Mel Watson brings a passion for cars and a strong community commitment to his position as General Manager of BMW of Spokane, along the eastern border of Washington state. Together with his wife, Heather, and on behalf of BMW of Spokane, he volunteers and donates to many local charities, including the INBC Blood Bank, Boys and Girls Club Spokane, the Spokane Lilac Parade, Children’s Miracle Network, and more.
BMW of Spokane serves a wide customer base that extends across hundreds of miles and several Western states. The store offers an award-winning lineup of new and used cars, as well as financing or leasing options, and a team of fully trained auto repair specialists. A customer-first service policy has made BMW of Spokane the place to go in the Pacific Northwest for a new or pre-owned BMW. The company’s motto says it all: “Where first-class customer service comes standard with every package.
Dealer magazine recently interviewed Mel and discussed his career in the auto retail business, as well as his tenure as General Manager of BMW of Spokane.
First, I’d like to thank you for taking time this morning to talk with us.
How long have you been in the retail automotive business, Mel, and continuing with this background thread, how did you get your start?
I’ve been in the car business over 25 years now. I started selling cars on weekends for a dealership in Reno, Nevada, that specialized in hot rods. What’s interesting back then is we were one of the first guys to do Hot August Nights, which has since become one of Reno’s most popular annual events. A bunch of local hot rod guys would go to the A&W on Kietzke Lane and hang out. It was a lot smaller event then than it is now. I kept selling cars on weekends and was able to outsell the other guys, the ones working full time. Because of my sales success, they put me on full time and then I moved into finance. I moved into management and eventually opened my own used car dealership, Victory Motors and Auto Pawn.
I ended up getting married and wanted a more stable business so I sold the business and went to work for Reno Toyota. I started off in sales and was made a team leader in a week or so, and then I was promoted to Used Car Sales Manager a month after that. Eventually I became Finance Director and remained in that position for quite some time, I think it was around ten years. We got to a point where we were doing 400 deals. Then they promoted me to GSM and as GSM we got the store up to 600 cars. That was pretty much a ceiling. Since it was a family-owned business, I felt I couldn’t get where I wanted to be next.
I took six months off and moved to Southern California to spend more time with my family because the hours you pull in the car business can be long and stressful. Then Lithia Motors called. I interviewed with Lithia and they brought me on board and moved me up to Spokane about four years ago.
I understand you give back to the local Spokane community in many ways. Could you tell us a little more about that commitment?
My wife is the one who puts it all together. Obviously, we work together. She’s able to go to all the meetings and all the stuff you need to do with the charities. She’s on the board for the Northwest Blood Center. We also sponsor the Lilac Festival here in town, which is a local parade. We’re a major sponsor for that and provide cars for the parade. It’s a big deal here. It’s like a 100-year-old parade. Again, Heather does all the legwork and I just kind of get all the accolades for it.
BMW of Spokane, formerly Camp BMW, joined the Lithia Auto Group in 1998. In what way did this change impact your store’s operation?
With Lithia, the big difference is they have the expertise and the capital to really get things moving. We were able to attract and train the right personnel. Lithia also allows us access to the top leaders in the company. I can pick up the phone at any time and these guys are readily available if we need their expertise or guidance. The money doesn’t hurt but that makes a huge difference as far as Lithia goes, in my opinion.
Your store carries all the new models, from the 1 Series through the 7 Series, as well as others. Do you have a personal favorite BMW new model and if so what makes this particular model stand out?
Personally, I like the BMW M6 Convertible. It has a twin turbo V8 and 560 horsepower. If I was going to have someone make me a car, this would be it. It’s like a custom hot rod. The finish on the car is unbelievable. When you drive that thing, you feel like a kid on a giant swing. It’s an unbelievable performance, the way that it’s engineered. I’ve been driving cars that were hand-made, cars guys made for themselves. All kinds of cars. You always wish for more things. I wish this car did that or this other thing. On the BMW M6, there’s nothing left to wish for.
In addition to new BMW models, you also offer a wide selection of used cars. What percentage of your business comes from used car sales, and could you tell us a little about your pre-owned certification process?
We sell 2 to 2.5 used vehicles for every new one we sell. We sell quite a few used vehicles. The BMW certification process is quite stringent. The easiest way to put it is they want us to put the used car in new condition, and that’s what we try to do.
Buyers of new BMWs are covered for up to six years or 100,000 miles. What steps does your store take to improve on BMW’s parts and Service guarantees?
