What Dealers Can Learn from Steven Toyota's Journey

Technology changes so fast that it’s difficult to keep up, and that’s especially true when it comes to a dealer’s Web site. What was cutting-edge and met a dealer’s needs a year ago may now be lackluster in performance. If your Web site is more than two years old and has not had significant updates, you need to be looking for a replacement.

There are many challenges with searching for a new Web site provider. If you’re a dealer and you’re not entrenched in your Internet department everyday, you may not even know the questions to ask. You will rely on your Internet manager to do the legwork and discovery, but how can you know if your manager asked the right questions if you don’t know what’s available? Which provider makes the most sense for your dealership? How much should you expect to pay for it? What should you look for?

Believe it or not, there is a systematic approach to searching for a new Web site provider, which any dealership could use and tailor to their own store. In the fall of 2009, Steven Toyota of Harrisonburg, Va., faced this very issue. Their Web site was pushing three years old and the recently-hired Internet manager, Chris Frey, was not impressed with how their current Web site was performing. Frey was relatively new to the position and the dealership and knew that the dealership needed a change, but before he tackled the subject with the dealer principal, he wanted to make sure he understood what was available in the market.

He started with the Top Internet Retailers, as published in the May 2009 issue of Auto Dealer Monthly. Frey spent a tremendous amount of time looking at each site, picking out items that he felt were the best on each site. He was able to find specific inventory pages and a preapproval page he liked on Infiniti of Scottsdale’s site; he also liked the “request a quote” page on Dave Smith Motors’ site, Herb Chambers’ “meet the owner” page, and several other aspects on a handful of other sites, including City Auto and Paragon Honda.

He also reached out to Auto Dealer Monthly’s editor, Harlene Doane, due to her ongoing review of dealer Web sites and asked if there were any significant players in the market that he might not be aware of. He wanted to make sure he explored all avenues to reach his ultimate goal.

The official decision to upgrade was made the first week of November 2009. Frey met with the various department heads in the dealership to gather input for what their individual needs were from the dealership Web site. From the chief operating officer and general manager to the business development manager (BDM), he wanted to make sure that if they put a new solution in place, it met the needs of everyone in the dealership.

After meeting with the other managers, he put together a request for proposal (RFP), which he would send out to all the companies he wanted to bid on the new Web site. RFPs are very common in some other industries, but not all dealers may be familiar with them and with the process. An RFP is “an invitation for providers of a product or service to bid on the right to supply that product or service to the individual or entity that issued the RFP,” according to the online financial glossary, InvestorWords.

With a degree in computer science (an industry where RFPs are common), Frey was familiar with the process and drafted a thorough RFP to submit to prospective Web design companies. In the RFP were specific details of what the dealership was looking for in a new Web site provider. Frey was sure to highlight what sites he liked when researching the 2009 Internet Achievement Awards, along with his reasons for finding a new provider.  

In the RFP, Steven Toyota’s goals, target audience and timetable for project completion were clearly stated. Also in it was the information the dealership wanted about each provider, like the number of years in business, references, statistical information, site examples, contract terms and much more. All dealers going through this process should request such information in order to determine the experience and expertise of potential providers and help with the selection process.

Additionally, Frey outlined specific requirements for the new provider and the sites it would build for the dealership. One requirement was that the provider, if requested, had to visit the dealership to make an on-site presentation to him and other management. He also expressed the importance of being able to see the sites as they were being built to ensure the project was on track, and integration of current systems and the ability to easily retrieve site data was a must. Also acknowledged in the RFP was the fact that there would be penalties if the new site wasn’t fully functional by the agreed upon deadline.

A well-thought-out RFP can save a great deal of time in the search process and help eliminate confusion because the RFP will give both parties a clear understanding of what the dealership wants and what’s expected of the provider. It took Frey a little over three weeks from the time the dealership decided it was time to get a new provider to create and send out the RFP to prospective providers.

The creation process for an RFP can be very short or long. For the majority of dealers, especially those who do not have a background like Frey’s, the process might be a little longer. What really shaped his RFP was what he discovered when looking at other Web sites and the feedback he received from coworkers.

