How does a dealer group manage to sell an average of 400 new cars and 150 used cars per month from the Internet?
The answer, according to Lori Hammond, Internet director at Conicelli Autoplex, is adapting to the market and applying the knowledge that comes with 12 years of online retailing. “I think it’s constantly trying new things and tweeking processes, [as well as] keeping up with the newest technologies,” she says.
The Conshohocken, Penn.-based dealer group, which carries the Honda, Hyundai, Nissan, and Toyota/Scion nameplates across five stores, has been selling cars online since 1998. That’s when “the craze with Internet and auto dealerships” began, says Hammond, whose dealer group claims the largest volume Toyota dealership in the state.
It was also the year her husband, Michael Hammond Sr., who serves as Conicelli’s vice president of sales and marketing, attended the National Automobile Dealers Association convention and met a handful of third-party lead providers. “He just went around, signed up with everybody and let me know that I’d be running an Internet department,” Lori recalls.
The new department started out with two employees — including Lori — and sold 25 cars a month in its first year. More than a decade later, the Internet office employs 35 staffers and is responsible for nearly 45 percent of Conicelli’s total new and used sales.
At this point in the game, the challenge for Lori is to increase sales volume while managing the multiple parts of Conicelli’s online sales and marketing machine. The process involves generating leads, following up with customers via e-mail and phone, providing price quotes and setting up appointments. To succeed, she relies on her well-trained staff and a marketing strategy that includes search engine optimization, pay-per-click marketing, social media and a family-friendly image.
Digital ‘Ups’ Management
The Internet-based sales process begins with online leads, which are sourced from the dealership’s own Website, manufacturer sites and from any one of a number of third-party lead generators. The strategy falls in line with a national survey conducted by Autobytel, which showed that 87 percent of dealers surveyed “believe in using a ‘mix’ of leads from their own Website and independent lead partners.” Hammond adds one additional wrinkle to that strategy.
“I definitely look for a lead provider that’s easy to deal with when it comes to billing,” she says. “If they give me trouble with credits, I tend not to stick with them.”
Lori currently uses 10 lead providers that deliver up to 4,000 leads per month for all five stores. Those leads translate into 375 to 400 new vehicles and 130 to 150 used vehicles sold per month, or nearly half of Conicelli’s total sales of 760 new vehicles and 350 used units per month.
One program Hammond likes is Autobytel’s iControl, which allows dealers to customize new-car leads based on make, model, mileage, ZIP code and a constomer’s purchase intentions. This flexibility allows dealers “to really focus on the types of cars they are trying to sell or the areas they are trying to sell,” says Steve Lind, an AutoBytel executive.
But getting Internet leads is only the start of the sales process. “We are going to deliver in-market customers, but [dealers] need to be ready to be very good at building relationships with consumers every day,” says Lind. “That comes from a consistent, professional communication plan. And I think the Conicelli group is particularly good at understanding the importance of that.”
The dealer group touts 90 salespeople, 85 percent of which handle Internet leads. Lori, her management staff and third-party trainers keep the salespeople and Conicelli’s business development center up to speed on managing customer relationships, how to respond to customer inquiries, and when to provide price quotes and set up appointments. In fact, members of the sales and BDC staff will typically respond to an Internet lead within 30 minutes or less.
Lori says her staff can work with customers by phone or e-mail, but the ultimate goal is to set an appointment. “I know how many leads my team can handle each month, and I really try to pay attention to what I’m getting,” she says. “You can definitely get too many leads, waste money and not handle them correctly.”
Lori says her staff is also trained on how to handle today’s Internet-savvy consumer — whether they’re a walk-in or a click-through prospect. “When it comes to new cars, customers know everything,” she says. “We just try to embrace the fact that they’ve done all this research, which is a great thing.”
That’s why Hammond doesn’t mind loading the dealership’s Website, social media pages and blog with the same information customers can access from manufacturer and third-party sites such as Edmunds.com.
Lori’s stepson, Michael Hammond Jr., is also part of the team, serving as the dealership’s Internet marketing manager. His main responsibility is building the dealership’s brand image on sites like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Blogspot. And although he admits it’s difficult to measure results, he says the work he’s done has improved the dealership’s search engine optimization efforts.
The key, he says, is to make the experience fun. That’s why, aside from making sure customers don’t have to look far to find inventory information, sales incentives, lease programs and service department information, he’ll post non-dealership related material, such as random “silly facts” of the day. He’ll also post photos and video testimonials from sold customers, as well as service coupons and video “walkarounds” of vehicles.
“With social media, since it’s so new, it’s pretty difficult to tell how much sales are just from Websites,” he says. “It’s kind of a gamble, but you have good odds.”
So far, the odds are in his favor, as Conicelli’s Facebook fan page boasts an average of 500 to 600 views per week and has helped generate direct sales to the dealer group.
Creating an Internet Spokesman
Despite the success of Conicelli’s social media and Internet sales efforts, Hammond Sr. believes more can be done. As he says, closing ratios are typically twice as good if customers visit his store’s site rather than if they click through a third-party provider. To facilitate that growth, Hammond Sr. says he plans to add more staff to the BDC and increase his Internet marketing budget by 40 to 45 percent next year. The only thing that won’t change is the use of a cartoon character the dealership created, called “Mr. Nice Guy.”
The illustrated character is actually a caricature of Dom Conicelli, the dealer group’s owner and dealer principal. “Everything we do with him is going to be Internet driven,” says Hammond Sr. “Our goal is to make him the spokesperson for the store.”
The dealer group has already used the character in a number of marketing campaigns. The first one was a variation of the “Where’s Waldo?” game, which required participants to find “Mr. Nice Guy” on Conicelli’s Website to qualify for a cash price giveaway that ran every two weeks. The plan was simply to get people to visit the Website. But since “Mr. Nice Guy” was placed on a different page every day, participants were forced to click through the Website in order to find him. The process not only helped familiarize customers with the site, but it also generated car sales.
“The same people would visit every day,” says Hammond Sr. “They were there to win the prize, but they actually turned into some of our best referrals.”
Lori says that “Mr. Nice Guy” is further proof that Internet customers are no different than walk-in “ups.” “At this point, I think everyone is an Internet customer,” she says. “As long as you’re fair with them, answer their questions directly and promptly, and give them the information they need to make an informed decision, they’re willing to visit the dealership, which is the first step to them becoming your loyal customer.”