Number one for two years among Ford dealerships in Internet sales, Sam Pack’s Five Star Ford in North Richland Hills, TX, and the group’s other two stores in Carrollton and Lewisville, are some of the most respected dealerships in the country.
Joshua Fichter, director of operations for the North Richland Hills dealership credits support from the senior management and an attitude of constant learning as the reasons the three stores are so successful.
Tell us how you got into this business.
Well, I got into the car business on a bet with my parents back in 1996. They wanted me to get out of what they called a ‘dead-end’ job and try car selling. I said okay as long as long as they would pay my bills if I failed at it. Low and behold, 15 years later and I am still waiting to cash in on paying my bills.
I started with Allan Vigil Ford in Atlanta and sold there for 18 months. Then I moved to Texas where my family was at the time to work for Sam Pack’s Five Star Ford in February of 1998 as a retail floor sales person. In August of 1998, they asked me if I wanted to try Internet sales. I said sure, what was it? They said well, there’s the computer and you go figure it out, so that’s what I did.
Why do you think they asked you to do that?
I was the type of salesperson who was always looking for a prospect to hand out postcards to people whose cars would be coming up. And I was always the type of person who would grab those and work them. I think a lot of it had to do with how they saw me from a follow-up standpoint. I’m not a techie person, but I have some technical skills. Also, it is just my nature to take something on that is a little different. I worked the process to get the customer to visit the store.
That was the early the days of the Web.
Yes, that was back in the day when every Internet customer had a 700 beacon score and cash to plop down, and was willing to pay for the convenience of buying online. It was a different time.
But, like a lot of dealers, the management at Five Star wanted the proof ahead of time. So, I was a one-man show for a year and a half. Hindsight being 20/20, there’s no telling how many sales we lost, because I had too many leads, I couldn’t follow-up properly. I was handling 200-250 leads a month by myself and selling the car cradle to grave. So, it wasn’t real good, a lot of it was if the customer never responded, I never responded and that was just reality.
When did you start adding staff?
Over the course of time, it appeared we needed additional people. Also, my wife was going to have our first child. So, I asked them who was going to replace me for that time.
They asked who I wanted. I told them, Kelly Blackwell, and they agreed.
Kelly sat down in front of the computer and said, ‘Okay, tell me about the Internet, I’ve never been on it before.’ He proceeded to sell 29 and a half cars that month. We still joke about that today, because the Internet is not about technical, it is still sales.
It was off to the races then.
Our numbers more than doubled immediately in March of 2000. If you have the right number of people working, with the right number of leads and follow up, in general you are going to sell more cars.
We added our third person in January 2001. I left internet as my focus to start a business development center here at the dealership in the start of 2002. Since then, our Internet department has grown to 11 internet sales managers with a full-time director. And, I’m still not certain we have enough people, especially with some conversations we have had in the past couple of days.
How do you handle the Internet leads?
A lot of dealerships went with Ford on the business development center idea and rolled their Internet departments into the BDC – which we never did.
There are different ways to handle leads. We have always been a cradle to the grave store with our Internet department. Our guys — with the exception of signing the customer up in finance — do everything, from the first contact, to the demos, to the negotiation to everything else. So, you can’t handle as many leads as a business development center. We didn’t feel like moving it to a standalone business development center where you had the callers was the right way to go. But, I know a lot of dealerships who do it successfully.
We use Dealer Socket as our lead management tool, and all of the leads come in to an email address. We can manage all of our leads and follow up by source, so based on the source it is coming into we can manage and see how easily different sources perform. We have a complete follow-up process for 180 days from when a lead comes in.
What do you see as being a big challenge still for dealers?
Having been involved with Internet sales now for 12 years, I see dealers still having problems putting the right number of people to the right number of leads that they are getting. What that number is, opinions vary. There is certainly something to be said if you have someone handling 80 leads a month, and you’re doing a front-to-back process, then they’ve got too many leads. If they are just the person on the phone, they can handle a whole lot more leads.
You’ve expanded beyond just being an Internet sales guy.
I moved into business development for five years, trying several scenarios. We’ve had big staffs, smaller staffs, a mix of salespeople, then just salespeople.
Then in February of 2008, we started on a new path, which is the Director of Operations title. It involves the sales side right now and working through on processes and how we can leverage technology to help us more, that kind of stuff.
What are you looking to do this year?
We are looking at the buzz words right now — social networking, and online reputation management. I have a person whose only focus is managing the social networking, ensuring that we have constant contact and content going out. But it’s not sales content — its content to stay in front of customers.
We‘re quickly building that up and for the potential to reach people we have never reached before. If you look at the statistics, if you have 2,000 fans, and all of them have an average of 180 friends, with the right message and the right people getting involved, you could reach nearly 360,000 people with a message for free. So, I think, there is a lot of potential in that, and we are wrapping our head around that.
You’re also focusing on reputation management.
We have been working with DealerRater.com for about two weeks. We are just right now getting our hands wrapped around online reputation management. I think a lot of dealers are getting into that, and what is the right way to do it? I don’t know if anyone knows the right way right now.
