Embracing Technology, Emerging as a Sales Leader

The evolution of an auto dealership can be a slow process; however, Suzuki of Wichita is constantly in motion, quickly adapting to a changing industry. Led by Scott Pitman, president and chief evangelist, the Wichita, Kan., dealership claimed the number-one spot for new Suzuki sales in July 2009. Typically the second-place store for sales volume, Pitman’s dealership sold 197 new Suzukis in July, and it was off to a roaring start the next month, selling 100 new Suzukis in the first 10 days of August.

Over the past two years, Pitman and his team have taken a store that was only selling a few new cars a month and transformed it into a top-producing dealership. Pitman added, “We have had the blessing of being a very high-volume Suzuki dealer … Last year, we averaged 73 Suzukis a month. This year, we’re on quite a blistering pace.” A long-time goal of his is to achieve 200 new vehicle sales in one month, and the dealership is well on its way.

While sales are essential, Pitman puts just as much emphasis on how the dealership treats customers, which is a main reason for its success. “We’re currently the number-two Suzuki dealer in the country [for annual sales] in volume, and we are the number-six Suzuki dealer in SSI … It’s very difficult to be high-volume and high-SSI.”

People + Processes
Pitman understands that having good processes isn’t enough. He attributed the dealership’s success in a down economy to having a good staff and product lineup. “We have great people, and I think we have great processes that have come through the training of great people. And I do think the product is amazing.”

Many of the dealership’s customers “have been very receptive to our system of selling.” For starters, all salespeople are noncommissioned, and they’re all trained to have the answers to customers’ questions. They aren’t what he calls “I-don’t-know-I’ll-have-to-check-with-my-manager” salespeople, which is what he feels too many dealerships are developing nowadays. He takes a very personal approach to running the store. “I don’t like talking to people that don’t have the facts, so my salespeople are trained. They’re authorized to discuss rate; they’re authorized to discuss price.”

Suzuki of Wichita also doesn’t bounce the customer from one department to another. Pitman said, “We don’t run a traditional F&I department, so when we desk a deal, we desk price of car, trade, payment and rate all at the same time.” His customers don’t “buy a car from the sales department and then wait for the finance department.”

And he knows many dealers would shudder to think about doing business in that manner. “A lot of people say it’s dangerous to do it that way, but it works very, very well for me.” One of the reasons he thinks it works so well goes back to salespeople being noncommissioned. “They’re not working off a percent of gross, so they can truly focus on the customer relationship.” He also makes sure managers are introduced into the sales process early and often. He admittedly has a high manager-to-salesperson ratio with six managers and 14 salespeople.

Attitude no doubt helps keep the customers happy. On many dealership Web sites, their staff pages will have photos of people who aren’t smiling and don’t seem inviting. The Suzuki of Wichita Web site’s staff page has nothing but smiling faces. “There’s a certain electricity when you walk in our store; everybody says it.” Adding to the atmosphere of the dealership is the newly built showroom. “It’s a brand new building … we moved in last October … Most of [last year], we sold out of a mobile home.”

To keep the buzz going after the customers leave the lot, Suzuki of Wichita keeps in contact with them through ProMax’s customer relationship management program and with what Pitman calls “train tracks,” or relationship tracks. “Every salesperson in my store has their own PC. Our phone system is Voice Over IP, and they all have a very expensive Plantronics digital headset that probably costs more than the phone. We embrace technology.” They all work their programs, and once a customer is sold, the customer relationship goes down a certain track. To maintain the integrity of its database, the dealership has a sales support person whose main role is making sure sales information is entered accurately.

The dealership also keeps in touch through the service department with AutoRevenue’s outsourced CRM. “They mine our data and help us collect e-mails, and they keep in touch with service customers. They report to us who bought a car [and] who hasn’t been in for service.” Additionally, AutoRevenue sends service-related marketing specials to customers to try to recapture them in the service department, “which is obviously critical for SSI, CSI and repeat business.”

Non-Interruptive Advertising and Marketing
While the term “non-interruptive advertising” may seem somewhat of an oxymoron, Pitman has achieved an advertising and marketing strategy that is both unobtrusive and highly effective. He developed a strategy just like he developed the sales process—based on his personal opinion. He admitted, “I know it’s dangerous to look at the way you personally do things and make your marketing decisions based on that, but I’ve yet to find a customer that likes TV commercials … I DVR everything. I don’t really want you interrupting me. I just don’t like that. I don’t think any customer does.” He added, “I made a decision a year ago. I’m only going to advertise in places where customers don’t mind me being.”

A man who’s true to his word, Pitman hasn’t aired a television spot in over a year. “I’ve tried to shift most of my marketing dollars to where the customer is asking to talk to me … and I think that’s really paid off for us … There’s a quote by a blogger [Hugh MacLeod] that I keep on my screensaver on my computer that says, ‘If you talked to people the way advertising talked to people, they’d punch you in the face.’

Lately, he’s been evaluating and updating marketing spends. Currently, about 40 percent of the advertising and marketing budget goes online, while the remaining 60 percent is spent on traditional advertising and marketing. “We continue quarterly to raise and commit more money to Internet and less money to traditional media.”

His offline budget is a combination of radio and print. While radio is interruptive advertising, pitman takes a very tactful approach to radio advertising. Listeners won’t hear any loud shouting; instead they’ll hear a jingle pushing them to the dealership’s Web site or a personal testimonial from one of the radio disc jockeys. He said his radio advertising is more about top-of-mind awareness as opposed to trying to create urgency about a big sale.

As far as print goes, Pitman still believes its effective, and he uses it as a catalyst to drive people to the Web site. “A lot of people are badmouthing print. Print is still very good for me. We do push use of Internet through our print … A lot of our print advertising will give them some information, but encourage them to go to the Web site.”

