Standing Out in the Online Crowd

Nearly every dealership these days seems to have some kind of online presence, although to varying degrees. Some have just a Web site, while others have a Web site and listings on sites like or An increasing number of stores have not only the basics, but also a presence on social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter and MySpace, among others. So, how does a dealership go about distinguishing itself not just in its geographical market area, but in the online market as well? In the case of Acton Toyota in Littleton, Mass., about 30 miles west of Boston, all that’s needed is some excellent customer service and a little initiative.

In a little over a decade, Acton Toyota’s Internet division has gone from a tiny startup to a major operation, handling not only Internet sales but also the dealership’s online marketing. The department got off the ground in 1998 after General Manager Mike Hills read an article about Autobytel and decided Acton Toyota needed to get in on the online action.

Internet sales started as a small department within the dealership; however, space eventually became an issue in the small store, especially after the dealership took on its Scion franchise, and the Internet department ended up moving into a vacant store in a nearby strip mall. Operating away from the main body of the dealership led to a more autonomous department and likely helped the present Internet division,, develop into what it is today.

“For the longest time, it was a pure Internet department,” said e-Commerce Manager Justin Brun, explaining that the Internet sales department at their strip mall location was essentially a standalone store, complete with its own F&I person. There was no BDC; the department’s salespeople handled all Internet leads from the initial contact through the sale. In phone calls and e-mails, customers were asked to go directly to the Internet department’s building rather than the main dealership. “There was no need for them to go to the showroom; they could do everything they needed to do through our department in that strip mall. We delivered cars right from there,” said Brun.
With the dealership’s move a few miles down the road in late 2008 to a new and much larger facility, things changed only slightly. The Internet division moved to the second floor of the store, above the showroom, and no longer had a separate F&I person. The process for handling leads and sales remained essentially the same.

“Our consultants take the sale from A to Z, cradle to grave,” said Ben Koller, one of Acton’s two Internet sales managers. “[That consultant is] the individual who meets with the customer, demos the vehicle, answers questions, looks at inventory—does what you would do throughout the sales process.”

In addition to Brun, Koller and a second sales manager, the Internet division includes a dedicated sales force of 10. They are directly responsible for 33 to 35 percent of total dealership sales and average anywhere between 115 and 140 units each month.

Solid lead management and follow-up processes enable them to close about 13 percent of their third-party leads and 30 percent of what Brun referred to as their “homegrown” leads—those generated through the dealership’s Web site. According to Brun, their Cobalt Prospector system is essential for keeping things on track. “The heart of everything is the CRM,” he said. “If we didn’t have a CRM, forget about it.”

When an Internet lead comes into the CRM system, Brun or one of the Internet sales managers assigns it to a salesperson as quickly as possible, usually in less than 10 minutes. On inquiries for new cars, Brun or a sales manager immediately sends out a price quote on behalf of the salesperson the lead is assigned to. Customers inquiring about a used vehicle receive an e-mail with photos of that vehicle. The designated salesperson attempts to contact the customer by phone that same day and then, with the help of prompts from the CRM system, follows a set action plan that includes both phone calls and e-mails over the next 90 days.

Strong lead management and follow-up are good, but there are a few other factors contributing both directly and indirectly to the Internet division’s strong numbers. The people of have become quite adept at finding ways to use technology to put a 21st-century twist on traditional word-of-mouth marketing.

Several years ago, the previous director of marketing and e-commerce at Acton, Matt Lamoureux, had the idea to proactively and aggressively solicit customer reviews to promote the dealership online. He sent out an e-mail broadcast to the dealership’s sold customers and asked them to go to the customer review site and rate their experience with Acton Toyota.

Brun said that at the time, General Manager Mike Hills thought it was a pretty bold move. After all, in such a scenario, said Brun, “who knows what can happen? But we’ve always treated our customers well and pride ourselves on customer service.” Indeed, the idea paid off; Acton quickly garnered a huge number of positive reviews from satisfied customers. The practice has worked so well, in fact, that Acton Toyota has been named’s Dealer of the Year three years in a row—2007, 2008 and 2009.

Dealership personnel actively encourage customers to post reviews of their experiences on A link to the review site is incorporated in all e-mail correspondence to customers, and provides the dealership with reminder cards to hand out to showroom visitors. Potential customers are encouraged to check out Acton’s reviews on; the dealership also posts reviews on the home page in the form of a scrolling display of testimonials.

A different kind of customer testimonial is also being incorporated into Acton’s online marketing—video. Acton has gathered numerous video clips of satisfied customers discussing their sales and service experiences with Acton. They’ve incorporated these testimonials into several professional-looking videos showcasing the service department and the online shopping experience and buying process at Acton.

