Vinnie Micciche, e-commerce director for Group 1 Automotive’s Eastern Region’s Customer Development Center (CDC), takes a “no cookie cutter” approach to directing Internet sales and marketing for 42 dealerships in 11 states.
Vinnie believes in building close, long-term working relationships with mid-sized, small, and, in some cases, boutique vendors who will work with each other under his guidance to support the unique and evolving processes of his CDC.
Group 1’s Eastern region CDC has a staff of 75 who serve up Internet leads and sales calls to 42 dealerships in: New Hampshire, Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Maryland, South Caroline, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Florida.
Based in Houston, TX, Group 1 Automotive, Inc., is a Fortune 500 automotive retailer that owns and operates 105 automotive dealerships, 134 franchises, and 28 collision service centers in the United States and the United Kingdom that offer 29 brands of automobiles. It’s the fourth largest dealership group in the U.S.
The high volume of Internet unit sales that the Eastern region achieves bears witness to the efficiency of Vinnie Micciche’s “no cookie cutter” approach to Internet lead and sales call processing.
The Eastern region CDC handled 146,000 Internet leads and 72,550 phone leads last year, resulting in 23,828 new and used cars sold.
So far this year, the CDC boasts a healthy leads-to-sales conversion ratio of 12.7 percent for the Internet leads from the 42 dealerships’ web sites, a 9.8 percent conversion ratio for leads from OEMs, and a nearly 8 percent ratio for third party leads.
Vinnie recently revealed to Digital Dealer magazine just how his successful “no cookie cutter” approach works.
Here is Vinnie’s full story:
First of all, how did you get into the retail automotive industry?
I started selling cars out of college in 1993. Then I joined the Ira Motor Group in 1996.
I’ve been a sales manager, desk manager, and general manager, but I really took to the Internet end of the business. I helped start the Ira Motor Group’s first Business Development Center (BDC) in 1996 – as part of Group 1 Automotive. BDCs back then were a hot topic. The owner, David Rosenberg, wanted to call it a Customer Development Center, instead of a BDC, and the name stuck.
But by 1998, I was restless and wanted out of the car business. So, I worked in the mortgage industry for two years. However, the car business kept pulling me back. In 2000, David Hill, regional VP, asked me to run the CDC for six months to help him out, and promised if I didn’t like it to transition me to another position.
I stayed. Early in 2001, we recognized the Internet was picking up steam. We had individual Internet departments throughout the group, but it was my idea, in 2003, to dedicate a centralized unit – our CDC – to handling all Internet leads and phone calls. And that’s what we specialize in to this day.
I tell people all the time the Internet needs to be a focus. Unfortunately, many BDCs don’t work because they are focusing on so many different jobs they can’t give Internet leads and phone calls the attention they deserve. I also see a lot fail because of poor leadership. The Eastern Regional VP, David Hult, always backed the CDC and never waivered on the importance of it.
In 2005, because the center was running really well under Nancy Buell, and myself I went through GM school and became GM at Ira Nissan in Woburn, MA. In the summer of 2007, when David Hult became regional VP, he asked me to run the CDC and Ecommerce for the whole region, not just the Ira Motor Group.
I’ve been the e-commerce director for Group 1’s Eastern region ever since. The CDC is a real barometer for the economy in general. If the economy is slowing or picking up, the CDC sees it first. Right now, I see things picking up and sales rising.
How is your organization structured?
The CDC is located in a separate facility in Danvers, MA and serves all 42 dealerships in the Eastern region. I have 12 managers that manage six different groups with a total of 55 sales people, three assistant managers, a trainer, two people that handle new and used car specials for the web sites, and a couple of admin people that keep all of our data pure.
The salespeople are grouped by make. For example, we have Honda and Nissan combined as a group, so the sales people in that group only have to learn Honda and Nissan products. Shawna Behan oversees the center as its general manager, and she reports to me. She’s been here 10 years. Another manager, Anthony Adamo, who manages a section of the group, has been with me 12 years. One of the great things we have going for us here is experienced managers and sales people. They have watched the company and CDC grow and they have a sense of ownership that shows in their daily work and that’s special.
