Jim Flint, Director of Interactive Sales & Marketing for the John Eagle Group, in Texas, talks about how the group on track to sell 9,000 vehicles out of the Internet department this year, up from 7,000 in 2009.
Tell us about the history of the John Eagle Auto Group.
The first store was owned by John’s dad, Bob Eagle, and was a Lincoln-Mercury store in Dallas that he acquired in 1962. Over time, they acquired more dealership and now the John Eagle Dealerships has 11 rooftops, 14 different franchises and more than 1,500 employees with equity partners in each location. The group has been around for some time, most prominently in Dallas and Houston with points in Panama City, Florida and Austin, Texas as well.
Are you based in Houston?
I am, but I travel back and forth between our dealerships in Dallas and Houston.
How did you get into the business?
I’m from the Dallas-Fort Worth area. I played baseball at TCU then started working in sports marketing and moved over from there to the automotive business and spent time in different regional sales positions for companies like Nike, Nissan and Toyota. I really enjoy the selling environment, really love the technological aspects of the business and have always been kind of engaged in the Internet.
I have to ask, what position did you play?
In college I played left field. In high school though, I played pitcher, catcher, shortstop, kind of where ever I was needed. And I think that’s my role right now in the organization—as the Internet evolves from a single department to having a role in most aspects of our business.
They say sports teaches you about life.
Yes. It keeps you humble. It keeps your disciplined and focused. The good thing is that it’s like the car business in that you get feedback at the end of each day. You know what kind of job you did based on how many cars you sold or how many runs you scored. There are a lot of parallels.
Within the dealer group, as the director of interactive sales & marketing, what is your biggest challenge?
You know for us, we are a de-centralized group. So meeting the challenges that each store presents is the most important thing to our team. We provide support to our partners to help them execute the plans that help them drive their business. With so many different facets to the Internet business some stores believe more in certain parts of the Internet business than others. In some ways the level of aggressiveness at each store helps us determine how we can best support their sales goals.
At the end of the day John Eagle has very strategic and smart business partners who are forward-thinking. Otherwise this doesn’t work.
Also, each dealership has really talented Internet Directors who understand the business AND the web. Most importantly they know how to develop processes that work in their stores.
I am looking at your web site and I see it says, “powered by eCarList.”
A great company. They tend to keep a lower profile though.
When Toyota of Lewisville wanted to look at potential new website vendors, I set up the criteria of what we needed. Things like unique URLs, unique meta tags, image tags — just some of the structural things that if done right, would help us develop a stronger web presence. We also wanted to make sure the site had the right look and feel and that a vendor could support the unique elements of our decentralized structure.
We looked at two other vendors and eCarlist. We did webinars and phone calls with each of the others, but we met in person with eCarList and their president, Len Critcher – mainly because they are quite literally down the street from us in Dallas.
We really appreciate having them nearby and having a relationship with them. We can go in and hang out in their offices and meet with their teams at least once a month. That was the deciding factor — home field advantage and relationships — and it’s been great. They’ve done some really incredible work with and for us.
eCarlist does many things well, but the one thing that they do better than anyone else around is what I’ll call shopability. It’s the length of time spent on the site and the number of pages that consumers go through once they’ve reached the site. The fact is consumers spend more time on our eCarlist sites shopping our inventory than they do on other sites.
How much are you doing in social media right now and what kind of return are you getting? What kind of return should you be getting?
That’s a tough question. All I know is the number of people participating in social media is huge (editors note: 100 million plus on Facebook) and the conversations that used to happen around water coolers are now happening online. This summer we brought in a social media intern, Brittany Brown, who did outstanding work. She increased the number of people that were following us by 24.5% and we were able to get customers and our staff engaged in car-based conversations on Facebook.
When Brittany went back to school we made the decision to hire a social media manager at the corporate level – Angela Jones – and she’s taking the foundational work that Brittany did to the next level. She’s interacting daily via Facebook, Twitter and Foursquare. She’s developing press releases and bringing even stronger corporate–wide promotional concepts to the table.
Our strategy is to authentically engage with customers; take pictures of them in their cars; and have them share the positive experiences at our dealerships with others in the online environment. To some degree social media is an extension of your reputation management and how are seen and viewed online.
The tough question is the one you asked about ROI though. I can confirm that we’ve sold a few cars through Facebook. It’s not a huge number though. I think you have to think of it in terms of being part of a conversation versus being absent from the discussion.
So that is kind of how we frame it. We want to maintain the dialogue with our customers—current ones or potential ones—and become a trusted resource. That way, when it’s time for them to buy a car or to have their vehicle serviced they think about us first.
I see on the Honda of Houston Facebook page there was a response saying: “We’re actually hanging out right now at John Eagle getting our oil changed.”
Yes, we have incentives for people to check in when they are at our locations. A few days back, we had the remnants of Tropical Storm Herrmine coming through Houston and Dallas. People that checked in on Foursquare that day at John Eagle Honda of Houston received free umbrellas. Some days we’ll offer a free keychain on Foursquare or 10% off same day accessory purchases like we’ve done at John Eagle Acura.
