Customer Service First

If you ask some dealers, the purpose of a dealership’s business development center is to manage leads and set appointments. However, that’s not quite the approach taken by Copeland Toyota in Brockton, Mass. The dealership operates on a customer service philosophy of full disclosure, and while one of the functions of its BDC is indeed setting appointments, its primary purpose is to operate as a buyer’s advocate, providing customers who call the dealership or submit a lead via the Internet with any and all information they could possibly require in order to make a buying decision.

The establishment of the business development center came about in February of 2004, as Co-Owners Jim Egan and Todd Copeland were in the process of constructing a new, larger facility to house the dealership. Information Technology Manager Jason Pappas was brought on board at that time to assist in setting up computer networking, advertising and BDC in the new facility. Pappas was not only well-versed in Web sites and computer networking, but also had experience operating a dealership BDC and received training from vendors like and Vehix in the proper Internet lead management.

Prior to February 2004, the dealership had no formal process for handling Internet leads. All leads went to a single inbox where they could be accessed by the salespeople on the floor, and according to Pappas, “whoever happened to answer them, answered them ... no one focused on them or managed them correctly.” He said the owners were aware the dealership needed to focus more on Internet sales. “Todd [Copeland] has always been forward-thinking … I think they knew that they had to get involved and they just needed to get the right people in place to make it happen.”

Thanks to his prior experience, Pappas was able to get the groundwork laid for the BDC without any outside help. Once he had a lead management process in place, the challenge was getting the salespeople to buy into the idea. At that time, many salespeople still considered working Internet leads to be a waste of time and effort, saying the customers did not show up for appointments or that little money could be made on such deals. However, a couple of salespeople were willing to give it an honest try and wound up selling an additional 20 to 40 cars per month between them as a result. “It took that to prove to the rest of the sales department Internet leads were worth the effort and the time,” said Pappas.

In September of 2004, Pappas handed the BDC reins over to Copeland’s new business development manager, Steve Hurley, who went on to develop the department into what it is today. Hurley had several years of prior experience at a larger Toyota dealership, including two years spent in charge of its BDC. During that time, he implemented several different software programs and tried out many techniques to see what worked and what didn’t, so he already had developed some of his own best practices. After taking over Copeland’s BDC, he began gradually adding personnel to get to their present complement of five BDC staff, including himself.

He said when he began shifting more lead management responsibilities from the salespeople to the BDRs, he had to confront some concerns from those salespeople. “At first glance, the assumption was they’re going to be losing opportunities to work with customers, we’re taking customers away from them,” he explained. However, he said, “At that point, I think the foundation was already laid for showing what the benefits were of having a dedicated staff to man those inquiries.”

He added, “Salespeople are very busy doing deliveries, making sure that their vehicles are cleaned, accessories are installed, so unfortunately they can’t be … waiting for the next phone call … because they are constantly running around, prepping other vehicles for delivery as well as assisting customers that walk in through the front door.” He said it did not take long for the salespeople to realize the benefits of having a staff dedicated to converting phone and Internet leads into appointments for them, rather than having to take the time to work the leads themselves.

All Internet leads and incoming sales calls are routed directly to the BDC, which handles the initial contact. As previously mentioned, Copeland Toyota takes a somewhat different approach to its leads than some other dealerships, opting to provide the customer with all the information on a vehicle right away, rather than simply trying to set an appointment. A BDR will determine the customer’s needs and wants in a vehicle and provide them with all the information needed to make a purchase decision, such as MSRP and the dealership’s best price on the vehicle, details regarding features and optional equipment, any current incentive programs, as well as any additional fees the customer would be responsible for.

An e-mail recapping those details is sent to the customer; then, the BDR will follow up with them the next day to thank the customer for the opportunity to earn their business and address any additional questions they might have. This is also done in the hopes of setting an appointment for a test drive and trade appraisal. “There is a lot of time invested with each customer,” said Hurley. BDRs follow certain word tracks, he said, but they do not take a cookie-cutter approach to customer service. E-mails follow a particular format without being template-based. Customers are handled with a personal touch and BDRs address each customer’s needs individually.

“We personalize our time with each customer,” said Pappas, who emphasized the BDC’s thoroughness in getting the customer the information they need. “If it wasn’t for the required physical aspects of selling a car, we could probably ship them the car and they’d be happy. That’s really where this industry is ultimately going,” he declared. “By no means is our BDC just getting people through the door and then the salesperson’s doing all the work. By the time these people arrive, they’re pretty much closed unless there [are] outstanding issues, but we do everything we can to sell them that car before they ever set foot in this dealership.”

