honda. This allowed us to capture the customer’s information, purchase a quality pre-owned car for our inventory and sell the customer a new Honda. With the Web site in place and leads being generated, it was now time to implement a new incoming lead follow-up process. 


Incoming lead follow-up process

Prior to beginning work at Hillside, I visited their Web site and submitted a series of inquiries on vehicles. The goal was to track the amount of time it took for the dealership to respond. Although the responses were e-mailed to me in an acceptable time limit, it could be improved. The first problem was the Web site was set up with an automated price response. We would have more opportunity if we stopped this practice.

Now upon arrival of any lead, follow-up is conducted with each customer by phone calls or e-mails for 60 days. Pricing is never our main focus. We never assume the customer is price driven just because they are shopping online. The customer could genuinely be inquiring to ask questions about model specifications or even to arrange a time to schedule a test drive.

Every Internet customer is treated as if they were standing in the showroom, and we strive to answer every question the customer asks in a timely manner. We don’t get discouraged by lengthy e-mails asking for pricing on a laundry list of accessories or other special requests. There are plenty of other dealers who would probably not take the time to respond. We don’t want to be that dealer!

The next challenge was getting the salespeople excited about Internet customers.  If the sales staff is excited about the customer, they typically handled the sale better.  My goal was to eliminate the belief that Internet customers did not generate income to give the staff the opportunity to make money on these customers.  These customers were no different than their traditional floor customers, and they are not all price driven. 

Lead providers

Lead providers were the next topic of discussion. When deciding on lead providers I had to consider the following:

How much were we looking to spend per lead?
What is the quality of the leads we will accept?
What geographic areas were we targeting?
How many leads could be adequately handled by one representative?
It was important that the money spent on lead providers was for quality leads. We signed with Autobytel, Dealix, NY Times, CarFax, and the NY Post and witnessed a  substantial increase in the amount and quality of leads received.  Before we switched lead providers, the dealership received 300 per month.  That number now exceeds 700 per month. 

CRM & e-mail templates

The most powerful tool in the BDC/Internet department is a good CRM system. The CRM of choice for Hillside Honda is Higher Gear. This CRM tool has made responding to Internet customer leads very efficient. It allows us to print out a variety of reports used for tracking purposes, sends out e-mails and generates mass e-mail campaigns. Higher Gear provides a follow-up system which ensures customers do not get lost. The system acts as a communication center between the BDC/Internet department and the sales departments, so everyone is on the same page.

The key to a successful e-mail template is to have a subject line that makes the customer want to read the e-mail. When creating new templates, put yourself in the customer’s chair.   We keep templates as short as possible without a lot of flash media or animation. A customer’s time is limited, so if they open an e-mail and see a long paragraph or a bunch of balloons floating around they probably won’t take the time to read your message.

Tracking results

Tracking lead sources and the results of accompanying activities on a daily basis is crucial for ROI.  My daily routine consists of going through every lead that comes through our CRM and making sure they are sourced properly. Sometimes leads will be duplicates or bogus. Some of our lead providers agreements have a cap on the number of leads or dollars spent for leads, so it is important to review your leads to make sure you are getting quality leads for your money.  Each week a report is provided to the general manager which includes  the number of leads submitted by each provider, amount of units delivered per provider, amount of inquiries per model, amount of sales pending, closing percentages per provider, closing percentages for total leads and grosses per provider. At the end of the month, a report is generated consisting of lead time averages, which is from when the customer submitted the lead until the time the customer submitted a deposit. Our current average is just under 30 days.

What has all of this done for Hillside Honda? Monthly Internet sales have more than doubled from where they were just two years ago.  The department sells between 75 to 95 vehicles per month with gross profits nearing $3,000 per unit.  This is a direct result of implementing new procedures and processes that specifically focus on responding to the customer in a timely fashion, creating urgency to generate a showroom visit, treating the Internet customer just as any other customer and after the sale focusing on customer retention.

  Vol 4, Issue 2


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