Taking a pragmatic approach to problem solving, Wayne Ussery, director of Internet marketing for Jim Ellis Automotive Dealerships in Atlanta, GA, came from a parts and accessories background to create and grow one of the most robust automotive Internet sales and marketing groups in the nation.
Jim Ellis Automotive ranks among the top 10 dealership groups nationwide in Internet sales, with a total of 4,806 new and used Internet unit sales for 2010.
The company projects 2011 Internet sales will grow 10% or more — bolstered by an aggressive Internet marketing program that generates tens of thousands of leads for its 50-member Internet sales team.
Celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, Jim Ellis Automotive is a family-owned business with three generations of the Ellis family actively involved in running the company’s 13 stores – eight in Atlanta, four in Marietta, and recently branching out geographically with a new Buick/GMC store in Buford, GA.
Jim Ellis franchises include: Chevrolet, Volkswagen, Saab, Mazda, Audi, Mitsubishi, Porsche, Hyundai, and Buick/GMC. Plus, last year, in keeping with the visionary nature of its founder and namesake, Jim Ellis Automotive became the Atlanta area dealer for Wheego, an all electric car.
Wayne Ussery shares with Digital Dealer magazine his pragmatic approach for creating and growing a top notch Internet marketing and sales organization.
How did you get where you are today?
I’ve been in the car business since the mid-‘70s. I initially got involved in the aftermarket side. Through the years, I’ve worked in dealerships, managed stores, and moved up the channel. I’ve never actually sold cars. My specialty is marketing.
I’ve been at Jim Ellis for 14 years. I initiated our process for parts marketing on the web, and that evolved into doing the full version web site for one dealership, and after that the web sites for our whole company.
We’ve been processing Internet sales leads for 12 years. When we started, we had two full-time Internet salespeople. When I became the Internet manager company-wide, we placed Internet salespeople at each store. Six years ago, we had 30 full-time salespeople that replied to Internet leads. I managed that team from a process standpoint and the store level managers worked the deals and managed schedules.
As the team grew, we’ve moved, over the last 6 years, to a model where we have Internet sales directors at store level. So now I’m working with these directors and they are working with their sales team. Today, we have nearly 50 Internet sales people, out of 275 sales people companywide.
Over the years, my responsibilities have evolved into directing the whole digital package for the dealership group from sales to fixed operations to image marketing, and I have a four member in-house team of webmasters helping me implement that.
What’s your secret to success as an Internet marketer?
It’s our pragmatic approach to marketing that makes the difference. We look first at what we need to accomplish. Then we analyze the tools that may be available commercially to help us reach our goals — instead of looking at all the new tools in the marketplace and changing our ways to work with them.
We may find a commercial solution that meets our needs, or we may have to design something in-house. A lot of our growth has come from being progressive and thinking outside the box. We take pride in being innovative to move the needle, in doing what many other dealerships aren’t doing yet.
To give you an idea: We are closed on Sundays. Our principal believes Sunday is a day to be with family. But many people come to our lots on Sundays. So Mr. Ellis approached me to look into how we could make our lots more alive and productive for customers, even when we’re not here.
I gave this some thought and did some research and now we’re in the process of developing window stickers that have QR codes on them. A QR code is a bar code. People with mobile devices like an iPhone, Droid or BlackBerry, can download an application, called a QR Reader that lets them scan the QR code for a vehicle and that immediately takes them to a web page for that vehicle.
We’re looking to publicize that we have this, so customers will know if they’re looking at a vehicle on a Jim Ellis lot, and they want to know about pricing, see other pictures, know what equipment the car has, etc., they can scan the QR code and get all that information on their mobile device. Then they can share it with their wife or husband, or whomever.
We expect to see more and more consumers using QR codes and Jim Ellis is staying ahead of the curve in using these for automotive sales.
Now, we didn’t look at QR codes as a concept and think about how we could use this new tool. We looked instead at how Jim Ellis dealerships can sell cars on Sunday.
How much do you budget for Internet marketing verses more traditional marketing?
Group-wide, we’re spending from 40 to 55 percent on Internet marketing. The amount varies from store to store. Some stores are spending much more on Internet Marketing than on traditional. Our markets are Atlanta, with eight stores, and Marietta with four. The cities are just 12 miles apart and we have another new store 20 miles north in Buford. These stores are different enough so that what might work in one part of town, may not in another.
Taking that into account on the Internet side, we customize and maintain each of our stores’ web sites so they best serve the local market.
Dealer.com is our platform of choice for the web sites for all our stores, because it makes it easy for us to utilize people at store level to help create and maintain content on the sites — as opposed to needing a large centralized staff to do that.