When customers arrive for their appointments, they ask for the BDR with whom they’ve been dealing. BDRs greet their customers and briefly explains the dealership’s process, then introduce customers to the sales associates who will assist them from that point forward. The sales associate then conducts the test drive and trade appraisal with the goal of finalizing paperwork and completing the delivery.

“It’s nerve-wracking for [customers] to enter negotiations for a vehicle. I think that we ease their worries,” said Hurley. “Our phone and Internet associates have been arranged as a convenience for customers researching pricing and availability, and that’s really done in hopes to streamline the entire research and ownership process.” Does the up-front disclosure of so much information hinder the BDC’s chances of getting a customer in for an appointment? Couldn’t a customer simply take the information they receive and go to another dealership? According to Hurley, that “hasn’t been a concern.” He admitted it had been discussed as a potential issue, but “most customers show loyalty to us as a dealership because we did provide them that service right up front.”

He added, “We’re really buyers’ advocates, assisting them through the ownership process as opposed to trying to make a deal. Most customers’ time is valuable and they want the information they’re requesting right up front.” By providing that information, he reasoned, “I think that we earn their respect as well as the opportunity to ask for their purchase.” He pointed out, “A customer’s only a phone call or a click of a mouse away from another dealership, and the feedback we get from our customers is they appreciate the up-front information and complete details versus calling another dealership that won’t provide the details that they’re requesting.”

Pappas agreed. “Too many dealerships treat this as a game, when the customer’s just looking for information. If you want to play games and hold back information, they’ll get it anyway, and when they do get it, they’re not going to come to you [because] you didn’t give it to them. We pride ourselves on being full disclosure.”

The approach seems to work well for them. They have average closing ratios of 24 percent on phone customers and 12 to 14 percent on Internet customers. Between Internet leads and incoming sales calls, Copeland’s BDC handles 700 to 800 customers per month, which Hurley said equates to roughly 50 percent of total dealership traffic. “We’re involved with 40 percent of the sold traffic coming through the dealership,” he reported.

The BDC is also responsible for CSI follow-up, whether a visit resulted in a sale or not and will contact the customer the next day to find out if their visit met expectations and if the customer’s concerns and questions were handled properly. The BDC also participates in daily training sessions with the sales staff; they may discuss what’s going on in the industry and where the market’s going or go over feedback from both sold and unsold customers. The BDC also works with the sales staff to teach them to maximize features offered by the CRM system for keeping in touch with customers periodically, things like sending birthday e-mails or contacting customers who will soon be coming off their leases.

Some of these training sessions also touch on the actual processes used by the BDC, knowledge that will be needed by the sales staff in order to field the occasional overflow of leads from the BDC. Making certain the salespeople are well-versed on the BDC’s practices ensures all phone and Internet leads are handled consistently, even if a BDR is not handling them. “Our salespeople are very, very familiar and very aware of how our BDC operates, how the notes are placed on file to track customers, how the e-mails are formatted and laid out,” said Hurley. “If I had to pull one of the sales associates off the sales floor to help me for the day, they should be able to fit in quite well.”

The BDC is also responsible for campaigns geared toward customers in the dealership’s database, for things like vehicle incentives or the arrival of a new model. These campaigns are not limited to previously-sold customers; the dealership’s service customers are tracked in the same CRM database. “Even if a customer has not purchased a vehicle with us,” said Hurley, “if we have an e-mail address on file and they own a Camry [for example], they would then receive a professionally laid out e-mail that tells them about the new incentive programs to inquire if they may be interested in taking advantage of it.”

Even though the BDC will campaign to the dealership’s service customers for the purpose of encouraging new vehicle sales, at present it does not handle scheduling or follow-up on service appointments, nor does it work the database to cultivate additional opportunities for service business. “At the current time, that’s a work in progress for us,” said Hurley. “We weren’t staffed in the past to have a service BDC in place. Right now, that’s kind of our next step … since we do have such a huge repeat and referral customer base that has been purchasing and servicing vehicles with us for years.”

Hurley estimated that about 45 percent of the dealership’s total customer base consists of repeat customers, and Copeland’s BDC is a key resource for maintaining the dealership’s high standard of customer service and helping it stand out among the competition. “It was really our goal to raise the bar of professionalism for what a customer can expect when they call the dealership,” he said.

Vol. 6 Issue 6