My own role is three-fold: e-commerce director, head of the CDC, and trainer for 42 stores.
As e-commerce director, I’m involved with hiring web site vendors, SEM vendors, lead vendors, and other Internet vendors. In our region, our general managers have full autonomy to sign up for whatever technology vendors they want. But, I’m the in-house consultant for all of them.
I have established a number of initiatives throughout the region, such as social media and reputation management. We’re all on the same web site vendor. We all use the same SEM vendor. But all the GMs have a say, and they’re all responsible for their own budgets. So, I’m not going to just come in and tell them what to do. I advise them.
My second role is as director of the CDC. Shawna does a great job running the center and I stay involved as much as I can to make sure we are getting effective results from the CDC.
The third part of my job is to visit stores and train on process. The first two years in serving the entire region, there was a lot of travel involved in setting up process and training the stores. Now, I typically only visit when there is a change in management in a store, or when the results aren’t the way we want them. Then I’ll do training on process and make sure everyone is on the same page.
How does the CDC process Internet leads for the stores?
It is a complex process and I’ll describe it at a high level. For 10 years, we’ve been using Advent Resources as the CRM for the CDC and every store in the region. We use a separate ILM, called NetTrak, which used to be called BuzzTrak. These companies have been able to adapt to our changing business needs and grow with us. They’ve worked very well for us over the years.
When “cookie cutter” vendors that want to show us their latest technology approach me, it’s hard for them to understand what we have set up here. They can’t replicate what we do because it has evolved over time and it’s unique.
All leads flow through NetTrak and we manually double enter everything into Advent, so the stores know what we’re doing. All the communication is done through notes in Advent and all the Internet and phone leads funnel into a custom database we have set up. It is complex, but seamless. By the way, we use ADP as our DMS, but that has no interface with the CRM.
The CDC handles the initial contact with the prospects. When an appointment is set up, it is set for specific managers at the stores. Those managers have a role in the process as well as sales people at the stores. We have it really well-defined.
Our contact process starts with an email first and then we call every prospect immediately. We have a unique way of following up with those prospects for 21 days.
As long as we have received responses, we stay in contact, but if they haven’t responded within the first 14 days, we have an automated system that sends emails out to them for the next 120 days. Those are well-written to get a response from the prospect.
What is the CDC’s normal response time to leads?
We have a lot that we answer in a minute or two, but then we have a few that might take over an hour. Our goal is to get to 30 minutes overall. During the day, we’re usually well under a half hour. However, leads come in overnight, and we can’t respond until the next morning and that throws the average off.
Where do your leads come from?
There’s a long history behind that. Early on, we bought leads. Through the years, we’ve learned how to generate a lot of our own traffic and the manufacturers have learned how to do a better job of generating traffic.
Do you use any third-party lead providers now?
We use Craigslist, AutoTrader.com, Cars.com, Kelley Blue Book, and others, but I don’t consider those third-party lead providers. I look at them as general advertising and classifieds. It’s up to us to take the photos and notes and to price and market our cars properly to get the traffic. We’re not really “buying” leads when we use these services, we’re actually generating our own, and merely using them as a portal.
The only place I buy leads directly from is Edmunds. I can tell when lead providers are sending me quality vs. quantity in leads. Edmunds has always been good quality.
What is your conversion ratio from leads to sales?
That’s all over the map. For our own web site leads, we’re at 12.7 percent, so far this year. Factory leads are at 9.8 percent, and third party are a little under 8 percent.
I pulled this report just before this interview. Last year, the Eastern region sold 23,828 new and used vehicles. We handled 146,000 Internet leads and 12,890 new and used vehicle sales came from that. We handled 72,550 phone calls, and that resulted in 10,938 new and used vehicle sales. The Internet leads resulted in more new car sales and the phone call leads resulted in more used car sales.