That’s an advantage, because the people at our store level know what’s going on in their local markets. They’re able to adapt and change in response to their customers, as well as make everything comply with our corporate marketing standards.
How are you handling search engine optimization (SEO) and search engine marketing (SEM) for these web sites?
Initially, we used an outside vendor for both these functions. Then, four years ago, we decided we could do even better bringing these functions in-house. We hired a full time specialist that does both SEO and SEM. Now, with further growth, we have a team of four that works directly under me on SEO and SEM for each of our sites.
Handling this in-house, do you have any tips on SEO and SEM to share with other dealers?
Build and optimize your dealership’s landing pages – web pages geared to specific marketing campaigns with detailed information on the campaign offer and a call to action.
When customers search for information on the web, they want to find it right away. One thing we’ve tussled with through the years is where do we land them? Let’s say we’re advertising a special on an Audi A4. Do we land the customer on the home page of the Audi dealership, where they have to hunt for information, or do we bring them to a landing page created just for that special? It’s obvious. It’s all about giving customers exactly what they’re looking for. That’s what our landing pages do.
How many landing pages do you create in a month?
Group-wise, we are probably creating 50 to 75 landing pages per month. Once a special is over, we can frequently repurpose its landing page with just a few changes, so we can use it for another special. In any case, we optimize the page for the make, model and year of the vehicle in the special.
Specifically, what are you doing with SEM?
We’re spending a consistent, but not huge budget on SEM, and we’re seeing traffic consistently grow based on our campaigns. We use Dealer.com’s SEM tool – Total Control Dominator – which lets us automatically launch regionally targeted pay-per-click campaigns on Google and Bing/Yahoo! Dominator has both managed and self-managed versions — managed meaning that Dealer.com manages it.
We moved to the self-managed version of Dominator two years ago, because we could be more responsive to what’s going on in our neighborhoods by building the campaigns ourselves. Among other things, my staff of four webmasters manages: keyword research, creating and monitoring the campaigns, looking at analytics, analyzing results, and being reactive — changing those campaigns based on analytics.
How are you using social media?
We are using Facebook, Twitter, of course, and we have our own blog.
Each store maintains its own Facebook account. My department monitors these to make sure the teams at the stores are not pushing too much sales stuff, and that they are actually being “social.”
Our SEO /SEM analyst is charged with maintaining the quality and looking at the effectiveness of social media. We’re pushing hard to evaluate social media using analytics, so we can increase its effectiveness.
How are you using Twitter?
Most of our stores have Twitter accounts. Our dealer principal, Jimmy Ellis tweets twice a day at a minimum and we feature his tweets on the home page of our corporate portal site. www.jimellis.com We have him set up on alerts, so when anybody mentions Jim Ellis, positive or negative, in the Twitter world, he receives a notification.
In those few instances where customers have had a bad word to say about Jim Ellis, Jimmy Ellis himself has tweeted the customer and said, “I’m Jimmy Ellis, vice president, and I’d like to help you. Tell me what’s going on.” He’s basically headed off a problem and solidified our relationship with that customer and fixed things before they became a real issue.
How do you use blogs?
We have one corporate blog, Jim Ellis Blog — http://www.jimellis.com/blog/index.htm — on our group web site. This blog has become the voice of our company. We do blog posts from my department, but people from all over the company can contribute to it. So, while our content comes from all 13 stores, we post it with a single voice for the Jim Ellis brand.
We recognize the value and possibilities of social media. So many dealers use it as a sales tool. We use it as a social tool, being part of a community, as opposed to being like the used car salesman that goes into a bar and hands out business cards.
What role does video play in your social media mix?
Video is a big part of what we do. We are currently developing new content channels and are producing upscale videos for every make and model we sell. These are two-minute walkarounds with voiceover. Using a professional videographer, we’ve shot 60 of these already – all on location at our Audi store. We have 30 more videos to do. These will be everywhere online – YouTube.com and other channels. We’ll be using them for extended SEO. We’re not standing still and waiting for people to come to our web site.
How do you deal with online reputation management?
We have a department today that is more reactive than proactive in reputation management. Two people scan the city searches, Google, DealerRater.com, Yellow Pages — all the sites that have ratings — on a daily basis and react to customers if there’s an issue.
We’re actually in the process of analyzing a reputation management tool that Dealer.com has developed – SocialRelationship Manager – which automatically compiles all the reviews online about our dealerships in one location – giving us one central place to look at the effect and reach of social media for all our stores. Using this will save us time in managing the growing number of rating sites. So we can watch with one eye, if you would.
Reputation management is extremely important to us. The Jim Ellis name and brand is very well recognized in our market. Customers buy from us because they recognize the difference it makes.
