In the Eye of a Special Finance Storm

Three years ago, Coral Springs Auto Mall lost dozens of valuable units – not to a robbery or economic downfall, but to a group of metal light poles. During Hurricane Wilma in 2005, violent winds caused a number of 25-foot-tall poles to snap from their foundations, toppling sideways and crushing eight or nine cars at a time, every time. “We had so many of those poles go down,” said Doug Campbell Jr., general manager of the Coral Springs Auto Mall Pre-Owned Superstore, “and so many pieces of inventory were lost. We’d never had it quite that bad except for Hurricane Andrew, back in 1992.”

Any casual observer of hurricanes will know: running a dealership in south Florida is not for the faint of heart. From spring until November each year, the weather at Coral Springs Auto Mall in Coral Springs, Fla. (just above Miami), gets a heightened sense of respect, perhaps far more than at most dealerships in other states. Still, this family-owned cluster of brands – Nissan, Buick, GMC, Pontiac, Kia, Honda and their pre-owned store – lined under five different rooftops, remains a high-volume dealer, selling 1,000 to 1,100 vehicles per month at peak season (March through August).

The Pre-Owned Superstore, which Campbell heads, sells over 200 cars per month. Sixty percent of their business is subprime, while 15 to 20 percent are cash deals. “Our whole business here is geared toward special finance,” stated Campbell.

Even their physical stance has influenced special finance sales. Ten years ago, the pre-owned ‘store’ was a used lot – about half the size of the present store – acting as a breezeway in the middle of the mall. Now that they are a bookend store (having moved to a new location), Campbell sees a significant decrease in traffic. One reason, funny enough, is that the traffic isn’t willing to walk that far. “Our property is anywhere from one-quarter to a one-half-of-a-mile long …” Campbell stated. “It definitely dissuades people … and we don’t have golf carts,” he said, near-jokingly. It probably dissuades the salespeople more, since it would mean they would be even further from their own store

Yet, he is grateful for the new dynamics it breeds with customers. “There’s definitely less traffic, but it’s more targeted at used cars now,” he said. And since traffic is more targeted, salespeople have a better chance of building rapport the first time around, as opposed to reacquainting themselves with a shopper who’s already visited the other buildings. There are no new vehicles to distract the used-car buyer. Plus, the many banners touting their inventory of certified vehicle brands give the customer confidence that they are getting quality.

Lead Collecting
Campbell’s lead collecting is very targeted. He relies on Traffic Now Inc. for a monthly 10,000-piece direct mailer. Customers respond to a number, which connects to a 24-hour call center. Traffic Now takes the customer’s name and information along with one or two phone numbers or an e-mail address, and the information is forwarded to the sales management staff.  The pre-screened calls provide the sales staff enough information to start the sales process. The offsite call center also ensures that leads are captured 24 hours per day.

The rest of the superstore’s leads are generated through a few other lead providers, mainly through a third-party site and the store’s Web site targeted for preowned vehicle shoppers. Their Web listings are packed with 28 to 30 high-resolution pictures per vehicle, and the site sees about 20,000 hits per month. The leads generate 50 to 60 online credit applications per month, most of which are special finance.

Once the leads are captured, Campbell’s special finance staff – two to three people, depending on volume – follow up the calls with a phone interview, picking up details on the customer’s credit and income situation in order to match them with a loan. They call back, usually with a loan pre-approved. “It is really at this point,” said Campbell, “that we go over the vehicles, either on the Web site or in the store.”

Remember, there is still a compression of other difficulties unique to south Florida – ones that might leave other dealers embittered. In early September 2008, for instance, the entire county was put on Hurricane Watch for 10 days. Insurance companies aren’t usually writing policies at that time. “That seems to take the customer out of the market temporarily,” he said.. What’s more, said Campbell, many finance companies have pulled out of this market area—even while continuing to do business in the rest of Florida. “It was pretty slow here those 10 days.”

In spite of the pressure to secure a loan in this climate of rough winds, Campbell refuses to filter out floor traffic for special finance, and his management team stands firmly behind that. He’s tried it the other way, where salespeople immediately flush out the customer’s credit standing and escort them to the desk, before they see a single car. “First of all, they have no reason to be [at the desk] yet,” reasoned Campbell, “so the customer really won’t go the extra mile for you.” Secondly, Campbell asserted, “Do you really have the right to ask the customer the type of questions you are asking, before they have generated interest on a car you have to offer?”

Therefore, Campbell, true to the mall moniker, gives a non-threatening greeting and lets customers window-shop. The trade-off is tough sometimes, he admitted, but once the customer is attracted to a car, they are generally more pliable, receptive and willing to share information if it will put them closer to that special car.

Speaking of inventory, whereas a new car store usually gets to focus on one manufacturer and a captive lender, the used car salesperson must be versed in all models, warranties and certification programs and familiar with a wide scope of programs from various finance companies.

The inventory demand is amazingly specific in south Florida. Among Haitians, Jamaicans, many individuals from the western Caribbean, who make up a large percentage of the population in south Florida, imports are the vehicles of choice. "It can be difficult to structure deals," said Campbell, "since imports are the priciest product in today’s market." Still, they manage to sell 50 to 60 certified Hondas and 30 to 40 certified Nissans per month, in contrast to their 15 to 20 GM certified vehicles per month. They even continue to hover in the top three among GM certified dealers in their market area, but in South Florida, the imports remain top sellers.

Campbell’s team must stretch the limits of their storewide customer relationship management (CRM) tool, by creating their own credit applications with the software and storing them online. This storage is crucial for deals that aren’t closed the same day. It’s more professional, said Campbell, to update a stored application, than to prompt the customer to fill out a new one when they are ready to buy.

After the re-contracting process, the dealership sends a five-question survey to all customers who have e-mail addresses. However, with special finance as the bulk of their business, he is hesitant to connect CSI with the sales staff pay plan. Some steps – like making a trip back to the dealership to provide proof of income, references, phone bills, etc. – are certainly challenging for some and could be perceived as an inconvenience. What if finance companies decide they want the customer in a different unit or require a higher down payment, even after sales management properly structured the deal? “I don’t want to penalize the salespeople for that,” he said.

Campbell’s team is made up of four sales managers (including him), three finance managers, a special finance funder, two wholesale managers (one who buys and sells internally, one off-site), and 20 salespeople. Twice a month, the entire auto mall holds a meeting, after which Campbell conducts his own store meetings.

Campbell prints up programs and conducts tests and quizzes based on new trends and what other dealers are doing (he creates new quizzes every month). Attendees are required to bring something to share, whether it’s information about a finance company, a new sales technique or an incident with a customer. Campbell called the meetings “continuing education classes” and said they are platforms to keep everyone abreast of new trends and seeing eye-to-eye.

The pre-owned staff regroups every morning to maintain the Web site. As vehicles are sold, sales managers remove the listings. Vehicle descriptions and prices (though updated by a third-party provider) are monitored every day. Prices are adjusted by Campbell’s own staff, based on the amount of traffic the car sees and, of course, the marketplace. “It is a team effort to get it done everyday. Thankfully, I’m surrounded by an owner and a bunch of gifted individuals working for me that make my job much easier” Campbell stated.

Special Finance Insider Vol. 2, Issue 6