Service is the key for us to maintain a relationship with our customers. We’re always investing in new equipment and sending our techs to the latest BMW training. Our advisors also go through BMW training to stay on the cutting edge. We stock about a half a million dollars’ worth of parts and tires, to help get our customers back on the road as soon as we can. We’re out in the middle of the country, and a long way from any big hubs. We have people come in from Montana, Idaho, and all over Washington state for their service. We like to consider ourselves as their personal pit crew.
Let’s shift gears a bit and talk about online marketing. Which tools deliver the best results for your store?
The people who manage our website do a great job and are always looking at ways of making the site more attractive and keeping people on our site longer. Craigslist works very well for us to drive people to our web site. We also use Facebook and AutoTrader. All those seem to work pretty well for us. When I first got here we had something like three Likes on our Facebook page, now we have 14,000 people on our Facebook page. A lot of people check out Facebook at least once a day, so we’re able to stay visible. We’d like to build it to 50,000 someday. With all of the advertising you can do on Facebook, it seems to be working very well for us.
If I had to prioritize, I’d say our website is our most important tool. Second choice would be either Craigslist or Facebook. I’d like to point out that my wife, as busy as she is volunteering her time, still finds time to oversee our social media presence.
What percentage of your sales start out as leads from the Internet?
About 80%. It’s kind of hard to tell. I personally believe that everybody goes to the Internet first. We do have a lot of repeat and referral customers that are coming back. The majority of our business comes from online, because we’re not on a busy street. We’re off the beaten path. The street traffic we get is minimal, probably only about 20 cars a day.
BMW of Spokane has excellent online reviews, including a 96% recommend rate from DealerRater and a 94% recommend rate from Cars.com. This is on top of a perfect five-star rating from those posting on Edmunds.com. Clearly, your store does a great job taking care of customers. What is your customer service philosophy and how has it changed over the years, if it has?
At the beginning of my career I always considered what was right and what was wrong and I always wanted to do what was right. Over time I learned you need to get your people to work with customers regardless of the situation. I no longer believe it’s about right or wrong; it’s about earning customers for life and sometimes that requires being a little more than fair. I believe people are basically good in nature and if your staff treats them kindly and with respect, and if you’re willing to give a little more, it will earn you loyalty and trust for a long time, which, in turn, can make a car salesman’s life really enjoyable.
One online reviewer said she traveled six hours one way from a neighboring state to buy her BMW from your store and would do it again. How do you market to prospects, especially when they live in different states and often a long distance from your store?
Fortunately for us, we have modern tools and very experienced people on our team that can simplify the process. Most of those people who travel far to visit our store have already found one of our great deals online. Our staff makes them feel comfortable traveling the distance to do business with us. A lot of that has to do with getting pictures of their car, sending them pictures of our car, trying to be as transparent as we can, so they don’t have any surprises when they get here. We want them to feel comfortable enough to say, “Okay, I’m going to get in my car and drive 600 miles and trust these guys that what they’re saying is how it’s going to turn out.” We try to meet and, when possible, exceed expectations.
Do you have a customer loyalty program?
There are a lot of things we do for our customers. In this part of the country, people have winter tires and a separate set of wheels for summer. They put the hot-looking wheels on for the summer time but during winter they want to drive on different tires. We store those off-season tires for them. We give them 10% off on parts and service. We wash their car for them whenever they come in. Whenever possible, we like to put ourselves in our customers’ shoes and ask how would we like to be treated.
Your store offers multiple car finance options. What do you do to ensure the financing process is smooth and successful for your buyers?
Evette Burgess and Bill Stratton, our finance team, get involved early on to ensure we move through financing at each customer’s pace. Some buyers want to move real fast, others want to ask a lot of questions. My management team is very diligent in getting all the pieces in place. We try to be as proactive as we can to ensure a smooth process, so there are no surprises.
After more than two decades selling cars, what excites you most about the business?
I’m really excited about all the new technology on the horizon, you know, such as self-driving vehicles. And these modern-day hot rods, which are amazing in looks and finished to the standards of a Rolls Royce, are incredible.
For me, I’ve been dreaming of these vehicles for a real long time. Our customers tend to have really big lives, busy lives, and they get a chance to forget about all that stuff and be amazed. When you show someone what the latest technology can do, even if they bought a car three or four years ago, you get that wow element. It really makes it worthwhile.
What’s ahead for your store in the next three to five years?
We believe BMW and Lithia will keep amazing us with cutting edge technology and products. We as a team yearn to see the new products each year that keep inspiring us to sell. We have plans or goals to have 90% of our customer base to be repeat customers or referrals. And doing business with friends is a pretty good way to spend your day.
Author: Digital Dealer
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