Vandergriff Chevrolet is among the top 200 dealerships nationwide in sales, with close to $90 million in revenue, and it is also among the top 100 dealerships nationwide in Internet new and used car sales volume.
The dealership, which has been an Arlington, Texas, institution for 75 years, just completed a $1.6 million GM Image remodeling project in four short months.
Partner and General Manager Rick Cantalini recently shared with Dealer magazine his two-fold formula for success: Keep an eye on the tried and true basics for providing exceptional customer service and stay ahead of the competition by adopting the latest digital technology for sales and marketing processes.
First, Rick, how did you get into the retail automotive business?
My uncle and Dad owned a Ford dealership in Springfield, Massachusetts. While I was in college, at Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, in 1976, my regular summer job dried up, so I walked into the dealership and asked my uncle if I could get a job washing cars. He said: ‘We don’t need car washers; we need car sellers.’ So, that’s what I became. When I finished college and I couldn’t find another job, I came back and worked at the dealership for another three years.
Why did you move to Texas?
I moved to Texas because of a very special young lady. We dated all through college and when she graduated, she wanted to move on with our lives, get married and move to Texas. She had relatives here. I said: ‘Not yet, but if you like it, I’ll come down and visit you and maybe I’ll move down. I did, we married, and I started working for the Hillard Family, a Ford megadealer. I was there for 18 years.
In 1998, the Hillard family sold the dealership to AutoNation. I lasted 10 weeks with AutoNation. Then I was introduced to Cecil Van Tuyl (who passed away in November) and after many conversations, we became partners, and I became head of Vandergriff Chevrolet and I’m still partners with his son. So, three hops since l976.
Tell us a little about the history of your dealership.
Vandergriff is the oldest name in the automotive business in Arlington, Texas. We go back 75 years. W.T. “Hooker” Vandergriff established his first dealership in Arlington in 1937. His daughter became a Buick dealer here and his son, Tom Vandergriff, at 25 became the youngest mayor that Arlington ever had. Tom Vandergriff was instrumental in bringing the Washington Senators to Texas who became the Texas Rangers, and he was instrumental in bringing the GM assembly plant to Arlington. He was in the House of Representatives for many years, until he died a few years ago. The Vandergriff name is synonymous with integrity and we cherish it.
I also acquired the Vandergriff Buick dealership in 2000 and kept it until 2004, when GM bought that franchise back. Then, in 2005, I bought a Hyundai dealership down the street to replace the Buick franchise.
This past year, we completely remodeled Vandergriff Chevrolet. We did the GM Image program and it came out great. We transformed the space we had. We spent in excess of $1.6 million. We did the outside texture and paint, all the windows, lights, new air conditioning, all new furniture, and put all new lights in the service department and in the service stalls. It’s just gorgeous. People have said to me: ‘I’ve seen a lot of these remodels, but this one came out the best.’
It was disruptive for about four months. Even so, 2012 was 5% higher in new car sales, than 2011. For our Internet sales, the breakdown was 60/40% new to used car sales. In 2011, we sold 755 new cars and 570 used cars for a total of 1,325 vehicles as a result of Internet generated leads.
As a result, I’d say, as a dealership, we’ve got a lot of potential in used car sales – meaning we can do a better job in used car sales.
Is that your biggest challenge?
People are the biggest challenge. It’s always a challenge to find the right number of motivated people to bring into the car business. It’s a great business, and it’s better than it was when I started, in terms of a career. It’s not that easy to start. Every salesperson at some point looks in the mirror and says: ‘I don’t know if this is for me.’ 15 to 20% get past that day and then they’re in the car business for 5, 10, 15 years, or 38 years like I am. Some say: ‘Well, maybe not.’ And they drop out. So that’s our biggest challenge — to bring in good people interested in this as a career, so they’ll be the 30-year people down the line. We’re always looking for good people.
And, of course, we like to keep those good people. I have three or four managers here that were with me at Hillard. Many of my other managers started off as salespeople here and they’ve been promoted from within. We like to promote from within and we provide our employees with the training they need so we can do that. In February, one of our technicians celebrated his 50th employment anniversary at our company!
Our partner, Van Tuyl Group has a great professional development class that we send new salespeople to for a week and we have additional internal training where we show people: where the keys are, how to take customers for a test drive, our licensing procedures, getting identifications, and so on. We have intermediate training too. We provide quite a bit of training for our people.
What is unique about your dealership?
It’s people focused and every dealer strives for this. My employees want to provide quality service to our customers in as personal a way as possible. I answer my own phone. I don’t keep a secretary. When customers call me, I pick up the phone and say hello.
Our philosophy has traditionally been to have a single person be the point of contact for the customer and handle a deal from beginning to end. So when a lead comes in, we have had a sales agent handling the lead, setting an appointment and selling the car.
