Business Development Director
In her current role as business development manager, Sharon Poindexter manages internet advertising, marketing and sales operations at five of Bill Jacobs’ 11 Chicagoland dealerships. She oversees ecommerce initiatives at its BMW, two Land Rover, Mini and Volkswagen stores.
Prior to joining Bill Jacobs, Poindexter earned her automotive stripes while working in various sales and marketing positions at General Motors Corp. for more than 10 years. Poindexter was initially assigned to the automaker’s OnStar operations before moving to the Pontiac and GMC divisions and, finally, serving as a regional ecommerce, communications and training manager.
“I worked in the regional office with the sales teams and the wholesale organization to disseminate information when the internet started and when dealers started getting engaged in it,” Poindexter says. “I would put together training programs to explain what the internet is, the opportunity it brings to improve how you conduct business, how to use our tools such as GM BuyPower and DealerWorld and other tools to create a sales strategy and how to follow up with and treat the customer.”
Following a corporate buyout from GM in late 2005, Poindexter took time out of the corporate world to have a child. She joined Bill Jacobs in 2007 as the ecommerce director to create its internet sales strategy, develop its website strategy, provide training to the dealerships and unify the dealer group’s branding.
DealerADvantage recently spoke with Poindexter to learn more about Bill Jacobs’ internet initiatives and how those strategies are helping to drive sales in a changing economy.
DealerADvantage: How does online advertising fit into your overall media mix?
Poindexter: It is our overall media mix, with the exception of dealer directories and direct and email marketing. We moved away from traditional advertising a while ago. When you look at the research indicating the percentage of people utilizing the internet when purchasing a vehicle and where they’re actually getting their information, it just doesn’t make any sense to have your media mix heavily dependent upon print, TV and radio. Viewership is being interrupted in so many different ways, from TiVo and video games to the use of computers and DVDs. No one is really watching TV when it is scheduled. And when they are, you have the dilemma of are they watching cable or satellite?
High-line imports have a highly educated consumer, so we use the research to create our strategy. I had somebody call me today about radio, and I just told them, “You know, even if we were advertising at this time, I wouldn’t use radio unless I was having a sale and wanted to get a quick notice out there to a wide audience.” The best thing that I can do for us is make sure that our website is updated, our teams follow a process for customer management of all dealership traffic and we have good SEO management. We use SEM when needed to increase the traffic to our website.
DealerADvantage: What percentage of your sales do you attribute to the internet?
Poindexter: I’d say 30 percent to 40 percent. I data-mine our CRM system, and I check my sources carefully and often. We use our ADP system to tell us what the true numbers are, and then we try to match up each opportunity to a sale. Each month we make sure we know exactly where the customers came from – and at least see if they came from the internet because we want to give the internet full credit. When I look at the demographic analysis of my customers, most arrive at our virtual or physical door after researching online.
By the time they get to us, they are at the bottom part of the funnel, which is exactly where they should be. They’ve made a decision to buy a car because they are a loyalist – they have a love of the brand and/or our dealership), defector or first-time buyer.
DealerADvantage: How do you identify an internet sale?
Poindexter: This is a big debate around here, and I’m sure many stores have the same debate. I think it’s not fair to the vendors if they don’t get credit for email inquiries and calls that come from their trackable numbers. The shopper saw the inventory on that website, and that prompted them to call. If you want your vendors to become your partners, then give them the credit where credit is due. I want the vendors, whether it’s an email, a phone call or a lead, I want them to get credit for it. I want my vendors to feel that I value their business and tools.
DealerADvantage: How do you manage internet sales? What kind of staffing structure are you using?
Poindexter: We were considering a BDC, but we have since pulled back from that idea. Each store has an internet department within the dealership.
DealerADvantage: What is your process to manage leads and inquiries from internet car shoppers?
Poindexter: They get a response within 30 minutes or less, and we stay with them until they die or tell us to go away. We adhere to the industry standards for lead response and handling while pushing the team to get better at the response time and appointments set/confirmed/kept/sold statistics every day. My team and I meet once a week with the teams at our dealerships to review the scorecards that we give our salespeople. We talk not only about the traffic but we also review their actual responses to emails and phone calls, the prospects that they’ve deactivated and the reasons why they’ve deactivated them.
DealerADvantage: Can share your internet closing rates?
Poindexter: On our websites, the closing ratio is the highest percent. The other leads, from third-party sites such as Cars.com, I see between 25 percent and 40 percent.
DealerADvantage: What percentage of your sales are internet?
