With 35 franchises and 22 stores spread across Indiana, Michigan, and Iowa, Steve Williams, e-commerce director for the Gurley Leep Automotive Family, focuses on people, process, and analytics – traveling every week between dealerships to keep Internet car sales and revenue growing.
Gurley Leep Automotive is aiming to sell between 4,000 and 6,000 Internet new and used cars for 2012.
To that end, Steve Williams continues to draw on the self-discipline — gained from eight years of active duty in military intelligence in the U.S. Army during the First Gulf War in Iraq — to do his job of analyzing customer data, staying on top of online selling trends, and teaching his sales people how to get results.
“I feel my background in the service, which was very structured, disciplined and self-motivated, has helped me in the car business. I try to teach that work style to the folks that work with me, and carry over that sense of structure and self-motivation,” says Williams.
Steve, how did you go from Army intelligence into the retail car business?
I was right out of the military, had been married a year and planned to go into medicine as a civilian respiratory therapist. In the military, respiratory therapist was one of several jobs I held along with a post in military intelligence.
My wife and I left San Antonio, Texas, where I was stationed, and moved back to Atlanta where our families were. But, during my first job interview, I found out Georgia required a state license as well as a National Registry license to practice as a respiratory therapist. It was going to take a while to get that state license, even though I had all the necessary credentials. Since I had very little savings, I couldn’t go without a job while waiting for that to happen.
I was sitting at a four-way stop thinking how I was going to explain to my wife that I did not have a job, when I looked to my left and there was a little Toyota store with a sign in the window saying: ‘Now Hiring.’
So, I turned left and walked in. I was wearing a suit, because I had just come from my job interview at the hospital. The Toyota store hired me on the spot. They put me through a great training program, and my first day on the floor I sold two used cars and made more money than I would have made working a month in the hospital.
I remember going home and telling my wife: ‘You might be upset with me, but I really love this. I love talking with people and I made so much money my first day, that I can’t see going to work 12-hour days in the hospital.’
I never got my Georgia respiratory therapist license. That was 20 years ago.
How did you get to your present position?
The Toyota store where I worked in Atlanta was soon purchased by AutoNation, which was just launching e-commerce as an important part of its business. Since I had some experience, AutoNation hired me on to run the eCommerce department for the Atlanta market.
I was successful and worked my way through the ranks of e-commerce at AutoNation and ended up at the corporate office in Fort Lauderdale for a few years. During that time, Don Reese, who is now chief operating officer at Gurley Leep, was one of the senior vice presidents of AutoNation. Don and I kept in touch over the years. I had several jobs at large organizations and even my own dotcom company for a couple of years. When the position of e-commerce director became available at Gurley Leep Group, Don Reese thought of me. We communicated and here I am. I’ve been at Gurley Leep a little over a year now as e-commerce director.
Tell us about the dealership group.
Gurley Leep Automotive has its corporate office in Mishawaka, Indiana. Our franchises include: Audi, Buick, Cadillac, Chevrolet, Ford, GMC, Honda, Hyundai, Hyundai Equus, Jaguar, Kia, Lexus, Lincoln, Mazda, Mercedes, Mitsubishi, Nissan, Porsche, Scion, Sprinter, Subaru, Toyota and Volkswagen — just about everything. We have approximately 1,100 employees.
The majority of our stores are small and rural. We hope someday we’ll grow them to be big stores. Mike Leep, Sr., started his first car dealership in Highland, Indiana, in 1973, and has been in business ever since. Today, Mike’s son, Mike Leep, Jr., and his first cousin James Leep are both vice presidents in the organization and do a fantastic job of carrying the torch.
Over the years, the Leep family expanded its dealer network in Indiana and Michigan. Then, about six years ago, the Leep family purchased the Lujack’s Northpark Auto Plaza organization in Davenport, Iowa.
As more and more of our customers are going online to shop for cars, I’m pleased to be part of an organization that recognizes that’s where our business is headed. The Gurley Leep leadership has provided me with all the tools necessary, so I’m prepared for that. It’s unusual that you find an organization that has been in business this long that has the foresight to know that we have to constantly evolve. This group realizes that. I can’t think of a better organization to work with. I can’t say enough good things about it.