We’re also launching a new website for all of our stores, and a new group site that will hopefully be up before this article comes out.
I’m also trying to get away from using lots of vendors as plug-ins, and move to a digital services provider so to speak. So I can get better reporting and analytics. Then we can go to the next phase, which is better advertising, remarketing and behavioral targeting. Funneling everything through one vendor that can manage all the analytics will give us a better idea of what is happening. There are a lot of irons in the fire right now.
So, a lot of changes?
We are reviewing everything right now. I think it is good to do that. My Internet manager will shop other dealers, but it goes beyond that. It stems from support from our upper management that encourages us to constantly look for ways to improve. We’ve been to four different Digital Dealer Conferences, and April will be our fifth. We just returned from another training. We are constantly listening and talking and seeing what other people are doing, because we aren’t going to think of everything ourselves. Even though our numbers are good, we aren’t as good as we think we are. That is just human nature. It is always good to step back and evaluate.
Are you using the web to market your fixed operations department?
We haven’t done much of that in the past. We do run multipoint inspections service ads on the local newspaper site just to build awareness. We also e-mail consumers who haven’t been in for service in the last 6-12 months, 12-18 months and over 18 months.
Sam Pack’s stores have been strong nationally among Ford stores with Internet sales.
As far as Ford source leads are concerned, in 2007 and 2008 the North Richland Hills store was number one for Ford-sourced lead sales volume. And in 2009 we got edged out in the last month by one sale by my good friends at Galpin Ford.
Our Carrollton store ranked 12th while the Lewisville store finished 16th.
So these were leads that Ford was providing you?
Yes, this particular award or ranking is for leads provided by Ford, which matches leads in their sales tracking system to sales reported by dealers.
As you look back on the last several years, what is the one or two things that you look back on and shake your head and ask, ‘What was I thinking?’
Well, I have one. We saw the trend of sales going down and made the mistake of cutting the number of people we had in the Internet department.
It wasn’t drastic – we were down one person. Not having that one person caused our closing ratios to go down on top of losing sales. So, we got caught up with this negative syndrome.
Although sales did go down overall nationally, the percent of retail sales that the Internet makes up in relation the dealer sales didn’t go down. In fact it grew. The power of the Internet continues to show us that more and more people are looking for information and coming through that Web portal.
On the flip side, what was the one thing you look back on and say, ‘Yea, I know what I’m doing.’
I don’t know if I have ever said that.
Well there has to be one thing, from the dealership perspective, it can say, ‘We took this direction, saw it and jumped on it.’
Well I think that is really 12 years of embracing the Internet as a place to do business rather than fighting it. Tony Pack, our dealer principal, back in 1995 was one of the first dealerships to sign up with Autobytel. He had a vision of the power of the Internet and we have made that come to life.
It has taken several people — me, our Internet Director, Kelly Blackwell and management, to say we need to keep moving forward. There was a time when Kelly said he needed more people and I pushed back saying you are just cutting your other people’s throats. But, with more people, he got more leads and we sold more cars and grew.
So I guess the biggest part of this is for Tony Pack and our General Manager Terry Rich, and all the way down the team, Internet is not only a niche market, but it is becoming more of a mainstream area to participate in and we better be doing it and doing it right.
Management has been great providing the right support. If you embrace it you are going to be successful at it. If you ignore it, then you will get exactly what you put into it
When you look short at the term future, let’s say the next year or two, are you seeing any trends?
I think one of our focuses has been to look at the lead providers that have been providing quality, not quantity. There is a lot of overlap from major players buying leads from secondary sources. We have done away with those.
Kelly Blackwell came up with this. He would rather have less leads so he can focus time on the quality leads. I think from a buying leads standpoint, there will probably be a shift down to leads coming to dealerships via the social networking sites. Not that you are going to sell on there, but customers are finding you there. And then, from a standpoint of the search engine optimization and marketing, we’ll use our own site to generate leads.
What’s your perspective on the type of information you provide to someone who sends a lead Or calls? Do you provide a price and range of vehicles?
We provide price 100% of the time, and we try our best to offer multiple vehicle options. We are not afraid to give it to the customer. I still contend that a customer on the Internet wants to do business with the local dealer, as long as the local dealer provides them with the service and information in the form that they want to receive it.
What’s your mix, do you get a lot of email leads, or is it mostly phone?
We get a lot of email leads more than the phone. The phone rings too, but in the scheme of things, used car providers, Autotrader.com, you’re going to get more phone calls than email leads, but from a new lead standpoint, and you’re going to get more email leads than phone calls. I think that is a big difference with used cars.
Are you guys looking at mobile initiatives?
We are. Our new site will be optimized for mobile. I just haven’t gotten my head wrapped around how it is going to work. It is coming, but how it plays out at the dealer level, I am not quite certain yet. I know we need a website that will show up on a phone the way a customer is going to want to see it. That is step one.
Step two, we need to be able to adapt to the way the customer wants to communicate, so if it is text, make it text. There are going to lots of changes as we’ve already seen. Accepting that change is inevitable, and stay with it and stay a step ahead of it is the goal.