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Forming a More Pefect Union: A Village Dealership Unites all Fronts to Catapult Internet Sales

Jerry Bell is a modern-day pioneer of Henry Ford’s mantra: “It is not size, but the possibility of relating all activities to a single point of control that matters.” He is a graduate of the school of Training-by-the-Seat-of-your-Pants and has 25 years of accumulated wisdom in car sales, 11 of them spent foraging through online sales. In his free time, he recharges with biographies of momentous figures who followed their convictions, from Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Edison to NCAA Hall of Fame Coach Bob Knight.

No surprise, then, that hearing him talk about Fowlerville Ford is like piecing together the progress of an army under a new general. Whereas the little dealership in the Village of Fowlerville, Mich., was in the bottom 100 in e-close rate last summer, in six months’ time they catapulted to No. Four amongst the Top Ten E-Business Close Rate Dealers in the Ford Detroit  Region for 2007, elbowing out several goliath stores in a state where Ford dealerships abound.

Imagine a cinder-block building in a cornfield, next to a freeway, on the edge of a rural village with an approximate population of 2,650. Until recently, the nearest grocery store was one hour away. Nine people walk the sales floor: besides Bell, there are seven salespersons plus the dealer, Ken Hagar, formerly a used car manager at a large metro Detroit dealership. They sport a customer base that could easily be swallowed two or three times over by a larger store.

The entire lot is a not-too-modest 17,000 square feet with 115 new and 120 used cars and trucks. To be fair, it is centrally planted, equidistant from four major cities: Lansing, Flint, Ann Arbor and Detroit. But unless the person zooming down the highway at 70 miles per hour is nimble enough to take the off ramp while deciding which car to buy, few people arrive without having done some research beforehand.

Joining the Fowlerville team was a perfect marriage of benefits and—dare we say—challenges. First, the perks: Since signing on as Internet sales manager last summer, Bell is now one mile from home and increasingly active in his community (he is president nominee of the Fowlerville Rotary and a member of the village planning commission and the Fowlerville business association). He also works in a store that is friendly, detail-oriented and in close communication with its owner.

Now, the challenges: In Bell’s words, “There was a generic Web site … the follow-ups were inconsistent … and telephone numbers were going everywhere.” The store was stocking up on lead providers and telephone numbers (one for each auction site—Bell counted at least 15 numbers), yet no one was tracking progress or shedding the less useful devices. “It was kind of a mess,” he summarized. Fortunately, the untidy muddle was “…a chance to have a more hands-on approach, and to try some things I’ve always wanted to do,” said Bell.

Before the Web site or even the sales process could be modified, Bell, at Hagar’s urging, decided to clean house. His first instinct was to gather all the third-party leads and the handfuls of phone numbers, and unify all contact information. “Now,” he said, “everything comes to one e-mail address, and just two telephone numbers: one for print media, and one for Internet media.” The Internet number rings directly to Bell’s BlackBerry® device, which stays on his hip seven days a week. The second sales number—and all other calls—are forwarded to the store switchboard operator.

Streamlining cleared the way for tracking. Bell wanted to know which sources were giving them the most leads, who had the most quality, and which ones closed most often. Prior to this, the salespeople were expected to ask each customer what their lead source was. That’s not a bad thing, but it’s not an efficient measurement either. They now use TeleTracker to log and record calls to their toll-free numbers, which were already in place but not fully utilized until Bell’s arrival. The data helps the sales team to critique their responses and track successful lead sources, with the occasional tweaking every quarter or so. “When we do make changes, if at all,” said Bell, “it is to add another dimension of the dealership to track, such as retail parts penetration.”

Some things Bell didn’t touch: He didn’t sever the store’s ties with online auction sites like and (the latter of which is their most active lead source). remains a mainstay for new car leads. He was perfectly happy with printing the store’s listings in the Livingston Press & Argus, while posting the same cars online at no charge (“a good value”). Since then Bell has added manual listing sites such as and to the mix.

One element he did want to change was the nondescript Web site. Hagar and Bell spoke with several Web companies at length and decided on Dealerskins. Remodeling began in October 2007. By December, the new site was off the ground. The top frame contains the toll-free number and Bell’s cell phone number. It is perhaps the only site that combines the standard accoutrements of other major dealer sites (inventory, research, financing and service) with a backdrop picturing the store in a field of corn.

Behind the curtain, Fowlerville keeps the inventory unified with Dealer Specialties, which collects photo and inventory data and distributes it to the aforementioned third-party sites. The store internalizes its data with Dealerskins’ tracking software and SalesPoint, FordDirect’s dealer lead-management system.

This simple squad of tracking tools, combined with TeleTracker, significantly narrows the river of their advertising dollars down to a simple trough in which Fowlerville can proceed to pan for gold. And while they still keep a strong influence in the local paper, tracking the data has led them to devote 60 percent of their budget to an online presence “because that’s where most people go to find a car.”

The only Web source that Bell uses sparingly is eBay Motors which, to a small dealer, is “expensive compared to the return.” Bell’s strategy is to list a select few models (late-model 4-by-4 pickups, four-wheel drives, Mustang GTs, etc.) that will attract enough interest to justify the cost.

Fowlerville is also experimenting with 15-second local radio spots, strictly to hammer out their location and Web address. “We do not use a telephone number in the ad,” Bell said. “We want all of our customers—local especially—to be driven to our Web site.”

Truth is, Fowlerville can balance itself comfortably on the head of the Henry Ford quote: “…relating all activities to a single point of control.” The reason is their lead base. Unlike larger stores, Fowlerville pulls in 20 to 30 new and 140 to 160 used Internet leads per month, and they can’t afford to let them slip through the cracks. Every lead must be treated like gold, panned and protected before it’s stolen.

Not that they don’t have qualified team members. Tina Socha, one of seven on the sales team, ranked 70th in the nation in Ford sales for 2007. Yet even with a healthy staff, the leads needed a center of gravity. By designating one person (Bell) to answer all Internet leads, via phone and e-mail, the leads receive the proper, prompt attention they need. Follow-up time stabilized, and customers now enjoy an unusual degree of attention.

Bell laid out a very simple game plan:

  • Make contact ASAP, ideally within the hour, by phone.
  • Find out what they want. (And make sure you know your product.)
  • Get them in the door. “You can close 7 to 8 percent of customers online,” said Bell, “but you can close 50 to 70 percent of customers who walk into your showroom for an appointment.”

The formula keeps Bell’s closing ratio at 14 to 15 percent. Reviewing the steps in slow-motion, we see that customer service fastens it all together. As the one-man BDC and Internet department, Bell strives to relax the conversation and unearth the customer’s true motives. Bell’s knowledge of the store allows him to quickly match a lead with the right car. Without the clever questions or scripted talk, Bell relies on time to discover if the customer wants a certain model, interest rate or payment. He digs further: Has a new baby arrived? Are they concerned about gas prices? “In an age of speed, never say, ‘I’ll call you back,’” he warned. Instead, “if you give customers your time, you can get them to talk all day.” 

By the time the customer arrives for the appointment, he or she has probably talked at length with Bell. If Bell is busy, he will introduce himself, then handpick a salesperson for the customer. More often than not, the customer ends up traveling with Bell. “This past Saturday, I had eight appointments and talked with every one of them,” he said. “Big stores don’t have that kind of time.”

Vol 5, Issue 5


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