We have encouraged our customers to rate us online. However, our goal for 2011 is to become even more proactive in asking for those reviews. Our thrust will be to pass out cards to remind customers to do this.
What is your biggest challenge?
The end goal in everything I do in digital marketing is to sell cars, service and parts. The real challenge is finding the best sales people. We can create web traffic, we can create opportunities, we can create buzz, a good reputation, all those things and we can be in front of people socially, but if a customer walks in, calls or emails one of my dealerships and is not taken care of, it’s all in vain. So the biggest challenge I’ve got is finding new sales people that understand just what possibilities they have in taking 100 Internet sales leads a month and turning those into 25 sales.
We’ve got an excellent team here at Jim Ellis. Many of our sales people are among the best in the country, but when we look to add sales staff, it can be tough to find people that have what it takes.
How do you process your Internet sales leads?
Right now we’re using Reynolds and Reynolds Contact Management. It parses the leads with rules we’ve set up to disperse them at the store level among the sales team.
Our response time standard for Internet leads is an hour, but many of our stores respond to leads within 10 to 15 minutes. Most have escalation set up for 15 minutes. If the salesperson doesn’t respond in 15 minutes, it automatically escalates to store level management, and then, if necessary, it automatically escalates to the GM within an hour or two.
How many days do you follow up on Internet sales leads?
We leave a lot of autonomy to the store level. Sometimes customers buying a higher line car will have a longer buying cycle. Sometimes less expensive lines also turn out that way. Generally speaking we say 30 to 45 days is the time we follow a customer.
We actively follow for the first three or four days with an e-mail or a phone call each day. After that we space it out depending on the brand. And, we vary our approach – with sales people and managers making the calls. We reach out via lots of different voices.
Although, we’ve been using Reynolds and Reynolds as our CRM for eight years, we only took the Internet process into Contact Management two years ago. Before that we were losing some potency by not having the floor traffic data mix in with Internet leads. Now, bringing those two together in the Reynolds CM has been very efficient. It’s opened our eyes to how many people send a lead in, and we talk to them on the phone, and then they just walk through the door without making an appointment. Now, if they are in the system as an Internet lead and then show up as a walk-in, we can know the connection and gauge how our Internet leads are working for us.
Besides the leads you generate directly, what third-party Internet lead providers do you use?
We’ve used: Dealix, Autobytel , and AutoUSA through the years and continue to use them. We also use the classified listings: Cars.com, Autotrader.com, and EveryCarListed.com to get our inventory in front of people.
What is your Internet sales leads conversion rate?
We look at conversion rates at the corporate level and the store level. Some stores are consistently in the mid-teens: 13-15%. Some are consistently in the high single digits, 7% or 8%. Group-wide, we hover around the 10 % conversion rate. That’s a little below what many dealerships brag about, but we feel it’s an honest picture of what’s happening.
In calculating this ratio, we always count all the leads. Many dealership groups cull out leads that are not in the market, or don’t qualify for financing, or don’t meet some other parameter. To me, that’s not a true picture. If we’re paying for leads, they should be figured into the ratio.
For instance, if a lead comes in, but the prospect’s credit is not good and we decide after talking with him he can’t afford the car he’s looking for, I’m going to count that as a lead because I can still sell that person something else to drive. That’s an opportunity we need to pursue.
You are responsible for the whole digital package for the dealership. Where else do you use digital technology?
We use HomeNet to manage our inventory on the Internet. Then HomeNet disseminates that to all the sites we market through: Cars.com, Autotrader.com, etc. We’ve used HomeNet for the last five years and have absolutely no complaints.
One of our most potent digital tools is online chat. We use ContactAtOnce! as our partner, and can count 15-25 sales a month as a direct result of chat. Theirs is presence based, meaning that as our folks are signed into the system, the invitation appears on the site. We link this to inventory on Cars.com, AutoTrader.com, EveryCarListed.com, CarsDirect.com and, of course, on our website. We also use this for our B2B site, as well as parts and service.
Do you use any other Internet tools in your service department?
We have an airline style online reservations system, powered by Xtime ServiceCRM, for scheduling service appointments at most of our stores. Customers can see available appointment slots and schedule their own. It’s more convenient for them and it saves our service staff time.
To promote our service department, we use ADP’s OnStation for e-mail marketing campaigns. That gets customers that haven’t been in our lanes for a long time to come back.
What advice would you give to dealerships that are developing their Internet marketing processes and may be dazzled by all the tools available?
I’d advise them to take a pragmatic approach. Look first at what your own needs are and then find a tool that fits that – whether it’s commercially marketed, or something you develop in-house. There is no one silver bullet for Internet marketing and lead generation. We have many hooks in the water.