Used car customers tend to call more. I think the used car customer has more immediate needs, and calls us, whereas the new car customer tends to spend more time researching on the Internet. That’s just a hunch. I’ve never done a survey on that.
However, the amount of data I get from our CRM is phenomenal. Incidentally, I find the CDC is a good barometer for the economy as well. We know when business is heating up and when it is slowing down.
Do you think the economy is heating up or slowing down right now?
Because of the high number of vehicles that we import, we experienced a slowdown in sales this spring, with the disaster in Japan, but sales have picked up since then.
My Google Analytics show an increase in web site traffic, so that’s a good sign and personally, I think we will see a big finish to the summer. There’s a lot of pent up demand out there. There are a lot of people who had been holding off because of the bad news in inventory, which, for the most part, was accurate. Now, I think we are in for some busy months ahead.
What’s your secret to success?
I don’t believe there are any secrets. Being successful is hard work, and focusing on doing the basics well is very important. So, I specifically only choose and deal with vendors from a service standpoint: How they treat me and my stores, how they service us and how quick they are to respond to us. Every vendor will tell you they are good at that. But, I prefer to deal with the small and medium-sized vendors, for the most part. Some vendors out there are just too big to provide good service.
Let’s talk about the vendors you use and the advantages they offer. For instance, what vendor do you use for SEM?
We work with ReachLocal, headquartered in California, and they treat us very well. Obviously the goal for me is to get more people to our web sites and that’s where my focus is. I do spend a considerable sum for SEM. ReachLocal has great technology for managing SEM and monitoring the effectiveness of the keywords I pay for. So the cost per click has been very efficient and it helps keep my budget in line.
Who powers your region’s web sites?
Liquid Motors, based in Dallas, TX, does my inventory management. My philosophy is that if they are smart enough to manage my inventory, which is fairly complex, and then they are smart enough to manage our web sites. Plus, Liquid Motors was very open to the way we like to work in partnership with all our vendors.
Actually ReachLocal, Steve Crim of C&S Marketing in Daphne, AL, and some of the other people that I deal with in the industry that I consider to be very intelligent, all got together with Liquid Motors to help with my initiative on the web site. They helped Liquid Motors build our web site on the right platform and use the right SEO. We have just one web site, but it looks to the consumer like 42 different web sites to match all the different stores and brands we represent.
Who manages SEO for all these sites?
I believe SEO is like the TV commercial with the rotisserie chicken. You set it and forget it, and I know I’ll get a lot of people calling me down for saying that. But I think if you play around with SEO too much, you can hurt yourself. So we make adjustments to it from time to time, but we don’t play games with it all day long.
Steve Crim of C&S Marketing does SEO for all 42 of our stores. He’s helped me out a lot over the years.
You said you prefer smaller vendors, like this. Why?
I’m better off developing relationships with really smart people to the point where we can communicate well and talk about what kind of results we want and then figure out together how to get those results.
That works much better than having some account executive from a big vendor come in and say I just want to sign up as many accounts as I can, so I can make a good commission. Then they forget about you. I’ve seen that happen many times over the years.
Who provides your web sites’ trade evaluation tools?
We use a small vendor we’ve been working with for 10 years – GetAutoAppraise. We have a good long-term relationship with the person who owns the company and he uses NADA value guides. NADA Guides have been the leading vehicle valuation provider since 1933.
What vendor do you use for F&I?
Our F&I is not centralized; each of the 42 dealerships has a separate F&I department, but they all use DealerCentric Solutions for credit applications and that’s a tools that integrates with our F&I departments very well.
How about service appointments?
We use Xtime for our service appointments in all 42 stores, and that works out great.
How do you handle social media?
That’s a funny one. I get about five phone calls a day from social media companies. It’s a hot topic and with 42 stores, it’s not easy to pull off an effective social media program.