Once Frey’s final RFP was ready to send out, Doane posted a discussion on AutoDealerPeople.com to invite Web providers to toss their hats in the ring for Frey’s consideration. Of the 19 companies that expressed interest on the post and through researching the 2009 Internet Achievement Awards, Frey chose 10 companies to send the RFP to, expecting to invite three of them to do an on-site presentation. He eliminated some of the other companies that had expressed interest in the project after looking at other sites they had built, because he felt they didn’t have what he needed.

It’s important to note that for some dealers, it’s not a bad idea to go to their current provider and allow it to bid on the new Web site. Just because a dealer’s not happy with the product he has now doesn’t mean the current provider doesn’t offer other options that would meet the needs of the dealership. Now, if the current provider has less than outstanding service, it might be a different story.

Six of the 10 companies returned proposals on time, one called on the due date requesting more time, one called the day after the due date requesting more time, and two companies didn’t respond at all. To compare potential providers, Frey charted the eight companies that returned proposals on an Excel spreadsheet. This side-by-side comparison proved to be very helpful to the management team at Steven Toyota because when it came down to brass tacks, only two companies offered everything they wanted in a Web site. These two companies also happened to be two of the companies that turned in their proposals on time, and they were the only two companies that answered all Frey’s questions in their proposals.

So, even though Steven Toyota planned to have three companies make presentations at the dealership, Frey only invited two companies to present on-site. On the second week of January 2010, both companies presented, and Frey had this to say: “On Tuesday [January 12, the] national sales manager from [Company 1] came to Steven Toyota to demonstrate his product and answer questions. Their product is top-notch. On Wednesday [January 13, the] national sales executive from [Company 2] flew in from Chicago to present their solution. It was interesting to contrast their companies as [Company 1] is rather large and [Company 2] is more of a boutique company that outsources some of their product. (The outsourcing does not bother me as long as they stand by their total solution, but it may play out differently with other members of management.)

“Both [company representatives] knew their products inside-out and they did their research on our company, so I was not insulted by inane questions. I am super-impressed with the two of them. They both have a great solution and either one of them would be 100 times better than what we have now, but we need to decide which would be the better fit for Steven [Toyota].”

The following Monday, January 18, dealership management chose Company 1 – Dealer.com – as their new Web site provider. He said, “When all was said and done, both [companies] had truly great products and were well represented by their sales force.” So what was the deciding factor for the dealership, considering both companies gave great presentations and met the dealership’s Internet needs?

“The final decision came down to dollars and cents,” he stated. “Dealer.com has the product we need at a significant savings per month and in setup fees … I can’t say enough great things about both companies. Both would have proven an incrementally better product than we currently have, and I would encourage all dealers to look to the process that I undertook to get the best service …”

So, Dealer.com dove into the project with the agreed-upon goal of having the dealership’s new Web site up and running by May 15, 2010, although the company said from the beginning of the process that it could have the site up and running as soon as April 1 if Frey wanted to pull the trigger on it early. Initially, Frey wanted the new site to go live on April 1, 2010, but he had some issues with his just-terminated provider when defining the end-date of the dealership’s contract. Ultimately, Steven Toyota’s contract ended in mid-May.

This snafu Frey had with his contract end-date highlights how important it is for dealers to monitor their contracts’ expiration dates. It allows for proper planning to avoid any down time or having your contract automatically renewed for another year or more (thanks to a sneaky little evergreen clause).

Thankfully, Frey’s contract end-date discrepancy didn’t hinder the project’s progress much. This left Dealer.com with just shy of four months to create four sites—StevenToyota.com, Steven-Kia.com, StevenScion.com and a splash site. As of March 18, 2010, Frey said the new company “has so far been a pleasure to work with,” and the company still professed it could have the sites ready to go by April 1. He also commended the company’s quick customer service. “When we submitted our deposit, I was immediately sent the names of three folks who would be walking us through our setup.”