His online budget goes to Facebook, Google, Yahoo! and purchased leads, and Suzuki of Wichita’s increased Internet presence has expanded its market. “We sold a new car in New Mexico last week. We sold one in Arkansas, and it’s not uncommon. Because of the Internet, you’re able to expand your market area.”

On Facebook, the dealership pushes out banner ads to users in five states and can target who sees the ads. “Suzuki, for example, had some very good college graduate programs, so we’ll go target on Facebook [college] seniors or those that have just graduated.” Pitman added, “We’ve shifted a lot of dollars to Facebook advertising lately and have some very good success stories with Facebook.”

Contemplating how the dealership’s Facebook presence fit into his non-interruptive marketing plan, he surmised, “I guess that you could argue that … you didn’t ask me to put a Facebook ad there, but you also don’t have to click on it if you don’t want to.” It doesn’t interrupt a user’s session like a TV commercial interrupts a TV show.

When it comes to handling the dealership’s Google campaign, Pitman relies on Tom White Jr., general manager and resident Google expert. Pitman said, “We have been, for the last couple of years, big Google spenders on search engine marketing and keyword purchasing … On Google, you’re only going to find me if you’re doing a keyword search for ‘cars.’ You’re not going to find me under laundromats or whatever.”

On Yahoo!, the dealership mainly does behavioral targeted marketing campaigns within their market. Yahoo! recognizes users who are interested in a particular category, automotive in this case, and serves up Suzuki of Wichita’s ads to those users. The same philosophy applies here as in the Facebook example. While the customer didn’t ask to see a Suzuki of Wichita ad, they don’t have to click on it and it’s not interrupting the customer.

The purchased leads Pitman buys are blind leads, or credit leads as he calls them. He supplements leads that come from the dealership’s blind site, AutoApproved.com, with leads from Car.com and CarsDirect. While he has tried the business development center approach to work leads, he opted to have salespeople work leads.

His decision to work leads in this fashion goes back to treating the customer right and having customers talk to someone who can answer their questions. “Currently, I’m under the belief that salespeople with information are best equipped to help the customer.” There’s no question as to how leads fit into the non-interruptive marketing plan; customers submit their information and expect to hear back from someone.

Recently, the dealership, which has been very busy lately due to the government’s CARS program, implemented a tool called Instant Screen by Dealer Marketing Services to help get a glimpse into a lead’s credit. With only a name, address and e-mail address, the tool pre-screens the dealership’s Internet leads and places each customer in one of 10 credit tiers with different credit score ranges.

While Suzuki of Wichita could use Instant Screen on every customer, it’s only used for blind, or credit, leads. These are customers who have poor credit, aren’t expecting a call from Suzuki of Wichita and might be taken aback when the dealership calls to ask about credit. Pitman said, “I don’t want to pull credit on [credit leads] because of some of the confusion that’s created with the customer—‘Who are you, and why did you pull my credit?’” He said a lot of dealers are very aggressive up front when it comes to working with credit leads, and [Instant Screen] allows the dealership to better understand a lead’s credit without having to be aggressive and ask for a Social Security number or pull a full credit report up front.

“We’re mainly using [Instant Screen] as a tool to help prioritize the massive number of credit leads that we have … While all leads deserve to be followed up with, there are certain times that market conditions cause you to have to prioritize those leads, and that’s kind of what I’m faced with now. We have so much activity and traffic and so many things working, I want that Instant Screen to help me prioritize.”

His fear is that the salespeople working the phones will offer customers in lower credit tiers a lower level of service. To counteract that, “we’re constantly training them and reminding them that there’s oftentimes a second signer.” He said many blind sites don’t have a section where the applicant can enter a cosigner’s information.

Updating RideHomeHappy.com
While some might question Pitman’s decision to overhaul RideHomeHappy.com, the dealership’s award-winning Web site, he always has a to-do list for the site. “I have probably 50 or 60 things I want to get done to the Web site, but that can be a slow-going process. We are currently undergoing a major site redesign.” The redesign will mostly take place behind the scenes, but he added, “We’ll probably do some face-lifting to the site as well.”

RideHomeHappy.com, which is synonymous with SuzukiOfWichita.com, was named the top dealer-branded special finance Web site by Auto Dealer Monthly in its 2008 Internet Achievement Awards and the number-three dealer-branded special finance Web site in the 2009 Internet Achievement Awards, as well as the number-10 dealer Web site in the 2009 awards.

Of the redesign, Pitman said, “A lot of people would say, ‘Why are you doing that? You’ve got a great site that wins all these awards.’” The redesign was certainly not the result of fewer unique visitors to the site; its total monthly unique visitors – like the dealership’s sales numbers – are on the rise. In February 2009, the site had 4,961 unique visitors, “which is nothing to turn your nose up about,” said Pitman.  The redesign is about increased visibility on the Web. “While people like the looks of [RidehomeHappy.com], it’s not, in some cases, functioning the way we want it to with Google rules and page ranks, so we’re working on improving in those areas,” said Pitman.

In July 2009, the site had a whopping 21,542 unique visitors. While Pitman attributed a portion of the surge in traffic to competitors checking out the site after seeing it won awards, the awards were released in May 2009, so it’s probably safe to say the vast majority of the 21,000-plus visitors were consumers. The government’s CARS program and the dealership’s aggressive jump on the campaign probably helped drive that surge in traffic as well. Suzuki of Wichita started selling new vehicles under the CARS program in early July and had 150 CARS deals on the books by August 10th. They just might get to their goal of 200 new vehicle sales soon.

Vol. 6, Issue 9