Poindexter: Given how and where we advertise, I would say 100 percent. However, if I look at the ups from electronic media, I would say it is between 20 percent and 40 percent. It just depends on the brand, the incentives from the OEM, Tier 1 and Tier 2 advertising during the month and the business cycle. Today, we also have to look at the economy, the lenders and the information in the media on the economy and the banking industry.
DealerADvantage: How do you work with your internet customers to maintain gross?
Poindexter: Going back to basics. The days of not making money off your internet customers, I think those are gone. People don’t really call you to beat you up on price. People will prefer a better level of service and pay more for that enhanced level of service if they see a value in it. We train to this fact and make sure our staff knows all of the opportunities to gain gross out of a deal. We coach to sell everything you have in your tool kit.
DealerADvantage: How do you help car buyers see that value?
Poindexter: Well, we use the research, standards and training to make sure our staff creates value with the first customer interaction. You don’t just say, “Here is the price for the car.” You treat them like you would if they came into the dealership and follow that process. Most dealerships call it 10 steps to a sale. I train the team to have 10 steps to an internet sale and hold them accountable to the process. I want them to read the lead, assess the customer’s situation, gather the information and respond quickly. Whenever there is a problem, I coach them on visualizing the process — through role playing – and use the process to get the team member back on track.
For the customer, I believe you need to give them choices. Especially with the economic conditions today, you don’t know what the person’s financial situation is. You don’t want people to feel uncomfortable, so you try to make them aware of their choices, let them know what’s available and help them narrow down their choices; you go back to the basics. You act as a real salesperson. You qualify needs and wants, and you make sure you understand which ones are needs and which ones are wants. You help them understand that wants increase the price; they don’t take away from the price. Needs are what you can’t get away from, you have to have them, to help ensure there will be less of an issue with the cost associated with fulfilling a need.
DealerADvantage: How do you provide training for your internet salespeople?
Poindexter: I used to facilitate training at GM, where I would go out and train dealership staff, dealer principals, general managers and sales managers. I created a process and environment for training with a published calendar on topics relevant to the sales staff’s current situation. I commit to the sessions being one hour or less and create modules on the research of reputable companies like Cobalt, tips and techniques from the seminars that I attend and trends I see in the industry. I try to take all that information and say, “If I were in the role of the internet salesperson, how would this be helpful for me?” I try to disseminate it in a method where they can see the value and use it when they get back to the dealership. When I conduct training at the dealership, I use the CRM system and review random leads from the deactivated files and current files, looking for examples of good and bad responses to customer requests and second-chance opportunities. After training, my team mystery shops the dealership and we look at their responses to assess training retention, new training opportunities and topics and individuals requiring additional training.
DealerADvantage: Have you seen this initiative influence your turnover?
Poindexter: Yes. It just so happens that we were talking about this the other day. We realized that we haven’t had a lot of turnover in the internet sales department, which is typically where you have the highest amount.
DealerADvantage: How do you measure your online advertising partners? What matters most to you when you’re evaluating their performance?
Poindexter: Overall value. Will this tool replace others or is it an addition? Does it offer other opportunities we are not taking advantage of or speaking to a different audience we are not engaging? Let’s talk about my dealerships, and let’s focus on how your product fits our situation and culture. Then let’s talk about how you can add or create value. I hate when reps come in and just simply want to sell me their product and don’t really care about how we’re doing, don’t care to know our products and programs or our business.
DealerADvantage: So are you screening more, so to speak, before you sign on with a vendor?
Poindexter: Yes, and I’m comparing them to at least a minimum of three providers. If I’m looking for email marketing services, for example, I’ll look for the top three leaders providing the service, because, honestly, I look for which one is providing the service differently? Or do they all do it the same? Dealers don’t want to jump in and deal with just anybody anymore. I tell people, “You either become my partner, take an interest in my business performance or we can’t do business together. Offer up some ideas.” That’s what I’m looking for: partners who want to learn my business and offer ideas on how to use their tool to drive more business. Call me up monthly to see how I am progressing and give me more ideas to improve the integration and utilization of their tool.
DealerADvantage: How have your internet strategies and tactics evolved since you joined Bill Jacobs?
Poindexter: We’ve changed how we look at online shoppers, how we process the leads and how we respond to their leads. Efficiency of inbound lead management is improving with managers owning and coaching to the process. We know what the benchmarks are in the industry, and we’re trying to improve our performance against those benchmarks. We are managing to the process, the standards and the data. We are doing a better job holding people accountable and helping them track their performance weekly. This allows them to seek out help earlier. We are no longer deviating from our processes and we hold the team’s accountable to the process. If we see that the process needs to be improved because technology and customer expectations have changed, or the industry has changed, we review the process to account for the change in business.