We have a total sales staff of 32 to 35 people, with seven to nine on our Internet team. Recently, we’ve been experimenting with an open BDC, where, under our Internet Director Rod Tiller’s supervision, a floor salesperson can come into the BDC and work a couple of Internet leads. We’re also experimenting with people who just handle the leads and set appointments, and then a floor salesperson would close the deal. So, at the moment, we have a combination of open floor plan and BDC.
But, no matter how we handle our leads, we treat all our customers with great respect and make sure we give them all the information they want upfront.
As with any dealership, there’s always going to occasionally be a dropped ball, or somebody has a misunderstanding, or somebody needs a little more flexibility to satisfy the customer when they know it doesn’t cost anything. But I know no one here is mean spirited or dishonest in the way we treat our customers. It’s not in our DNA. They wouldn’t make it through the hiring process and they wouldn’t last any meaningful amount of time. Really, I hope this isn’t unique to our dealership, but this striving to provide quality service to our customers is something I’m very proud of.
We’ve won Chevrolet Dealer of the Year Award whose core value is based on customer satisfaction and delivering an experience that is second to none. We’ve won the Chevrolet Mark of Excellence Awards many times for our superior customer service, and progressive growth in sales, in comparison to all other dealerships in our region. And, we’ve won other CSI distinctions within the region and various awards from the local business press.
What is your average day like?
It starts early. I review the daily operating control information from the day before and we have a pre-sales meeting first thing to discuss business from the day before. We discuss customer satisfaction results we’ve gotten from the night before. Then I do a tour of the lot, shake hands, and do a tour through the office. Next, I do check signing for this dealership and the Hyundai franchise as well. At 11 a.m., I do what we call ‘Save a Deal’ at the Hyundai franchise. I try to exercise a little bit at lunch, or take a team member out to lunch.
Then we have ‘Save a Deal at Chevrolet’ in the afternoon here. We have weekly customer satisfaction meetings. I’ve got two remote collision repair centers about eight miles from here in different directions, so I check those out. I walk around and talk to people. We have a directors’ meeting for each company on Wednesdays and Thursdays. It’s all fun. I’ve never “had” to work a day in my life, I “get” to!
Perhaps unlike many dealers, I’m very active in the Internet arena. It’s a virtual showroom for us and drives a lot of our business, so I’m very involved on a daily basis. I have strategy meetings almost every day with my GSM, Bob Clark, and my Internet director, Rod Tiller. We are always talking numbers, and leads, and it’s the way we grow.
What advice would you give to a young general manager?
Generally, do the right thing by the customer. Impress them with your knowledge of the product and answer their questions and then I’d ask the customer for the business as a natural conclusion.
But, to get to that dialogue, first, as a dealership, cast a wide net and try to generate your own leads. The quality of them will be so much better and they cost far less than leads from third-party lead providers. Your salespeople need to treat these leads as a valuable commodity and then always listen to what people ask and respond meaningfully to them. That’s what I see. I’ve shopped on the Internet for cars myself. And you ask a question and if the salesperson comes back with something that sounds boilerplate, or the information is incomplete, that’s not conducive to closing a deal.
Your salespeople have to listen to what the customer is saying and respond with what is meaningful to them. The leads come in through email, phone or texting. Texting is becoming an acceptable mode of communication. We don’t do any broadcast texting. We initiate texting only after the customer gives us their permission and their information. We adhere to all the privacy codes. We don’t want to be discourteous to anyone. But many of our customers have responded positively to texting, because they can respond to you when it’s convenient for them and it’s compact and succinct. They get the information they need, in the format they want. Texting will get bigger and bigger as time goes on.
Do you see your market changing – becoming much more involved with technology because of Gen Y?
I think Internet shopping is going across all generations. The Internet is everybody’s tool now, but the folks that grew up with it from the first, the Gen Yers, research everything online. They are more comfortable communicating with text than having conversations, from what I’ve seen. I see my kids and their friends sitting around texting other people, and I say: ‘Why don’t you stop texting and just enjoy the folks that are here?’ And they say that they are enjoying the folks that are here. It’s a different social mode. But, everyone, from the Baby Boomers and younger are shopping on the Internet.
What do you see for the future in the automotive retail business?
I see a strong trend toward mobile — that’s where people have their computer, in the palm of their hand. A lot of people are already accessing the Internet exclusively on iPad and iPhones. That’s where they want to research a car — what’s available, how much does it cost, are there any incentives? A lot of that is happening now, but I think it’s going to become more and more prevalent. Except for at work and at people’s homes, the desktop computer is not practical. People will be using the Internet through a mobile device. I know that I’ve gone from checking e-mail at a sit down application to just using my iPhone all the time.
I think mobile apps are going to create some great opportunities in advertising. I have a daughter in Chicago who deals in digital advertising sales and she says that is the hottest thing going.
How is your advertising budget split, right now, traditional vs. digital?
Our advertising budget is 70% digital and 30% traditional. I’m heavily digital with search engine optimization (SEO). We also do some electronic billboards which are wonderful large TVs at the side of the highway. We do some cable, a little bit of TV, but not network; it’s just too expensive. Our TV ads are geared towards drawing customers to our website and to coming into the dealership. We do not use newspaper.
