When management at Granger Motors decided it was time to sign up for the digital revolution back in 1997, everyone proceeded to do just about everything wrong.
Probably the worst marketing sin was to have only one computer connected to the Web, and it was sitting on the general manager’s desk. The GM, though, generally had more on his mind than whether someone logged on to his Web site was querying the dealership about a car.
“You know how GMs are,” said veteran GM Tim Hommer ruefully, as he recalled the early days. “We get to it when we get to it.”
That meant the two full-time and two part-time Internet salespeople would often get around to calling or returning an e-mail several days later, long after the customer had moved on to some other dealer who was operating a Web sales operation with a greater sense of urgency.
Web department sales were few and far between and Hommer learned a valuable lesson: “If you don’t contact customers in several hours, that’s what you get.”
Fast-forward 11 years. These days, just about everyone working for Granger Motors in tiny Granger, Iowa, has almost universal access to the Web. Anyone responding to a vehicle on the Web page is ringing right into the mobile number of the Web sales manager. The manana attitude is now a piece of dealership history. From about 7 a.m. until the Web sales manager goes to sleep at night, the mobile line is open to buyers. His Blackberry never gets turned off. If he can’t pick up a lead live, he gets back to them as quickly as possible; three or four hours is now a lengthy pause between initial contact and a response.
There’s also been a careful focus on building traffic. “We have all but tripled our Web site visits,” said Hommer. A pay-per-click deal with Google gives Granger Motors top billing when someone in Iowa types in a set of key words, like “2007 Dodge Grand Caravan.”
“I have a place right at the top of the page,” he said with obvious satisfaction. “From March 1st to the 19th, we had 2,775 unique visitors and 27,000 pages viewed,” added the GM. Over the last three months, the Web sales manager has been the dealership’s top salesperson, averaging 22 or 23 sales per month in an operation that registers about 110 to 115 sales a month.
Pricing is critical to that success. Hommer is acutely aware that the average person shopping cars on the Web is looking for a vehicle among the lowest-priced three or four units in local listings. To get that price, he turns to vAuto, a service company that tracks every car up for sale on the Web. By pulling prices on competing vehicles in a 40-mile radius around the dealership, Granger can price his online specials so they fall into that sweet spot.
You don’t have to offer the rock-bottom price, said Hommer. After all, the Web doesn’t distinguish between a loaded model and a stripped-down car, and buyers will factor in that information as they’re scouring the listings. You do have to get close enough to warrant a quick review by an online group of buyers who are wasting no time in narrowing their choices.
After that point, it’s up to the dealership to respond first. It’s been a constant learning process. Granger Motors originally latched onto a local Web designer who went on to specialize in automotive dealerships, eventually selling out the business to new operators. Granger went on to try new fields and a new Web master, with disastrous results.
Said Hommer: “We did another site for three years and kind of fell off the face of the earth on the Internet stuff because they never promoted it.” When people googled Granger Motors, he said, they couldn’t even find the dealership on the first page of results.
“We found a company last year that really specialized in the marketing part of the Internet, TK Carsites, and we went with them because of their marketing,” he adds. “They do a lot to get us to the top of the page in searches.”
If you log onto Grangermotors.com today, you’ll find a lot of activity. There’s a shot of Granger Motors’ storefront and a steady parade of the Jeep/Chrysler/Dodge/Ford models that they offer. But the first image you’re hit with is a list of the pre-owned Internet specials up for sale. Any customer who wants one of those deals needs to move fast. “It’s funny,” said Hommer. “As soon as we put up cars, we sell them in a week or two. That’s been pretty good advertising.”
Beyond that, customers can use the Web site for a whole host of things. There’s a 30-second credit application, a button for service appointments, payment calculators and a way to figure out the value of your trade-in. You can even fill out an employment application if you’re looking for a job.
Granger’s Internet strategy has led the dealership to include on the Web site a lot of background information that most people will never really bother to check out. That’s not a wasted effort, though.
Online, the dealer’s mission statement – “We want to sell more Des Moines Used Cars than anyone,” is just one small, obvious part – becomes part of the Web-based content that Google is constantly scanning when assessing key words and how high up they appear on the free side of a search. The same goes for the online Site Map. No sane customer would spend a second with this content, but it factors into the unending competition that now goes on among retailers looking to climb up into the top page of search results. In the parlance of the field, it’s all a part of search engine optimization that can ultimately make a difference to the bottom line.
“We don’t expect anybody to read any of this,” said Hommer. “There’s a lot of hidden stuff that just helps.” The pay-per-click effort is new, the result of a constant marketing review Hommer makes to see what works on the Web and what doesn’t. And as the online tracking devices get better, Hommer will get an increasingly clear picture of how a dollar spent translates into a dollar earned.
“They’re adding some features to the Web site, so we can track a click all the way through,” said Hommer. “We’ll know if that click generated a lead.”
One of the online strategies that didn’t work was turning to lead generators. “We took every lead generator we could get,” said Hommer, recalling his first digital dealer conference in the late ‘90s. “What we found was that our Web site generated so much better leads than those. When we were on three or four lead generators, we would get the same source multiple times, and paying for each multiple times.”
“You don’t have to work 20 leads to find a sale,” he added. “We answer right away and you know pretty darn quick if they’re worth anything. And you don’t have to pay $30 for them.”
The Internet is probably generating even more sales for the dealershipthan the average 20 to 25 monthly sales being tracked now. Anyone checking out the dealership’s inventory online can print out a coupon and take it in for a discount. “We’re generating more sales off the Internet than they can track,” said Hommer. “A lot of people just look online and then drive out.”
Some of those people have called the Web sales manager ahead of time, but were picked up by front-line salespeople when they walked in. For those who made it on the manager’s contact sheet and later bought a car from another salesperson, Hommer hands out an added bonus for the work. That’s only fair. “[The Internet manager] probably spends 25 to 30 hours a week just answering e-mail and keeping up with contacts,” said Hommer.
The Web is a particularly important part of the marketing mix for a dealership like Granger Motors, which is located in a suburb of Des Moines. Granger is a town of 600 people with plenty of vistas of corn fields in the 10 miles you drive to get to Des Moines. If the dealership remains fast off the mark in getting back to customers, the Web can level the playing field a bit with the big dealers Hommer competes with in the city. Just a few miles away lies the biggest Ford dealership in the state; the biggest Dodge dealership in Iowa is nearby, as well.
“I think the Internet is one of the places that can balance you against the large dealers,” said Hommer, who keeps about 240 to 250 vehicles on hand. He believes the same is true for radio. “But you can never dominate in the newspaper or TV. In the paper, they charge you by the line. The more you advertise, the cheaper it is. A cost of a full-page ad for them is less than a half-page for us.”
“A lot of times we hear we’re the fastest, the only one that answered an e-mail,” said Hommer. “I think we can compete with the largest cities.”
Hommer now has the experience needed to understand what works and what doesn’t on the Web. He feels confident that shifting more dollars to online marketing will deliver more customers to the dealership more efficiently. As more and more people in his part of Iowa turn to the Web to communicate, be entertained and find their new cars, Granger Motors will keep its virtual operations fully lit up – 24/7.
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