DealerADvantage: How do you measure the success of your internet program and your return on investment?
Poindexter: Sales and profitability. That’s the bottom line. At the end of the day, how many cars did you sell, and how much money did you make? That’s front end and back end. It’s not just about the front end of the store.
DealerADvantage: Are using some of your internet program to drive service and parts?
Poindexter: Yes. One of the tools that I think everybody needs to get is a real online scheduler and a real parts and accessories store front. Requiring customers to fill in forms is no longer acceptable. Consumers want immediate gratification when buying an item or service. They want to know they have an appointment or have immediate confirmation that the accessory/part will be mailed out the next business day. How many people you know are going to type in all that information, send it to you and then wait, 24 to 48 hours, for you to tell them when they have an appointment – when they can just pick up the phone and get it?
DealerADvantage: What emerging trends are you seeing in online automotive?
Poindexter: I think SEM is the biggest trend that people don’t know how to use correctly. You know, you need to be strategic about what you do, when you do it and how you do it. That’s the whole reason why I believe you need to do SEO first and then use SEM, to increase your position in online marketing. I still think that that’s uncharted.
DealerADvantage: What ideas are you exploring?
Poindexter: My goal is to think outside the box and to be in places where customers don’t expect us so we can attract different customers. I am looking at using tools, new and old, that allow me to go after the business of my true competitors in a cheaper fashion: SEM and target marketing. So if I’m a Chevy dealer and you are a Chevy dealer down the street, why am I only focusing on you? I need to compete against Chrysler, Ford, Dodge, Toyota and the other competitive dealers in my area. Let me go after their customers. You can create a SEM strategy and know within days if your idea works. Markets don’t only grow vertically; they grow horizontally.
DealerADvantage: You make a good point. If you go after brand loyalists, you’re essentially trying to win less than half of the business. As you know, Cobalt recently released a study indicating brand loyalists make up 44 percent of the car-buying public. (Shortened)
Poindexter: Exactly. And now, when people are not buying because they’re afraid of the economy, you have even less chance of getting that audience. Why not go after the customers that are looking at other brands and show them the reasons why they might want to consider your dealership and your brand? People are rethinking their decisions all the time? You can always conquest somebody. It’s getting harder and harder to keep the same customers you have now happy because there’s so much noise going on. So, why not do both? Keep your customers happy and reach out to others who wouldn’t normally come to you. Spend a little money going after a different market. That’s what Toyota did. Where do you think Scion came from? Toyota knew it was going to reach a saturation point, so the executives said, “How can we attract younger, first-time buyers with a small car?” The answer was Scion. Eventually you’re going to get to a point of no return, so you’ve got to go after somebody else if you want to be successful, continue to build your business and build it while being more profitable.
DealerADvantage: What do you think are today’s greatest challenges in online advertising and sales?
Poindexter: Understanding the tools that are there and how to effectively use them. There are so many tools out there that you can use. Which ones do you really need, and how do you grow your business by using them? Do you have a strategy? I think people buy tools, and they have no strategy. You can look online and find examples of how we buy tools not understanding their value and end up only using a fraction of their total capability – let alone think of how we really could use it to drive traffic and increase sales.
DealerADvantage: What advice would you give to a new iInternet salesperson at Bill Jacobs?
Poindexter: Learn the process and create your plan for using the process daily. You can make a lot of money in internet sales. You just have to decide how much you want to make, how hard you want to work and how badly you want to be successful. To take that job, you have to go outside your comfort zone. You have to be willing to learn, you have to be aggressive and you have to take feedback. You also have to not bring bad behavior or bad habits with you – leave them at the door.
Successful internet salespeople are change agents because they know the technology and tools consumers use to buy cars is constantly changing. What we’re talking about today may be obsolete in a couple of months or a couple of years. The key is to stay on top of the technology and trends by reading as much as you can, take advantage of the training made available to you and get your feet wet. Find people who have been doing it correctly for a long time and ask them to mentor you – the same thing you would do in a corporate situation. This is no different. Find the people in the dealership who are making money, have a big book of repeat buyers and referrals. Build a relationship with them and ask them how they became and stayed successful. Think about how you would use their experience to create a better experience. Chart you success and mistakes and learn from them all. Don’t be afraid to ask for help and don’t forget “ABC” – always be closing for something: a phone number, a return phone call, a response to your email, an appointment, or rescheduled appointment, a filled out credit application, a deal, a referral or a perfect CSI score.