While the site-building process varies depending on the size and type of provider, at Dealer.com Frey worked with a production coordinator, project manager and account manager throughout Steven Toyota’s process. First, the production coordinator sent him templates for about 50 Web sites “to see which I liked the best.” Frey said, “He was thorough and asked if there were any changes we would like to make to any of the sites before production.”

Next, he worked with the project manager on programming. “Within a day of speaking with him, we had a ‘shell’ site set up with full access to see the progress that they [were] making each day.” The account manager regularly communicated with Frey to ensure customer satisfaction and take care of any questions he had. “I was given logins for each employee who needs to access the site so that they can play (within their permissions) with the site prior to bringing it online … If everything is perfect, I will turn it on early … even if I have to pay both for a month or two … I am really hoping to get it fully online by April 15th.”

Frey’s first online training session was March 22, which he described as “generic so far.” He added, “But the product is extremely intuitive.” He’s working to coordinate training so multiple employees who will be working in the site can attend the appropriate training. “There are so many trainings that are necessary before we go online … I am working with our BDC, service, and new and used vehicle managers to get it exactly the way that they would like and to ensure that they get the proper training to set up service coupons, new and used vehicle specials, and lead management.”

He’s already noticed a few things that will make his life simpler, like uploading online inventory. With his old site, he had to open up four different windows to upload vehicle photos and three to update vehicle information. “With our new Dealer.com site it’s just one.” He estimated that he uploads photos at least 30 times a day, so he was probably right on the money when he said the new process for uploading vehicle inventory “will be a significant time savings.”

Inventory photos are of particular interest to the dealership because it recently set up a top-notch photo studio for vehicle photos, so it’s important the new Web site shows those photos off. Dealer.com gave Frey the option to increase the standard resolution of the vehicle photos to 800-by-600 from the 640-by-480 resolution he’d requested in his RFP. He’s currently considering this, but needs to test the load times for both to make sure the higher resolution photos won’t slow down the load times for the site.

In addition to improving inventory loading, Frey is also pleased to have the ability to update other aspects of the site. “As far as updating [the site], we have exponentially more freedom to do what needs to be done to our site that we do not currently have; for example, setting up specials for a set time period where it starts the special, then removes it when it is over (by date).” Too many dealers have expired specials on their specials pages, which is a problem that will be avoided altogether with this capability.

With all the ducks seemingly in a row, the new Steven Toyota site (and its affiliates) will go live in mid-April. “I’d like to make sure that it’s right before I ‘flip the switch.’ I know that there will always be unforeseen circumstances – changes or items that are going to need future attention once we’re up and running – so it behooves me to get it in as good an order as I can in advance.”

The time frame that will be required for such a project is an important consideration for dealers who want to change or update their Web site. Steven Toyota’s journey took about six-and-a-half months. However, it wouldn’t be unreasonable for a dealer to start planning nine months or even a year in advance.

Frey wanted a Web provider that offered everything he wanted in his Web site without having to rely on other third-party providers for plug-ins like chat or a credit application, as some providers do. He found that in the provider he, the GM, COO and BDM collectively chose as Steven Toyota’s new Web site provider. However, every dealership has different needs.

To some dealers, utilizing a third party for chat wouldn’t be an issue, considering many wouldn’t want or need chat. Another example is an independent dealer who wouldn’t need all the technology associated with a new car inventory section of a Web site. This all goes back to choosing a provider that fits your dealership.

There are a lot of factors involved in choosing a Web provider, which can be sorted out with a detailed RFP. It’s important to know what you want before starting the process, not just figure it out along the way. You can start by talking to several people in the industry; then you’ll be able to understand what’s available in the industry, formulate an effective RFP and make an informed decision on your new site provider.

For dealers needing a little help with putting together a RFP, Auto Dealer Monthly will send you a sample RFP that you can tailor to your dealership. Just e-mail [email protected] with “Sample RFP” in the subject line and your name, number and dealership name in the e-mail.

For dealers who have questions for Chris Frey please e-mail [email protected] in lieu of phone calls to keep interruptions during his day to a minimum.

Vol. 7, Issue 5