Tell us one or two things you can say you didn’t know going in what the result was going to be, but turned out to be a homerun.
You know, one of the bigger ones was with cash for clunkers. As you probably remember, the whole program was tied up in legislation for awhile and nobody knew whether the program would happen or not. We decided to put ourselves in a position to take advantage of the program—just in case.
I built a WordPress site that became a trusted resource for Texas consumers. We provided updated information about the legislation using Google Alerts. We added MPG information for each car from each of the manufacturers.
It was a roll of the dice, but once the legislation did pass we were right there and ready to go. We had our own pay-per-click campaigns developed and were able to deliver custom campaigns that drove consumers to our site. It turned out we were ahead of the competition and as a result had a pretty successful program.
How about on the negative side where you thought, “Wow, this didn’t work out as well as we hoped?”
You know, I think the challenge we have in that regard is how we look at third-party lead providers. Our strategic goal is to drive first-party leads. We want to send people to our web sites and sell from there. But there have been times where we have worked without one of our lead providers and we found out it wasn’t necessarily the smartest thing to do.
So let’s say for example, in one of our major metros, we turned off AutoTrader — and I’m not saying they were individually responsible for our business that month — but it was clear to me we were missing on 5,000 clicks that could have been 500 leads that could have been 50 sales that didn’t drop to the bottom line. There are some times we test our limits on that front and find out that working without them isn’t the best decision.
I hear that often.
It can be frustrating and I’ll tell you right now, we’re being pursued by website providers that are out building the next Autotrader or Cars.com sites. Several companies will list our inventory for free and offer us upgraded packages for a fee.
The sites, once the structure is in place, are not overly complicated. They do a good job and take advantage of the prevailing wisdom of the search engines. In theory, if a site lists a million units the search engines and ultimately consumers will come to recognize that site to be more important and valuable to their information needs than one of our sites that has 300 to 500 units.
As a result, the site aggregators start showing up frequently in the optimized listings and a lot of guys are left out in the cold. Some of the sites can be beneficial, but it’s a slippery slope. How much is too much and what happens when “free” becomes “a fee?” Each month we look at the investment we make and whether it’s paying off in terms of car sales.
Some solutions are good, but you can’t afford to support all of them. I‘ve come to the conclusion that AutoTrader and Cars.com are in the business for the long haul.
You’re going to be speaking at the 9th Digital Dealer Conference & Exposition about ways that a dealership can take some of these initiatives and bring them in house. You mentioned pay-per-click, what else are you doing in-house?
Well, the social media aspect of it, we talked about as well. We do picture taking in-house. There’s nothing better for business than an efficient, local photographer who enjoys cars and can move and merchandise our products to market more attractively and more quickly than the competition.
For example, at our Honda Car of Katy location we have a photographer who’s been in the business for some time. So much so that he’s actually done appraisals and trades before and knows what to look for in the cars. He not only takes our pictures, but he does the pricing on the cars as well. That’s the perfect world for us. An internal employee who goes in and takes the photos of the cars, posts them to the Internet, merchandises the photos, develops the descriptions and goes in and looks at the true market value of the cars around him and determines the pricing based on his knowledge of the vehicle. Now, if we could replicate that in the other stores, we certainly would, but that’s just a real good example of one of our dealerships taking it to the next level.
What kind of advancements or things are you seeing from a technology perspective that you find intriguing?
I pay attention to Google. They have been one step ahead of the game for so long that you have to pay attention to the moves they make and respond accordingly. Also, we try to, where we can, align with their core philosophy to deliver relevance to customers. If we can give people access to information that they want about the products that we’re selling, then everyone wins.
The growth of text messaging is interesting, too. Trying to get customers on the phone is going to be old school at some point and that’s because fewer and fewer younger customers are engaging on the phone. I’ve seem instances where younger customers won’t pick up the phone for whatever reason, but you text them and they reply back immediately.
So I can only imagine the mindset of, “I can control the communication I have via text and respond to it much more efficiently and in a preferred way versus the seemingly never ending 5-10 minute conversation with long pauses and awkward silences on the phone. I choose to text.”
Chat and text are going to become even more prevalent than they already are in the next decade.
That’s a great point, is that, we have had to learn to communicate by email. Now, it seems to be chat. I’ve got dealers telling me it is becoming their biggest source of leads.
We’re going through the same evolution. When leads are down year over year—like they were in 2009—you become much more responsive to the people that are interesting in having conversations with you and to us chat is just a different type of phone conversation. It’s really an efficient solution to driving more business.
Who do you use?
We use two partners, one is Contact@Once and the other is eCarList, our web site partner. They have been both been really good partners.
We use Contact@Once for our guys that do the chat themselves. eCarlist developed a managed chat solution for us. In that case our guys receive a transcript of the chat immediately after the chat is complete. Our guys read the transcript and then respond to the customer based on what transpired in the chat, so it’s a synchronized hand off. That’s been the best path for us.
