Russell Blackstone, a former political consultant, enjoyed helping friends and family members with their car purchases so much he decided to go work for a dealership. Research led him to a small group owned by Don Hewlett in the Austin, TX market.
It was Hewlett’s reputation for being a great place to work along with being known in the community for being a business of integrity that caught Russell’s attention.
After a short stint on the showroom floor, he found himself selling cars online. “I started from zero, working leads out of Outlook,” he says. That first month, he sold 14 vehicles and hasn’t looked back.
The dealer group is the epitome of being an old-time dealer with a 21st century perspective, leveraging technology and the Internet to provide a great experience for its guests.
Hewlett has a rich history in the central Texas region for helping customers with their transportation needs, dating back to the late 1880s when Hewlett’s great grandfather operated a livery stable as a mule trader. Hewlett’s father-in-law was a partner in a dealership in the 1920s. And Don Hewlett himself started selling cars more than 50 years ago.
Russell shares with Digital Dealer magazine his view on what it takes to run a successful Internet operation today. No surprise, it focuses on the basics.
Russell, you’re the e-commerce director for Hewlett Volkswagen. How long have you been with them?
I started working here nine years ago.
How did you find your way into the Internet side of the business?
I was always a car fan – reading the enthusiast magazines and keeping up with the latest models. I ended up being the guy who always went to the dealership for family members and friends to do the shopping and to negotiate the car purchase.
I owned a political consulting firm for nine years in California and then started a marketing and database company, which I had for five years before selling it.
When I bought cars, I always went through a broker because the experience was better for me. After selling the database company, I worked for an auto broker for a couple of years.
I relocated to Austin, Texas, and wanted to work in a dealership because I enjoyed helping people buy cars. I researched for three months to find a dealership with honesty, great ethics and integrity and was a great place to work. That’s how I started working at Hewlett.
After six weeks on the showroom floor, they asked if I would be interested in selling cars on the Internet. It was something I had never done before, so I made sure I could go back to the showroom if it didn’t work out.
So it was a new venture.
I started from zero, working leads in Microsoft Outlook. I built a database in FileMakerPro, which we segued into AVV. From there, we started using DealerSocket.
Obviously it went well because you didn’t end up going back to the showroom.
We sold 14 vehicles online my first month in the position. And we’ve been able to steadily grow it to where it’s making up a larger share of the store’s overall sales.
A lot of it just comes down to basics. You need a passion for your brand, confidence in the product, and you need to be able to respond to customers by providing real value and content. When they come into the store and once you have determined what the guest wants, you need a five-star presentation of the vehicle.
We try to provide an amazing experience on the web site also. One of the things that has worked well for us is having our customers tell their own stories about their experiences buying or getting their vehicles serviced with us. It’s turned out to be a powerful tool for the dealership.
We also need to be competitive on pricing.
What are some things, as you look back, that haven’t worked out as well?
There have been lots of vendors and processes – we don’t have any regrets – but there are things we’ve tried to do that haven’t turned out like we thought. We’ve tried a number of things such as online negotiations and different types of phone services on the web. We’ve dabbled in social media; the things that have consistently worked for us are our responsiveness and having customers tell their own stories.
As much as the OEMs would like us to standardize the dealership environment and the way cars are sold, the reality is that every market is different and every dealership is different. The demographics are different, each sales staff is unique, vehicle mix and demand varies – stores have to do what works for them.
In hindsight, I do wish we had let go of some of the third-party lead providers sooner. We don’t really have a high opinion of some of them here. We also don’t pay for pay-per-click. We learned the hard way with a couple of vendors that didn’t work out for us. We’re fortunate, though, to be in a mid-size market where we don’t necessarily need to play there. As I mentioned before, the template that works for us might not work for another dealership, especially one in a larger market.
I’ve Googled Hewlett and it looks like you own the entire first page, except for one from Edmunds and another from a review site going back four years ago.
Yes, all of that is from our organic search engine optimization and content efforts.
You used the word, “dabbled,” when talking about social media. I find that word intriguing.
We found that our online reputation is what has legs. DealerRater has helped us learn about placing our customer testimonials online. We have put a lot of time and attention into being sure that every web site with consumer reviews has accurate and search optimized information on our dealership.
You’re not doing much with Facebook and Twitter?
Very little, but we are still reviewing that on a regular basis. Our initial perspective is that to do it right takes a lot of investment for what might be little return right now. To invest a lot of time and attention on a business that does not have an accountable relationship with our dealership is not a first priority.
I’ve asked you what things haven’t worked out for you. What about the areas that turned out to be homeruns for you?
We try to provide strong content on our web site. And I think we’ve done a good job with our Internet brochures, which help us provide strong presentations of the vehicle.
Another area that has worked well for us is video in our e-mails. We use UnityWorks Media and it has been a good partner.
ProCare was one of our homeruns. We’ve used Cobalt, which owns ProCare, as our web site vendor since the beginning. I have to admit; I was skeptical about ProCare at first because I didn’t want to pay a company extra for service. It really has been worth the investment and provides an outstanding service.
Looking at your web site, it doesn’t look like a typical Cobalt-built site.
We’ve been able to create a lot of personalization on it through the years, which is important to us.
Our web site specials also have been big. We update them just about every day. Also, chat (ActivEngage is our vendor) has been successful for us.
How do you select your vendors?
We’re obviously big on checking references. When we hear about a new vendor, we’ll talk to some of its customers. Not only does that give us a feel for what the vendor is like, it lets us talk to some top performing dealerships and early adopters. There’s always something to learn.
When we bring a company on, we’ll normally do it for 90 days. I’ll admit, however, we probably are one of the higher maintenance dealerships out there. We try to learn as much as we can about new technologies and really push new vendors for results while we are with them. The ones that remain survived the experience.
We also attend the Digital Dealer conferences. That is our university. We visit with different vendors and dealers and hit the sessions, so we pick up a lot of information there.
Do you use an inventory management tool?
We use Auto Exchange (DealerTrack’s AAX). All of our managers are involved in using it.
I’m hearing increased complaints that some of these products are starting to erode profitability on sales.
That’s true. Any product that creates downward pressure on pricing – and there are a lot of them now – are only leading us down a path that isn’t good. Our job as a dealer body is to select vendors that really are our partners. The fact is, some of these companies are not good for dealers.
Earlier, you mentioned working for Hewlett because of its integrity.
It’s a family-owned dealer group. Don Hewlett became owner of the Chevrolet Buick store in 1972. His three sons, Don Ross, David and Mike were awarded a brand new Volkswagen point in 2000 making it a truly family run operation.
What sets us apart is our philosophy of service, which is based on family. Our owners have taught us it doesn’t cost a dime to be nice to someone. I think both sales and service understand we have solid backup from ownership to do the right thing.
Also, Mr. Hewlett’s philosophy is to take care of the employees, who in turn, take care of the customer. We have a lot of long-term employees because it is such a great place to work.
What’s your typical day like?
I supervise all of the vehicle sale opportunities for the dealership – both sales and service – in our CRM tool. I review the pipeline and assist the managers in targeting the opportunities.
I don’t supervise anything in fixed operations, but I do help them with responding to opportunities and by driving business to them.
What sort of things are you planning for this year?
We’re going to focus on enhancing the relationship between the sales and service departments. We want to bridge that gap on the service drive and engage with our customers throughout the entire dealership. There are a lot of opportunities for sales in the service and parts departments.
We’re also going to be using the web to drive more service and parts business. We are currently hiring to expand our sales staff.