At Village Automotive, Chris Fousek brings what you might call a unique skill set to online automotive retail. Prior to joining the New England dealership group as an internet sales consultant in 1999, he’d worked in entertainment industry construction. His resume includes popular movies such as “Amistad,” “Civil Action,” “Meet Joe Black” and “Me, Myself and Irene.”
“It was a tricky thing; they were tricky skills to translate into other fields,” he says of the job transition. “People had a tough time. People looked at you, when you wanted to get out of the movie business, like you had two heads.”
Through perseverance, though, and demonstrating a commitment to learn internet skills by taking a computer night class, Fousek was hired on at the group’s Saab store in Framingham, Mass. He now works at an off-site location, where, three months ago, he helped to launch the group’s centralized business development center and oversees internet sales operations.
Of those “tricky skills,” what does Fousek believe has been most useful to him in his nine-year automotive career?
“Theatrics,” he says, with a laugh, “and how to communicate with people. Probably also, in the film business, you had a real need to focus amidst a lot of chaos in a fast-paced environment. Bringing together internet leads in an internet department, I think there’s a lot of that as well.”
DealerADvantage recently spoke with Fousek about Village Automotive’s new internet strategy and how the program has performed. The dealer group, which represents seven marques, currently sells upwards of 700 cars a month at its six locations.
DealerADvantage: How does online advertising fit into your overall media mix?
Fousek: It’s playing a bigger and bigger role and is trending toward the dominant part of the mix at our smaller stores, while our bigger stores are still active in print, TV and radio.
DealerADvantage: What do you think is driving the shift online?
Fousek: We’re seeing a better return. The internet is more efficient spending, and it’s less expensive. There’s more and more focus on driving customers to the Village Automotive Group sites, finding ways to get them there and promoting our stores.
DealerADvantage Do you consider Cars.com a way to get customers to your sites and brand your store? How do automotive shopping sites such as Cars.com and your sites work together?
Fousek: Yes, because we’re looking for ways to continue to drive those customers not just to call us more but also to go to our sites. Some people may find us through a listing site such as Cars.com. We know that car buyers don’t only go to our site. They go to Cars.com because they are in another part of town, or they see it advertised on TV, so they go there first. They go there first because that’s where their search led them, or because they may be searching for an off-brand vehicle. From there, we want to get them on to one of our sites because then it’s a little bit more targeted for us and could bring more dealer opportunities.
DealerADvantage: How much of a percentage of your sales would be attributed to the internet?
Fousek: It varies with the store, and it varies by month. Right now, from what we call web leads, meaning strictly an email or online form-based lead, we’re at approximately 20 percent to 30 percent.
DealerADvantage: How do you define an internet sale?
Fousek: We’re defining that as someone who calls us from an internet source or someone who emails. So someone we begin working with from outside the showroom and then bring in, if they saw it on our website or Cars.com, then we’re looking at that as walk-in traffic.
DealerADvantage: Do you still see that as a valuable part of your relationship with Cars.com?
Fousek: Yes, there are still certainly people who are just checking us out online and coming on in.
DealerADvantage: What internet tools do you use to develop your leads?
Fousek: There’s advertising on other sites to bring people to our sites. We have online trade appraisals, we mail out a video special every month, and we do other email campaigns. All of our email follow-up is built to drive traffic back to our sites, so we’re making sure we have up-to-date content on the sites, and we want to make sure the sites are continuing to drive people further in – resulting in a phone call or an email or putting down the mouse and coming into our store.
DealerADvantage: Do you use online specials?
Fousek: Online specials have always been a big part of what we do. They’re a huge source of driving traffic to our site.
DealerADvantage: What is your overall closing rate for your internet leads?
Fousek: With email leads, we’re at approximately 10 percent, with some stores being higher and some stores being lower. From all of our lead sources, whether it’s the OEM, our website or third-party vendors, I’d say, on average, we’re at approximately 10 percent. With phone-ups, we’re seeing an average of 20 percent.
DealerADvantage: How have your internet strategies and tactics evolved since you’ve been with Village?
Fousek: We just launched our centralized BDC three months ago. We’ve been working toward it for a long time. I guess it was a couple of years ago we put the model in place at our Cadillac-Hummer store, where we had strong results. And there, the in-store BDC, without doing any outbound campaigns, was upwards of 35 percent of the volume. We launched the same model at the Honda store. There they had tremendous success. They started getting to some outbound campaigns, so we looked at whether we should we do these things in-house everywhere or if it would be better for our group space-wise and cost-wise to pull one central unit together.
DealerADvantage: How is your new BDC progressing? How does it operate?