They’re also utilizing video in other ways. In addition to conducting video walk-arounds of vehicles that can be posted on the dealership’s Web site and YouTube, the Internet division has adopted the less-commonplace practice of utilizing video in its e-mail auto-responders. Customers will receive an initial price quote on a new vehicle or photos on a particular used vehicle, as well as a 30-second video thanking them for the opportunity to earn their business.

With the help of a company called CoVideo, a salesperson is able to drop a video into an e-mail template containing a frame that can be customized with the dealership name and various hyperlinks. “It’s branding our dealership and our department,” said Brun. Many of the salespeople have Webcams on their computers and can put together a video right from their desk, introducing themselves and using that customer’s name to personally thank them for their inquiry on a particular vehicle. Brun said the personalized videos have gotten a very good response.

According to Koller, many of the salespeople are starting to see the value of using video as part of the actual sales process. “We’re starting to use video quite a bit more within the e-mails that we send out to our Internet customers as a selling tool,” he stated, adding that several salespeople are starting to experiment with doing personalized video walk-arounds of the vehicles their customers are interested in.

Brun said he realized utilizing video was not a new concept in dealerships, but explained that they did not want to implement the strategy until they were certain they could do it well. “We kind of know what people are saying is hot,” he said, “but it’s all about execution with us, so if we’re not ready to implement something, we don’t want to launch and abandon it.”

Koller agreed. “I think we’re kind of focused on things that we’re active users of,” he said, “so we can really implement them and implement them well.” By that token, Acton recently launched its own social networking site through Ning. The site has been up and running since the beginning of the year, but only recently has the Internet division started making customers aware of it. The site has primarily been Koller’s responsibility. “My idea was to kind of really get the site built up, have a majority of our own employees on the site, have good content and then release a robust product to our clients,” he explained.

The Ning site features some of the videos the Internet division has produced, postings about new vehicles, vehicle reviews and news about happenings at the dealership and notable achievements. There are also a number of groups created by the dealership staff that customers will be able to join, like “Acton Toyota Truck Team” and “I Love Hybrids.” Koller said they will publicize the Ning site to their customers in the dealership’s bi-monthly e-newsletter.

Brun seemed to express a certain amount of pride in Acton’s e-newsletter. “We don’t have the cookie-cutter articles that are in most newsletters … the majority of the stuff is written here in-house and it’s thoughtful,” he said. Much of the newsletter content is generated by Koller and ranges from articles about “cash for clunkers” or the dealership’s recent community event on child-seat safety to a piece on the new body shop or a customer spotlight piece interviewing a recent service customer.

Such content seems to be the key to getting customers’ attention.  “The articles that we write in-house are the only ones that seem to get read,” said Brun. He and Koller also stay busy maintaining several blogs on Search-optimized titles like “New England Hybrid” and “Toyota Certified Boston” give the dealership a few more ways to pop up on Internet searches and lead Web surfers to “That’s really been helpful as well for us,” said Koller.

One of the Internet division’s more unique ventures that’s adding a little extra cash to the bottom line is a completely separate Web site ( through which customers can obtain Toyota Extra Care Vehicle Service Agreements. The site details the terms of the different plans and shows customers a comparison of the components covered. Customers can then select the plan they are interested in, enter their Toyota’s model, year and mileage, receive a quote via e-mail, and, if satisfied, purchase the plan online.

According to Koller, they started out with just a page on the dealership’s main Web site where customers could go for pricing on extended service plans. Unfortunately at the time, with this method they had limited success in generating sales of those plans. However, “Mike Hills saw great potential there and profit possibility,” said Koller. After some brainstorming and talking with an outside firm, Pasch Consulting Group, they decided to work on a site devoted solely to selling factory service plans.
While there is a link to the extended service site site from Acton Toyota’s home page, the extended service site has been optimized to perform well in searches, so anyone – not just customers who’ve purchased their Toyotas from Acton – can find the site and purchase a factory extended service plan for their vehicle that can be utilized at any Toyota dealership.

“We’ve had great success with it,” said Koller. “We’re getting requests from literally all over the country.” While the profit margins are somewhat small, relatively speaking, the dealership spends very little on advertising the site. Good SEO, plus some promotion of the site done at the dealership, drives enough traffic to the site to make it profitable. “It’s just additional revenue and profit for us, incremental business,” said Koller. No matter where a person is in the country or where they bought their Toyota, he added, “we’re realizing the profit from having sold that service agreement.”

Even without the additional profit from selling Toyota service plans, Acton has been getting along quite well this year despite a challenging economy. Koller said that while new car sales had been down (before the government’s CARS program began), used car sales certainly picked up the slack. “Really, we’re pretty fortunate. We haven’t seen a large dip at all so far this year in sales when you look at new and pre-owned,” he said. “We’re actually doing very well.”

Vol. 6, Issue 9