We use some smart direct mail. It ties into the Internet where there’s a landing page where people can sign up for a premium or get a personal web page, and then we’ll re-market to them.
We don’t use direct mail anymore to tell people to “bring your key in” or drive people into the showroom for a gold chain or some other prize. It all starts with driving people to our website to register – a light, quick and easy registration that won’t run them off. Then we follow up.
We are soliciting trade-ins tied to web leads and registrations. For instance, we say: ‘We want your 2008 Chevrolet for a trade-in.’ That seems to be working very well.
How do you keep current with the latest technology for Internet marketing?
I ask my daughters. They are keeping me current on a lot of things. We’re pretty tech savvy here. My GSM and Internet director are very tech savvy. We read Dealer magazine in the digital edition. I really enjoy your magazine. I get the notifications and go to your website. If something is going on, we sniff it out.
I go to NADA on occasion, and within Van Tuyl, we have dealer groups; it’s like 20 groups on steroids. If I have any kind of challenge, I can contact someone else in the Van Tuyl group that’s doing it better and have their expertise at my disposal with a phone call. It’s just like they were a partner.
What vendors have contributed to your dealership’s success?
Quite a few. We use DealerSocket for our CRM. We looked at a couple of CRM systems, but chose DealerSocket. It’s quite advanced and they are always morphing it so it integrates with the latest technology from other vendors as well.
They’ve got great mobile apps. I don’t want to get on a desktop anymore. I use my iPhone and iPads, and with DealerSocket’s apps, I can see how many guests we’ve had and how many deals we’ve sold. And, when I get a customer inquiry, I can look up that customer’s file instantly, while I’m on the phone with them. It’s pretty handy. All my salespeople can do this with DealerSocket apps too. We have Android apps as well as iPhone. It works really great.
We use ADP for our DMS, and we also have ADP Web Desking, and automated pencils, so we’re compliant with interest rate quoting and we’re accurate. ADP Web Desk pushes into DealerSocket, and so we have all our records combined. ADP is what I’ve used my whole professional life and it works very well.
We use eCarList for inventory management and our inventory feeds to the Internet. One of our secrets to success is that we post actual pictures of the new or used cars online even before they go through our conditioning, so we get them out there as soon as possible. You’ve got to post those pictures fast and accurately. That’s a full-time job for one of our porter/support/inventory control people. With the extensive amount of photos we post, it was tough getting this started. You have to muscle through it, but once you start it, you just keep up with it. It’s like it used to be with newspapers ads, but with the web, it gets posted earlier.
Dealer.com hosts our website and we also have a Cobalt site that GM provides and both have mobile capabilities. Van Tuyl Marketing does SEO for our Dealer.com site. Cobalt does it for the GM site. Both are very effective. We don’t do that much SEM. We place some cookies for people making an inquiry and I think that has been effective, but I’m waiting for the next best mouse trap for SEM, before we spend a lot of money on that.
We are very happy with both our Dealer.com and Cobalt sites and together they provide 85% of our leads. We do sometimes just buy raw third-party leads, but then we snap out of it.
We also like to generate our own leads on Facebook, where we have a leads and likes program. For the month of December, we had drawings for two $500 prizes on Facebook. So we’re going to continue that and see how well it works out. Right now, we are generating about 25 leads a week on Facebook. Those leads convert as well as any of the leads from our Dealer.com and Cobalt websites. We have a 15 to 18% close rate of all of our leads.
We have a lot of fun experimenting with our Facebook website. If someone gives us permission, when we deliver a car, we post a picture of them on Facebook in their new car.
We’re very conscious of our online reputation, and we ask customers, if they feel very positive about their experience with us, to post a review and share that feeling with folks on Google or DealerRater and a lot of times they can push it to several sites at once.
Facebook is a fairly inexpensive way to get in front of people. Then, with DealerSocket, we can stay in touch with them and develop a relationship.
Dealer.com also does our e-newsletter. We come on strong to our sales leads for seven days, we follow up for 90 days, and we still send customers and prospects an e-newsletter even after that. Dealer.com sends our e-newsletter to almost 60,000 good e-mail addresses. We’ve been collecting those addresses for a long time and we spend the time to keep them clean. We use DMEautomotive to clean up our database and append and do other processes on a regular basis, and we do have a great e-mail database.
Do you think eventually all sales will be via the Internet?
I don’t think that at all. I think the Internet is a communications tool, as is texting. But people still need to touch the car, drive it, smell it and take care of their trade-in situation, and financial details. People have situations with their credit. They have equity situations with their trade-ins. There are all kinds of details that need to be hashed out in person. We still have to stock cars and people will want to look at them and drive them and check them out. I don’t think we’ll be ‘dealerless,’ like the Tesla model. Many people can’t just call up and do it all over the phone. That’s not the real world.