The dealership group also has a very high level of commitment to our community. Mike Leep, Sr., gives so much back to our community, in so many ways — to various charities, schools and hospitals. He really believes in giving back to those who make him what he is. He’s a fantastic gentleman.
Let’s talk about your sales numbers.
I expect as an organization to sell between 4,000 and 6,000 Internet new and used cars in 2012. Last month, we received 2,360 Internet leads, and we sold 334 Internet car units, new and used, across Indiana, Michigan and Iowa.
I‘ve got some stores that are closing at 10% and some as high as 20%. We’re closing roughly 14% as a group. So our closing ratios are strong across the board. As an organization of small rural dealerships, I think we are better than most.
Where do you get the majority of your Internet leads?
From our own website and from Black Book Online. Dealer.com hosts our 24 websites, including our two parent websites – for our Lujack’s platform and our Indiana/Michigan platform. Dealer.com is a great vendor. The sites are very intuitive for consumers to use and the backend tools Dealer.com provides make the sites easy for us to manage. Dealer.com is there at a moment’s notice to provide insight on any trends that they see. They help us make better decisions. They have been a great partner and they are a great website company.
AIM, our advertising agency, manages our mobile websites and mobile apps. Customers can do anything on these that they can on our regular websites, including scheduling both sales and service appointments.
How do you drive consumers to your websites?
Dealer.com provides us with SEM, and they do a great job of that as well. I’m very happy with them. We do most of our SEO in-house. We know, based on the tools Dealer.com provides for us with our website, what key words and phrases consumers are utilizing to find us online and what searches are going on in our market. So, we try to mirror that as closely as we can. We want to be where the consumers are.
My assistant, Mark Coffman, helps with website maintenance, and makes sure inventory specials are up-to-date. He helps monitor the key words and phrases and makes sure that our group internally and Dealer.com are all on the same page. I couldn’t do it without Mark; he’s an exceptionally good right hand.
Besides driving new customers to our website, we put out a newsletter with IMN Loyalty Driver that seems to be doing well for us in terms of retaining customers for repeat business – both in car sales and service.
Besides Black Book Online, what other third-party lead providers do you use?
We use third-party lead providers sparingly. It depends on the store. We use AutoUSA and Autobytel because I’ve used them in the past, I’m familiar with them, they’ve been around a long time, and they both provide a good quality lead. Our closing ratios with them have been good – not as high as we close with our own website leads, but certainly profitable.
I don’t consider Black Book a third-party lead provider, but rather an extension of our own website. Every one of our stores has the Black Book Activator Complete product suite — from Credit Activator to Trade-in Activator and their new mobile applications. Other than my own website, Black Book provides the highest closing ratio that I get. As a standalone, with Black Book products, I average closing 17% of the Internet leads.
We’ve been using Black Book for nine months now. What’s great about Black Book is they continuously work to better their product. What’s been fun about using Black Book is every time they’ve made an enhancement or brought something new to the product, both my lead count and closing ratios climb! They simply “get it” and their products show that. Great partner for any dealer group looking to enhance their business.
Once you get your Internet leads, how do you handle them?
How much time do we have? I’d like to tell you there’s some secret sauce or magic behind it, but there’s no such thing. My formula for success is simple. It’s people and process.
I have 44 Internet salespeople. Depending on the size of the store, we might only have one Internet sales person, or we might have five or six Internet sales people in a small BDC environment.
The process looks similar except in the BDC environment, the BDC communicates with the customer to the point where there’s an appointment. Then we hand that appointment off to sales people who are certified to handle Internet customers. In stores where there’s only one person and it’s a small lead count, the Internet person sets the appointment for themselves and takes the customer from initial lead all the way through to the sale.
What kind of Internet sales person do you hire?
I make sure I hire and train someone with a good personality, good customer service background, a pleasant voice, and a willingness to learn. I could care less that they have car sales experience at all. Actually, I prefer that they not have car sales experience. No sales experience is even better for me. I’m looking mostly for customer service experience, because that’s the most important part of what we do in eCommerce. It’s all about the customer.
Consumers today want information. They want it quickly and they want complete transparency. Gone are the days where you can post: ‘Call for your best price or contact the Internet department for information.’
My goal is to give consumers as much information as I can online to allow them to make their own decision, so when they contact us it’s to arrange a meeting, because I’ve already provided them what they need to make an educated decision online. That’s what makes us successful.