What is your typical day like?
My calendar stays pretty booked. Today we had a conference call this morning with my team in Dallas and Houston and then we had Dale Pollak from vAuto speaking with our partners, used car managers and general managers in Houston in the afternoon and then in Dallas the next morning.
There are a lot of meetings with our stores and our suppliers. In between we look at the mountains of data and try to turn it into meaningful information so that we can support our general managers and partners in their effort to drive sales.
We have a strong team in place. John’s daughter, Amanda Eagle, is part of the team, and she’s outstanding. She’s been through a number of rotations already—parts, finance, the service drive, sales – and I’ll tell you, a lot of our success wouldn’t have happened without her. She has become a huge force on the sales operations side of the business. We have all of the tracking components and information that we need to help us improve our day-to-day operations because of her efforts.
I also act as the conduit with the partners to make sure the communication flows smoothly back and forth, because without their feedback and a full understanding of what they want to achieve, there is no success.
I also meet with John, Rene’ (editor’s note: the owner of Rene Isip’s Toyota of Lewisville and Honda Cars of Katy) and Duffy Cummings, chief financial officer for the group, to go over game plans and performance metrics.
We’ll look at what is coming down the pipeline to be prepared as well.
As an example, about a year ago we started tracking mobile. Last October mobile provided approximately 2% of the total unique visitors to our sites. By February that number had grown to 6%–or more than a 300% increase.
When we were at 2% it really wasn’t as important, but at 5% or greater we really needed to have a solution for those types of customers because we wanted to stay connected with those customers. We developed a complete mobile application for each of our stores with the help of eCarlist.
We’ve been up and running for several months and are spending time developing specific pay-per-click campaigns that drive people who are on their mobile phones to a map or a phone number, because we believe that’s probably what they are looking for when they are searching on a mobile device.
With support from Stephanie White, who does an amazing job managing our pay per click, we’ve been reasonably successful.
We’ve also done a complete overhaul of all of the web sites in the past year, just to stay on top of the evolving technology.
We are now going down the path with parts and service as well as with John’s two collision centers to make sure we’re standing tall in the area as well. I thought it was pretty indicative at the last Digital Dealer Conference & Exposition in Orlando – that two of the three keynote addresses, were about the opportunity on the service drive. We’re trying to recognize that as well, so it’s always a challenge.
Those sound like two very good initiatives because warranty continues to decline. Customer pay along with customer retention will be so much more important.
In fact, Amanda, Rene’ and I have spent the last four or five months visiting different dealerships and call centers in other markets and talking with them about developing a structure for this opportunity. Greenway Dodge in Orlando is doing a great job in this area.
We are going down the path to try to bring back and retain those customers who have been in our dealership in the past year, but that haven’t had a customer pay experience of any kind. With the Toyota recall, we realized so many people are not coming back to us, and at some level we reactivated them in March and April. Now we want to determine if there is a way to do business with them on a longer-term basis.
John Eagle has a strong used car business.
We have progressive, aggressive used car managers. With the help of vAuto and under the direction of Michael Stanford, our corporate used car director, we’ve gone from selling 700 used cars each month to closing in on 1,000 a month.
How do you guys determine whether a car is an Internet related sale or not?
Last year, we sold just 7,000 over units online. This year we passed 6,000 in August and are pacing toward 9,000 plus by the end of the year.
We have the mindset that every telephone call is an Internet customer and every lead that comes in through the CRM is an Internet customer.
We’ll track a lead or a phone call back to the shopping experience the customer had. We have one level more than just saying, “Hey, I want credit for this car.” We have to prove it through the CRM and then we, at some level, attempt to prove it again through F&I.
Our F&I guys ask the customer how they heard about us. That’s so we can understand the advertising ROI as well. We want to know was it the location? Was it AutoTrader, the radio or a direct mail piece? Then we tag that deal and run reports to understand what we made on the front, on the back and for the total bill of sale. Then we can go back and have meaningful conversations with our stores and our vendors about the performance.
The dealers who have had their structure set-up and the processes in place prior to the downturn are in a great position to steal market share from even some of the other dealers that have survived.
That’s what we’re doing. I give all of the credit to John and Rene’.
John provides the vision. He’s understood, for some time, that this is where the business is headed and has developed the strategy that puts the right team in place. He’s a great leader and incredibly good with people and numbers. His ability to attract and retain some of the most talented people in the industry is well-known, well-deserved and well-respected. Through the years he’s built the right structure by empowering his partners to build and engineer the success of the individual stores.
Rene’ is one of the best operators and merchandisers in the business. He has an ability to see what’s coming next and he’s been a real driving force in the development of our interactive sales & marketing team.
The other key thing is the decentralized structure. We pilot different things at the individual stores to determine if it works and then move it out to the rest of the group, if it does. That way the stores are interested in finding new things that work for them. Then when they become successful the partner shares the details with the rest of the group and lets them know, “You need to try this out.”