Alex Jefferson is the Director of Internet and Sales Training for the Proctor Dealerships in Tallahassee, FL. He sits down with Digital Dealer magazine and shares his insight of where technology is going in automotive retail, the changes the industry has seen with vendors and the cultural shift going on in dealerships today.
You’re the e-commerce director for the Proctor Group. It looks like you’ve been there for several years. What attracted you to the retail industry?
I was a junior in college installing car stereos. There was a freshman that came back to the installation bay waving his check complaining about how bad his check was with the “awful” month we were having. I snatched the check and what I saw was double what I normally made and he only worked part-time!
That’s what I call an ah-ha moment. I joined the sales floor and started reading sales and motivation books like Tom Hopkins, Brian Tracy, Zig Ziglar and so on.
I worked selling car stereo electronics while graduating from the school of Business at Florida A&M. Life was good, so I continued selling after graduation until the company I worked for had a “structural realignment” where they decided to let the top 60% of the sales force go because they no longer wanted to pay commission.
After that I took six months trying to build a networking business. Although it didn’t work out the way I wanted, I learned a lot about people and had a lot of personal growth. One day I literally woke up and decided I wanted to sell cars and so I got a job selling cars.
How did you begin on the e-commerce side of the business?
After 10 months of average sales I realized the car business was different than anything I had ever experienced. I decided to “sell” my general manager on letting me attend a Joe Verde sales training course and my sales immediately climbed. Shortly thereafter I was offered the Internet manager position where I managed leads, sold cars, and built a small Internet department.
This was where I started to learn about web site conversion, SEO, SEM, managing vendors, and managing people. After a few years I become the first e-commerce director of Proctor Dealerships and recently have moved into an expanded role as Director of Internet and Sales Training for our Acura, Honda, and Subaru stores.
Tell us about the Proctor Group — its history, its market, its philosophy.
The Proctors automobile dealerships are rich in history and service to the community dating back to 1910 where they sold two Cadillacs their first year in business.
At that time cars were just another product along with other hardware items they sold at the store. They incorporated in 1929 as Proctor and Proctor, Inc., which makes it one of the oldest corporations on record with the State of Florida. The organization grew over the years and by 1974 it had Pontiac, GMC, and Cadillac.
In 1985 they added Honda and Acura in 1991. In 2002, they added Hummer and Buick. In late 2005, the Proctors opened their own marketing company (Compass Marketing and Consulting).
The company has gone through some changes through the years. They sold the GM franchises Cadillac, Buick, Pontiac, GMC and Hummer. The Proctors acquired Subaru in 2009. Second generation, Theo Proctor Jr. along with third generation Proctors Martin and Theo Proctor III presently run what is now three dealerships (Acura, Honda and Subaru).
They have moved to a process driven culture that focuses on defining, mapping and training staff to exceed expectations every time. The organization has stood the test of time because of they way they treat their customers and employees. The Proctor’s have a forward thinking philosophy that focuses on long-term growth instead of “making a dollar today.”
You’ve been in the industry for a while. What are some things you would change?
The biggest thing I would change is already starting to change in a big way. For so long, large vendors have capitalized on a lack of strong competition and dealer knowledge of technology and the platforms they sit on. The days of signing five year contracts with people who offer inferior products that don’t change with the times needs to end. I’m seeing more 12-month, 90-day, and even month-to-month “agreements” which is good. I’m also seeing lower or no setup costs to get new projects started. My point is – this industry needs to make performance-based the rule instead of the exception. This is starting to happen more because there are more vendors who are coming out with superior products with fair prices and contract terms.
Do you have a process for vetting vendors? And what is the process?
If we are considering a vendor we kind of work it backwards. I want to know: what are your setup costs, do you have a contract, how long is it, and what are your termination terms. We look at total liability in case something is a complete flop. A 5k per month contract for 36 months isn’t 5k per month…it’s 180k.
Online forums and magazines such as Digital Dealer and Dealer are also very helpful in determining potential suitors for our needs. The biggest part of our selection process comes from the strong dealer contacts we have made attending previous Digital Dealer conferences. When we narrow a list down, I pick up the phone or send an email and find out if something is worth seriously considering. There is a certain level of confidence when you speak with someone that you know “gets it!”
Describe your management style. Also, how is the e-commerce department set up?
I work hard at communicating with our team the way I would want to be communicated with. I think it’s important to realize people on the front lines selling cars can have good insight, ideas, and perspectives to share. Sometimes this is overlooked by those of us who either haven’t or don’t sell cars anymore.
As far as our e-commerce department is concerned, we have one person handling our email leads at our Acura and Subaru stores and an Internet team handling email leads at the Honda store. Because the Honda store carries more volume we also have a marketing specialist that helps make sure our response times stay fast when we get busy, and “nurture” (she came up with that term) the leads after the 30 day mark where some dealers may fall off.
All phone Internet leads are measured but come in directly to the cell phones of our sales team at all stores. We believe customers that call in on our Internet sales line want immediately attention and if you can avoid a transfer, avoid it.