Do you use one CRM for all 22 stores?
Our goal is to drive just one process across the board in all our stores for handling Internet leads. We are currently working on centralizing our CRM solution. Right now, we use 2 different solutions. In our Indiana and Michigan stores, we use Contact Manager from Reynolds and Reynolds. Lujack’s Northpark Auto Plaza organization in Davenport, Iowa, uses Higher Gear.
We are looking at an integrated marketing solution, which means our CRM, ILM, desking, inventory management, and a lot of the tools we utilize in all the stores, will function as one tool. I can’t say what the solution will be yet, because we are still in the discovery phase of our search.
What about your F&I solutions?
Those are not included in this new solution we are looking at, but there will be a lot less data entry required by the sales people with this new CRM solution. So, when the customer comes in and a sales person puts their information in one time, it goes to the sales desk immediately, so they can start to work a deal. If the sales person consummates a deal with our customer, that information is automatically pushed to F&I. We’re looking at push/pull bilateral communication. We use Reynolds and Reynolds for our F&I tools and we like them very much.
What is your average response time to an Internet sales lead?
Right now, we are averaging approximately 26 minutes across all stores. Our goal is to get down to the 10 minute mark.
How do you handle follow-up?
We follow a lead forever, as long as it’s in our database. There’s a follow-up process that’s different if it’s a customer that’s sold, versus a customer that we haven’t sold to yet, versus a customer that has shown up at the store, but didn’t buy, or a customer that hasn’t shown up at all, or a customer we’ve had communication with, versus a customer we haven’t had any communication with. So, it’s a forever follow-up process unique to the individual customer.
At the end of the day, we are trying to accomplish what every dealership wants to accomplish, winning a customer for life – not only in sales, but in service as well.
What is your biggest challenge as e-commerce director?
We have the same challenges as everyone else out there. We suffer when the market suffers and we prosper when the market prospers. We minimize that shift by being heavily involved in the stores to make them better at what they do.
We spend a lot of time in people and process improvement. We work really hard to make sure our people have all the tools and information they need to make them better – from the sales people all the way through the rest of the organization.
My single biggest challenge is keeping our sales people abreast of emerging technologies. Things have changed so much over the past couple of years and continue to change almost on a daily basis. Besides just having your e-commerce website, there’s texting, and social media, just to name a few. There are so many different avenues that customers can use to communicate with us and that marketers and manufacturers use to communicate with the customers. My biggest challenge is staying abreast of that technology and disseminating that information to train our people in the field.
How do you personally stay up to date with technology?
Total immersion. I go to as many seminars as I can. I go to the Digital Dealer Conference every time, NADA every time I get the chance, and I pay attention to blogs and my peers out there. I jokingly tell everybody that 90% of what I know I learned from somebody else.
I’m constantly training my people on the very latest in e-commerce technology and best practices. In fact, I’m the only trainer for e-commerce in our organization. The best part of my job is teaching and leading. (Not that I know it all, but I know where to get the answers.)
I’ve been in e-commerce since 1995. I’m an early adaptor, and because I was one of the first with AutoNation, we pretty much created what eCommerce for the automotive industry has evolved into. I was lucky enough to work with a great group of people there and learned a lot from them. And, I’ve taken what I’ve learned and enhanced and developed it over the years. I try to share as much of that with my people as I can. We have monthly group meetings where we bring in every e-commerce member and share best practices. We communicate well with each other.
Continuing education is the name of the game. I’m used to it myself. As a soldier with the Army National Guard, we train for one weekend a month and two weeks in the summer, from which I’ve just returned.
But, as far as training in sales techniques is concerned, we hire an outside source to do that — the Manzo group, out of Atlanta, headed by Kirk Manzo. He’s also one of the early AutoNation employees and we’ve known each other for years and he’s a fantastic trainer.
Are you getting the help you need in training resources from the OEMs?
The OEMS over the past several years have become very involved with e-commerce and they are great about sharing best practices and helpful information on trends and technology with dealer franchises. They work well with us and help us improve.
What are you doing with social media?
Right now we focusing on Facebook. The trick to social media is to be prepared for it. It’s not a matter of if are you going to use social media, it’s a matter of when are you going to use social media and to what extent.