Although we have a social media initiative that is region-wide, we are not uniform in every store. The Ira Motors Group and the Atlanta and South Carolina market work with a company called The Content Studio, based in Newburyport, MA. The Gulf Coast stores and the New Jersey and New York markets use a new service from ReachLocal called ReachCast, which is a combination of proprietary technology and expert service that manages our web presence.
Initially, I wanted to figure out a uniform way to do social media outreach for everybody, but in practice, it is turning out to be unique at each store.
You can hire any vendor to do social media for you, but there has to be someone in the store tied to the local the community who focuses specifically on building relationships with the local customers.
We have promotions – for instance, the Ira Motors Group has “Ira Gives Back” which gives back to the community. We also have a section of our Facebook page that’s set up for benefits, such as an oil change, for people who “like” our page. We do contests and giveaways and things like that. We’re not trying to sell to customers; we’re trying to give them information and build relationships.
In the Gulf Coast and in New York and New Jersey, we are testing out ReachCast. We send the ReachCast team all our content and they tag it and send it to other social sites.
Then in Atlanta and the Northeast, we pay The Content Studio to put content on Facebook for us for multiple stores. This vendor is someone we’ve known for many years and he’s doing a great job. The Content Studio takes a creative approach; he develops promotions and directs the content publishing process to engage customers and build customer loyalty at each store.
But, this is all a learning process. Anyone who tells you they have all the answers for social media, you know is lying.
Social media is a different mindset than what traditional car people think. Car people think: today and tomorrow and by the end of the month, but social media is more of a long-term relationship.
The other angle I see with social media is the SEO value in it; all this content is found through search and could lead a potential customer to your website and your dealership.
How involved are you in online reputation management?
Two years ago, we started concentrating on our online reputation management. Out of all the social media efforts a dealership could focus on, all that matters in a retail environment is reputation.
We’ve always done a good job in all our stores taking care of customers. So we want to make sure our customers know that we’d appreciate it if they would give us feedback online and that’s been very successful. Our customers have done that for us. That was our first initiative.
All of our stores are on DealerRater.com I tell my stores Google is also a good place for customer reviews. There are so many review sites now that it’s hard to cover them all.
Do you have monitoring tools to see if someone is making a negative comment about any of your stores?
ReachCast does monitoring for us, and so does The Content Studio. When we get negative comments, we respond immediately.
What is your biggest challenge?
There are a lot of challenges. We’ve done a great job here of rolling out the CDC and its processes. We have a lot of good people in the region who have backed and supported the CDC, as well as the CEO, Earl Hesterberg, and the Regional VP, David Hult. And, I’m really impressed with how well the stores adapted to everything. The challenge that I always have is new people coming in. It sometimes takes a while to get people to adapt to our uniqueness.
Another challenge I have is to keep our group on top of the latest product developments. My managers do a good job. And we actually have had Toyota, Mazda, Subaru, and Nissan come to the CDC to train our people, as well as the sales people in the stores.
In general, hiring and training is always a challenge. We’ve done a really good job over the past year and a half with an in-house trainer and we have a good hiring process. We’ve been able to hire and develop really good people. You must have good people if you want to have good results.
What’s your typical day like?
My workdays go by in the blink of an eye. I come in at 8 a.m., meet with managers at 8:15 and have training at 8:30. During the day, I spend a lot of time on the phone, in conference calls, and in webinars.
I travel one week every month to the stores and I go to trade shows. I’ve been to the Digital Dealer Conference four times and I’ve spoken at it a couple of times. I consider myself very creative and with e-commerce, there’s always something new to learn and pass along to the stores in the region.
What do you see for the future of the automotive retail business?
The salespeople at our CDC are the future of automotive retail sales. Handling a call or leads quickly, professionally and with transparency helps differentiate us from the competition. More so than ever before, consumers are using us for their own convenience. They want leases. They want values on their trade-in. They want all kinds of information. And, they want all this – everything done on the Internet or the phone – before they come in to the dealership.
My personal feeling is the CDC gives each store in this region a definite advantage over the competition because of our fast, efficient and customer-friendly response to incoming leads. That makes us stand out.