In the mornings and evenings I personally review the leads to evaluate response times, the way we are managing and following up, and interacting with our customers. We keep our measurements consistent in our ecommerce department which allows us to determine if we are improving or not. We realize 90% of people shop online before they visit but we count it as an Internet sale if they email or call on the Internet line and it results in a sale.
The other side of our e-commerce department combines the power of the marketing company the Proctors own — Compass Marketing — along with myself, our director of marketing and public relations, our Internet specialist and associate. Together we are able to leverage and tackle taking pictures of new and used cars, SEO, SEM, VSEO, social media, reputation management, handling vendors, managing budgets, and making sure our marketing message is consistent and representative of the Proctor culture.
Tell us about one thing that you’ve tried in the last couple of years, where you think, “Wish we hadn’t done that.”
This may sound cliché’ but I think you learn from all your experiences. As stated before, we manage risk very well when we are going into a new endeavor so instead of “getting burnt” on something that doesn’t work we learn and grow. I don’t want to put anyone out there but there was a certain type of campaign we ran with “special online technology” that we realized was almost impossible to prove or disprove whether it worked on not. Because of this specific campaign, I was able to learn about certain online measurements tools that have been amazing valuable to us in other campaigns and save us money in other endeavors.
On the flip side, what are one or two things you’ve tried that were so-called homeruns?
The first thing I can think of is getting on strong with managing our online reputation. We have the highest rating for our Honda and Acura stores in the entire state of Florida and we are far smaller than many other dealers. We have had multiple documentable instances where customers drove and even have flown in from as far as 500 miles away in our state to do business with us as a direct result.
This amazed us because it was not on a special model that no one else in the state had. We asked the couple why they chose us and they said, “It’s simple…WE DON’T TRUST CAR DEALERS. You had the best ratings of any dealer in the state. Your dealership was the logical choice after our research.”
Another thing that has been a huge success for us is online videos. We have come a long way. Online videos are a great way to bring traffic to your site so we have worked to try to perfect this skill. Optimized videos with good content will drive traffic to your web site.
Example #1 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tvQ1LWae_tk 20,000 plus views
Example #2 – Combining our Video SEO knowledge with our marketing company allows us to create a superior product along with great optimization. We have a Subaru store but if you type in (Toyota Camry Tallahassee) you’ll see us come up.
What are the characteristics of a strong Internet department?
I could speak in details for days about what makes a good Internet department but it really comes down to something really simple. Having great communicators that understand how to use the technology they are given to communicate effectively.
Let’s talk about social media and reputation management — are they as important as the consultants and vendors tell us?
Reputation management has been huge for our stores. So anyone who hasn’t gotten on board may want to take a strong look at it’s benefits. Social media has been a huge topic for the last year as its popularity continues to grow. We focused quite a bit of time on this over the summer and grew our Honda and Acura Facebook pages five times over. However, we spent a tremendous amount of time and resources to do it. It was tough to determine the actual value it has brought or will bring. The metrics can be tough on social media. The most interesting thing I have seen on this to date was when Ralph from Automotive Digital Marketing displayed a unique model to measure the effect of social media. He challenged the traditional ROI model and used a reverse model that is based off determining what you would have paid, had you tried to “purchase” this presence online. We continue to have a steady approach to social media where we focus on building a community that we aren’t trying to constantly sell to. Our marketing and public relations director have done a great job at fostering a consistent approach to this. Social media is a part of the pie, not the whole pie.
What are some things you are looking at today that you think you’ll begin putting in place the next year?
I was never sold on this before but I think texting will be the next big thing. It’s a matter of figuring out the right technology with the right marketing mix to make it work. We’ll also be experimenting with some unique reputation management strategies. I have a belief that this is where it’s at. With all the stiff competition in our industry this is something that ABC dealer down the road cannot copy in a week if done correctly. This will set you apart online as well as when people come into your store.
What are three takeaways from the most recent Digital Dealer Conference?
When I attended my first Digital Dealer Conference a few years ago, I sat amongst the brightest and most progressive dealers in our industry. We learned about “cutting-edge” strategies like search engine optimization, search engine marketing, dynamic video search, enhancing lead conversion, refining Internet processes, etc.
As I left the most recent conference, I realize there is a culture shift in automotive industry. Along with the most progressive dealers, there were more first timers and a thirst for knowledge unseen at any of the previous conferences. The workshops were overflowing, the networking was on steroids, and the enthusiasm for education was at an all-time high. Dealers are intent on educating themselves and building strong cross country networks to help each other combat the “smoke and mirrors” that go on in the automotive industry. I can sum the latest Digital Dealer up in three words…education, networking, and analytics. Dealerships are starting to “wake up” from being asleep at the wheel by spending more time and resources educating themselves. They are developing stronger networks to be armed with the knowledge they need to choose the right partners and technology to fit their objectives. Dealers now realize the importance of developing strong measurement models that they can that continue to refine as automotive advertising evolves. What we do isn’t “brain surgery” but we should educate ourselves on our craft as if we were brain surgeons.