It took us awhile to really fit into it. We could have jumped into it with both feet, but we wanted to make sure we had policies and procedures in place first that would let the folks in the field understand what we were going to use it for and what we could and couldn’t post.
For us, social media is not where we sell cars. Facebook is the place where we keep our customers informed about us, about what we’re doing in the communities, and how we are doing as a group. We let them know we are involved socially, what we do for people, and we let them know we are a great place to do business with. We don’t use it as an advertising place that we put inventory on or coupons on. That’s not what people use social media for.
We also communicate with customers via social media in other ways. Suppose a customer comes in and buys a car. If they have a smartphone, we use the customer’s smartphone to take a picture of them with their new car. Then we ask them to ‘like’ us on Facebook and link the two together. What we are trying to do is influence their sphere of friends. That’s an effective way to do it.
What’s your split between digital vs. traditional in your advertising budget?
We spend 40% of our budget on digital and that’s going to continue to grow. Right now we realize that 90% of our customers do 90% of their research online. So, a little bit at a time, we’re making that transition from traditional to digital advertising and we want to make sure we are doing it correctly – not dumping all our money into advertising that’s not going to reach consumers. We pay close attention to what our consumers are doing and they are progressing in the direction of social.
With the traditional part of our ad budget, we spend 10% in newspapers, and the rest on TV and radio. It changes by market, depending on whether it’s the Indiana platform or the Iowa platform. We pay close attention to the trends we get from our advertising company, AIM, in Atlanta, GA, on where they think consumers are at this point in time.
What do you use for a DMS?
Reynolds and Reynolds, and we are happy with it. Our Iowa platform just switched from another company to Reynolds and Reynolds.
On a typical day, what is your main focus as e-commerce director?
ECommerce is a moving target, so I pay very close attention to our analytics. First thing in the morning, I pull up the CRM and run all of the reports that are in it. I look at where leads are coming from, whether they are organic, or from our pay per click search engine marketing effort. I look at times of day and the days we get the most leads. Do I get more leads from 6 to 8 in the evening on a Wednesday, versus 10 a.m. on a Monday? We find the time for most leads coincides with the time people have for lunch during their workday and the time they get off work. Plus, weekends we get a huge amount of leads after 5 or 6 p.m. on a Sunday. So when my sales folks come in first thing Monday morning, that will be their biggest lead count day.
For analytics, I also look at lead counts, lead response times, closing ratios and profit margins — all those parameters — and I trend back a week at a time and I can typically tell which stores need my attention the most.
Then I’ll put together my top five stores in need of attention and schedule the rest of my day to communicate with them and help them. Sometimes, I’ll pick one of those stores and go stay for the week and work with those folks and help them get better. I travel a lot. The stores in Indiana are within miles of each other — most are actually on one street. However, I frequently fly to the stores in Iowa – sometimes once a week, sometimes twice a week, and spend a day or two there. So we are really involved, hands on, in all the stores.
Do you ever have occasion to jump in and talk directly to the customers yourself?
Sometimes, when I’m in a store and see a customer who is Chinese, I’ll chat with them and find out if they speak Mandarin Chinese. If they do, I’ll converse with them in Mandarin Chinese – another skill I picked up as part of my military intelligence training. It’s fun for me and it pleases the customers and has sometimes helped to consummate the deal.
What advice would you give to someone just starting as Internet manager?
Reach out and listen to your peers and learn from them. Start with a small measurable process change and grow it from there. Don’t try to bite off more than you can chew. Concentrate on one thing at a time. If it’s response time, focus on that and grow it from there. I’m a big fan of sharing information with those getting started in the business. If anyone who is just getting started as an e-commerce director wants to reach out to me, I’m easy to reach. Just contact our organization, or e-mail me at email@example.com.
What awards has your group won?
Our Honda stores in Elkhart, IN, and Lansing, MI, have both won Honda Presidents Awards in 2012 and our Lexus Store in Davenport won the coveted “Elite of Lexus” award. This is a special award given to dealers who excel at sales, service and overall owner support. We received this honor because so many of our current and past customers have acknowledged their satisfaction with our service and attention to detail.
What do you see for the future?
Every year we grow in our number of sales and the customers we’re serving and retaining. And the Leep family is always open to new opportunities. So, if another small store comes along, that makes economic sense, they would take a look at it. We’re always looking to grow and expand, both internally and externally.