For Steve Fox, success in automotive retail requires constant change. He pushes himself to look for new ways to find and generate leads, process them and, ultimately, convert them into sales. That drive has defined his career to this point, but, as he says, “There is always more shaking up to do.”
Fox is the general manager of Lithia Chrysler Jeep Dodge of Santa Rosa, Calif., about 55 miles north of San Francisco. He and his staff of 65 sales, finance and service personnel sell an average of 83 new and 43 used cars every month. He has been with Lithia dealerships for nearly six years, and this is the fourth dealership in the Lithia family that he has run.
One reason he says he has stayed with Lithia — and plans to retire with them — is that they recognize that every store is different, with distinct markets and customers and a unique culture. The group has streamlined guidelines to ensure a standard level of quality, Fox says, but they are always looking for ways to help individual stores stand out from the crowd. He notes that their marketing department will regularly send over new ideas to see if he wants to give them a try. “I’m always looking for new ideas and they’re very helpful in helping me find them,” he notes.
Fox started on the service side of the business about 25 years ago. After five years “turning wrenches,” and with his first child on the way, he set his sights on a higher-paying occupation. Having grown up in the car business and not wanting to leave it, he moved into a service writer role. He found he had a natural ability to connect with customers and sell them the repairs they needed, but he was frustrated at his inability to do much more than write service agreements. When an opportunity to manage another dealership’s service department came up, Fox leapt at the chance.
“You’ve got to approach service as a sales job,” he says. “Left on their own, people come in for an oil change and maybe warranty work. Service departments need to inspect the vehicle thoroughly and fairly, and advise them what they need and what shape their car’s in. … There are so many similarities between service and car sales. The RO average is same as the deal average.”
Momentum and timing were on Fox’s side. The dealership changed hands and the new owner needed a general manager. The one-time service tech accepted the challenge and hasn’t looked back since.
In Santa Rosa, Fox and his team are at the end of a yearlong overhaul of the dealership’s Internet sales operation. When they started, their website listed vehicles with few photos and descriptions culled from OEM sites. To grow, Fox says, they had to act fast, and nothing was sacred. In a location that receives little vehicle or walk-in traffic, “People don’t just drive by; they need to find us. We need to be aggressive on the Internet.”
Fox directed as much as 60% of his advertising budget toward online marketing, with some radio and direct mail rounding out the mix. He redesigned the website, set new standards for photos and descriptions and started shooting videos, a tool he knew many dealers had yet to master.
“The videos we’re putting out right now are far superior to what most dealers are shooting,” he says. “On occasion, someone will ask about something specific, and we’ll go out and shoot something new or shoot some pictures. Somebody could type in ‘2014 Dodge Challenger San Francisco’ [on YouTube], and we will show up on first page of results. They are designed to get people information.”
Fox is still working on how to determine, on the back end, exactly how many leads the videos are generating, but he knows customers are mentioning them in increasing numbers.
A Close Eye on Operations
True to his restless spirit, Fox has yet to put Internet sales on autopilot. Adding more elements creates more opportunities for errors, both human and technical.
“I think one of the most important things I’ve learned about Internet business is that all these automated tools designed to make everything so easy — they all fail,” Fox says. “You can’t trust them. You have to constantly monitor them to make them work. If you’re not paying attention, you can easily drop a data feed, and those cars you have on AutoTrader could still be the same cars and prices you’re showing 30 days from now. You have to review everything on a scheduled basis, looking at what is and isn’t working. If you’re trusting the technology, you’re going to be disappointed.”
One way he stays on top of things is to send himself test leads through the website. He makes sure the customer-facing side is working as intended, and that his leads show up in his back-end systems where and when they are supposed to. He believes that partnering with the right providers to help drive traffic to the website is a key ingredient to online success; but ensuring those providers are actually following through with what they promised to deliver is just as important.
And Fox does catch mistakes — photos and videos running with the wrong model year, for example — and automated systems don’t always work as intended. A recent test lead sent to a lead provider failed to show up. A phone call to the provider uncovered a problem with the new-car feed that would otherwise have persisted much longer. “You constantly find that stuff when you look,” he says. “It’s all supposed to be automatic, but something happens and it stops working. It just takes somebody to check into it.”
Fox says working for a Lithia store creates opportunities to experiment with leading-edge technology. This year, he joined a beta program for LotLinx, a solution designed to connect shoppers directly to dealers’ vehicle descriptions, bypassing the typical third-party lead form.
“We’ve seen a nice increase in the number of quality leads since we added them, he says. “It doesn’t require any additional work on our end, and it has helped increase the traffic — and its quality traffic. Our bounce rate is as good or better than it used to be and page views have improved. Our form submission rate has gotten a little bit better and our overall time-on-site is better.”
What Happens After the Lead?
With all of his focus on growing Internet leads, one area Fox is still actively working on is what to do with them after they come into his dealership.
Right now, he notes, he doesn’t have a dedicated Internet manager. He has been actively looking for a person to step into that role, a search that stretches back several months. He has even passed on a few strong candidates who weren’t quite the right fit — Fox doesn’t believe the Internet department can be run by just anyone. He takes the role as seriously as he does any other in his dealership, and will wait to find the person he feels can help take them to the next level.
Meanwhile, the sales team has an increasing number of good Internet leads to manage. For now, Fox is using a round-robin system, ensuring all the salespeople get in on the action. He had hoped, he says, that one person would stand out among the crowd, but while they all do a good job, he noted that no one has distinguished themselves as someone who could take the department and run with it.
“If you give the good person all the leads, then they end up doing an average job,” he notes. “That’s one of the bigger downfalls you’ll see [with Internet leads]. People will allegedly handle many more leads than they should, and try to cherry-pick the good ones. We don’t want to go backward.”
With all of the changes he’s already implemented, Fox feels he has gained an edge on his competitors. But he doesn’t believe in quitting while he’s ahead. Rather, he believes there is always going to be room for growth and change, and he wants to make sure Lithia Chrysler Jeep Dodge stays at the front of the pack.
“There’s always more,” he notes. “I definitely spend a lot of time looking at our site. I scan and look at other dealer sites too —I’m always looking for a new angle. Most of their websites are not as good as ours, but unless we’re selling 100% of the cars in the country, we haven’t hit the goal.”
He does believe, however, that there aren’t necessarily a lot of new ideas on how to sell cars successfully out there. There are new software packages, which find ways to do things better, faster or more efficiently, but as Fox says, it’s not rocket science. At the end of the day, it’s about asking for the sale, and showing customers the reasons the sale should happen. Finding better tools and constantly looking at what areas he can improve are the keys to his success.
“Regardless of how successful you are, there are plenty of things to improve on,” Fox says. “You never really ‘arrive.’ There’s always someone out there doing something better than you are. It’s a matter of trying to find it and improving your operation.”
Toni McQuilken is a freelance writer with expertise in automotive retail, F&I and agency operations. [email protected]