Fousek: Right now, all but two stores are onboard. We’ve been doing a rollout rather than put all the stores on at once. It’s wiser to roll it out slowly to work out kinks. We have inbound calls come in to the stores, then sales forwards it over to us. We will work to set the appointment with the customer. The internet leads, though, are going to the stores, and I’ll monitor that from here. We alert the managers in the store, and the managers will turn it over to the salesperson. We’ve also been doing outbound calls for the stores, whether lease renewals or service campaign calls and various other sales campaigns we work out each month with the managers.
DealerADvantage: Are you finding that customers are OK with the handoffs?
Fousek: They are, as long as it’s handled properly. The reception goes smoothly because there is always someone answering the phone. That’s something that let us go this route. From the receptionist paging the salesperson to coming back to receptionist and going to voicemail, we looked at how long it’d take to answer the phone. Generally, we have enough coverage to hand the calls over while the receptionist makes sure the phone connects, and the salesperson handles it from there. It’s made clear on the phone that, when you come into the store, you’ll be seeing this person. We then direct the customer to the showroom to see a specific manager so that part of the process goes smoothly. It can go badly, you’re right, but as long as you present each step and what’s going to happen, the customer is comfortable. For an internet lead, the stores have the internet salespeople in the store respond and set the appointment themselves.
DealerADvantage: Why did you decide to consolidate operations?
Fousek: Many of our stores were just doing their own thing. Calls were going to the floor, and leads were maybe going to one person, maybe going to a manager. It was all kind of a mix, and the concern was to get the tracking, the process and the accountability in place so you know what’s happening with this traffic. That was another reason we thought this would be a good step to take.
DealerADvantage: What do you know today that you wish you knew three months ago?
Fousek: I think it’s really what sort of what surprises you. We’re training folks on how to respond when the customer responds to us because that’s the big opportunity right there. So many people send us leads, but it’s so hard for us to make contact with those people. Once we make contact, what do we do at that moment? That’s where I’m focusing on right now with a lot of the folks. For me, as a salesperson, I was pretty comfortable in that role, in that moment, but I think a lot of people have trouble. “Jeez, how am I going to get all those answers?” “Oh, my manager’s not going to want to hear that, I don’t want to go to them.” Customers might be asking some specific questions, so we have to handle them and get beyond them to make the appointment or make the sale, just as we would handle their objections on the lot in real time to keep the sale going forward. Right now we’re seeing a lot of opportunities dropped at that moment.
DealerADvantage: Why do you think is happening?
Fousek: I think there’s a disconnect that can occur when you’re not working face to face. Time is a factor, so the moment here is about building momentum, not necessarily getting all the answers. So now I am spending more time on the point of first contact in our training to keep the sale moving forward. I just wish I could have realized that sooner. It’s becoming, as I work with more people, apparent that’s a key point for us to focus on with this group. And I imagine that it is in the industry as well. I am addressing this issue with training and by outlining steps in the process.
DealerADvantage: How do you drive profitability and maintain gross with your internet customers?
Fousek: I think you present a selection of choices to the customer to come in and see. Then you’re going to get them off price and maybe shift them. At some of our stores, we are able to put them into a used car very quickly and get them off of a new car. It can be a higher gross.
DealerADvantage: How do you measure the success of your internet program and your return on investment?
Fousek: That’s going to be on the closing ratio, or total sales to leads. We’re going to look at growth in sales. We’re going to look at the percentage of those sales to the total sales of the store. And then we have to monitor the cost of the operation and what are the expenses.
DealerADvantage: Do you have dedicated internet salespeople?
Fousek: Depending on the store, it’s different. At some stores, we have dedicated salespeople. At the Cadillac store, we’re experimenting and adding more people on for coverage, but we’ll mix it up with the floor and the internet.
DealerADvantage: How do you track your internet sales performance?
Fousek: Through our lead management tool, and managing that. I have an alert set up so that if a lead isn’t responded to, it will roll over to another salesperson, and I’ll get alerted to that roll over. If I see that happen a couple times, I investigate. Key metrics are leads, contacts, appointments made, appointments shown, sold and delivered.
DealerADvantage: How do you train within your BDC?
Fousek: We’ll basically train the agents first on how to use our CRM tools. We also train them on our websites. Then we’ll train them on our process and what are the steps are to the internet sale – when the lead comes in, what to look for in terms of what makes one lead different from another, how to understand the different sources, how to then respond to the lead and how to respond to customers when they respond to us. That’s a huge moment, and we’re working on that. We’re also working on phone training, inbound and outbound. We want the agents to know how to handle a call and what type of voicemail to leave at a specific point in the sales cycle. Also, what they do after they leave a voice message and send a follow-up email. There needs to be a lot of emphasis on what to do when we get a customer live on the phone, as well, how to handle that call, how to make that appointment, talk about price and work on getting the customer into the store.
DealerADvantage: Do you track your response times?
Fousek: We track the initial response rate from working-hour leads – when the store’s open – to when an individual actually responds to that request. Again, there’s a big range from our stores. We’re anywhere from under 15 minutes to an hour plus.
DealerADvantage: How long do you work with prospects after they’ve submitted an inquiry?
Fousek: We’ll work it until a customer asks us not to work it. Whether that’s two years, a year, we’ll continue to follow up. We’ll lighten up as time goes. We’ll have a heavy-duty period for the first couple of weeks, but we keep it pretty strong for the first couple of months. We try to keep a message going out there.
DealerADvantage: How do you manage email inquiries?
Fousek: Those shoppers get an autoresponse acknowledging the lead. Then they might get a response asking them a couple of questions about the lead – that’s where we really hope to reach out and engage and build rapport. We’re asking just some very basic questions, but we try to ask them in a way that opens them up. We’re asking about the things they consider important about the vehicle. If customers respond, that allows us to engage them further without having to go right to price. So we might be able to make the appointment without the price issue. Then, if they don’t respond to that e-mail, we will send out the pricing information and, at the same time, make a phone call.
DealerADvantage: When do you generally make the first phone call?
Fousek: Anywhere in that first 15 minutes to hour that I was mentioning – that’s the plan. Sometimes an email might go out without that phone call because of a workload issue, but, ideally, those e-mails are going out with the phone calls.
DealerADvantage: When do you send the first “real” email?
Fousek: The second one is where we ask them a couple of questions, and the third one is where we will provide them with that price quote if that’s what they were asking for.
DealerADvantage: Do you use email templates? What about phone scripts or word tracks?
Fousek: Yes, we use email templates. With phone scripts or word tracks, you know, I think they’re kind of the same thing. If you’re using a word track, and you don’t have a phone script, what are you doing? You just like saying you don’t use a phone script. For that first phone call, we want salespeople to use a phone script. It’s a guide. And then as the calls go along, there should be certain word tracks the salesperson’s familiar with, to control the call.
DealerADvantage: What do you look for in an advertising partner?
Fousek: The support and what kind of information and help they’re going to give us in how to use and how to work with them, training. Feedback, reporting and support – so if there are any issues, we can resolve them quickly. You need to know that if you can reach out to somebody and they’re going to respond and take care of it. If there’s something that needs to be addressed, whether it’s a manufacturer that comes out with a new promotion, and we need to get it out there quickly, you need that relationship. That’s always going to help you.
DealerADvantage: How do you measure those partners?
Fousek: The value. We evaluate that on the basis of the opportunities that we’re getting and the sales that we’re creating. We really have to look at the opportunities because then it’s our responsibility if we’re not generating the sales. And then looking at the added support we’re going to get from that vendor.
DealerADvantage: Are your vendors helping you to put processes in place? Are they a good resource for you?
Fousek: Yes. Cars.com has always provided and offered support all along the way, and we’ve attended a bunch of training with you that has been very helpful. One of the great things about this part of the industry is that I’ve been involved with it since 1999, and it’s had a very grassroots feeling in that time. I’ve stayed in touch with people who’ve grown in their roles as I have, so I’ve seen the trends. I’ve talked to people as the rules of engagement have changed with the customer – going from no photo to one photo to multiple photos to having video to having video emails. I’ve been a part of that evolution, so I’ve been able to really see processes develop and try things out over time.
DealerADvantage: What do you think are the challenges for online automotive today?
Fousek: I would say that it’s being caught between the 30-day cycle in the showroom and this 90-day-plus system that we’re working on in the BDC. We’re looking at the long term; I mean, we want the sale today, absolutely, but we’re also being asked to put in place a structure that is going to get our customers next week. It’s an interesting struggle.
DealerADvantage: What are you doing with search engine optimization and search engine marketing?
Fousek: SEO is really key for us. That’s a huge part of our websites, and it’s been a big part of our internet philosophy. We’ve seen our online traffic jump 250 percent or more at some of our stores in the past year. I manage the SEO program along with our director of marketing and Data One, our website hosting company. SEM, is something that we’ve played with, and that’s a little trickier. We found that we were bringing our own customers. We started that, and we stopped it; it wasn’t as coordinated with our SEO efforts. With or SEO efforts, we’ve really seen how to tweak the sites. If we have specific campaigns, we want people to come looking for them, and we’ve seen our website traffic grow. A couple of stores are starting to check SEM out on their own again, but that’s costlier, and we haven’t found the right partner yet.
DealerADvantage: What advice would you give to a new ISM today?
Fousek: Be sure that the dealership has a good CRM tool that incorporates what you need with an ILM system. Map out a good process. Work out a good pricing policy with your GSM and GM. Those are some of the keys right there.
DealerADvantage: Is it a job that you’d recommend to others?
Fousek: It is a good place to be. There is so much focus on this part of the industry right now that it is definitely a good place to be.