Tom Ahl Automotive Group
If you work in automotive retail and need a morale boost, spend a few moments with Joe Shaw. “In every change in the economy, in every cycle, somebody is going to gain because they look at it for what it is, an opportunity to gain market share,” he says. “It’s an opportunity to try something different and throw out the old tools. And I’m telling you, this is an exciting time to be in the car business.”
As the internet director for Tom Ahl Automotive Group in Lima, Ohio, Shaw attributes the company’s success in the current downturn to the owner’s commitment to customer service. December 2008 and January 2009, he notes, were record sales months.
“It starts top down; he’s dedicated, he’s honest, he’s upfront,” Shaw says. “Once my guys get an opportunity to get somebody on the phone, the genuineness of the people that work for us comes through – and that comes from Tom.”
Shaw began his career in automotive retail in late 1996 at a dealership in Michigan, where he built the store’s first website. He also mastered the ins and outs of traditional floor sales and learned the internet side of the business. Shaw signed on with Tom Ahl in 1998, when he and his family returned to their hometown.
In the nearly 11 years since, referrals continue to grow and today make up a significant and satisfying percentage of overall sales. “I now have kids that were 5 to 10 years old, when their mom and dad were buying cars, buying their first cars from me,” he says. “I know that sounds goofy because you’re not selling them expensive cars, and you’re not making a bunch of money at it, but it’s pretty cool to see a kid grow up and come back and buy a car from you because you took care of his parents and his parents sent him to you. That is a neat feeling to have.”
DealerADvantage recently spoke with Shaw to learn more about Tom Ahl’s internet initiatives and how those strategies are helping to drive sales. The northwestern Ohio dealer group operates five rooftops representing four brands and records monthly sales of approximately 400 to 500 vehicles.
DealerADvantage: Where does online advertising fit into your overall media budget right now?
Shaw: Not near enough, but we’re getting there. I’m sure I’m not the first person to say that we’re still trying to change attitudes about advertising, but I would say almost half our budget is online right now. You can’t look in the newspaper and see 40 pictures of a car. You can’t look in a newspaper and see tons of personal descriptions of the car. You can’t do it on TV, you can’t do it in a radio ad. There’s no stickiness there. You get shoppers on my website, and it’s a whole other story. You would not believe the amount of time people spend on my website.
DealerADvantage: How do you see your budget changing in the next five years?
Shaw: I really think it’s going to continue to grow. I know the newspapers are desperately trying to get their costs in line, but they’re just never going to reach the number of people that you can online. So I don’t see that diminishing.
DealerADvantage: How is your internet sales department structured?
Shaw: We have dedicated internet salespeople in every rooftop, and we work together as a team. They work their deals with me and with sales managers, depending on the situation. Leads are distributed round robin and assigned, based on make and model, to the proper salespeople. Anything that the system doesn’t understand, it flops to me. That way, I can get it in the right spot with the right salesperson.
DealerADvantage: Can you tell me about your BDC?
Shaw: What we’re looking at right now is a hybrid. There’s a tenuous line between you as the salesperson and the customer three states away looking at a car. My salespeople have a specific set of skills that enable them to deal with that individual, so I’m somewhat concerned initially of turning that over to the BDC and then farming the opportunity out from there. Incoming calls, in particular, are still going to ring direct to my salespeople’s cellphones, and we work used-car leads for 14 days before handing them off to the BDC. Email leads and new-car leads, they’re going directly into the BDC. They’re going to be given to the strongest new-car salespeople on the floor, the ones with the best knowledge and the best skills to work with a new-car customer.
DealerADvantage: How are email leads managed now? Do you use a round-robin system?
Shaw: Yes. Then within so many minutes, if a lead is not responded to, it flips to the next salesperson. Our goal is to make sure that a customer receives an actual response in less than 30 minutes.
DealerADvantage: What is your sales process?
Shaw: Our process doesn’t end until shoppers buy or they are no longer on this Earth. The uniqueness of our lead management system, I think, is that you can’t delete anybody out of it – no one. You can delay a contact for a couple days if you know the customer is going to be out of town or you can’t be reached, but as long as you’re working your planner, there’s a defined process in there that will take prospects from cradle to grave. We work them very hard, particularly the first two weeks on the used-car side, and we don’t let them go. There’s a mixture of autoresponders in there plus emails that you have to send out. We have a lot of different tools, but we try very, very hard for two weeks to be constantly at them with information.
After two weeks, the system takes over in large part, and the BDC is working on outbound followup. It’s going to send out automated emails monthly to keep us in front of the shopper. Plus there’s a follow-up plan built in for the system that’s going to put the opportunity in front of my salesperson, as well, on a regular basis. We’ve sold cars to customers that we’ve been working with online, back and forth via email for more than two years. That’s the beauty of the system. When my salespeople open their planner and make a phone call, there’s a script that drops down that they can use. It’s built in, and they’ve got something to say. They’re not trying to sell a car, they’re trying to sell an appointment or trying to just keep their name in front of a customer.
DealerADvantage: In this economy, are you having trouble holding gross with internet customers?
Shaw: No. In fact, I think they’re probably higher than the floor customers.
DealerADvantage: What do you think is the secret?
Shaw: A real close relationship with the used-car manager. I think we’ve really developed an inventory strategy that makes sense. We know what models we want. We’re not shooting a shotgun when we’re going to the auction. We know what kind of mileage ranges we need to have. We know what options on what models we need.
DealerADvantage: What tools do you use to make those decisions?
Shaw: With Cars.com, for instance, we’ve got the CarsStars Report, and I’ve got another report that I get from AutoTrader.com. We also spend a lot of time talking to each other about this stuff. Daily our folks are talking about what’s moving and what’s not moving, what options are important. If you get this car and it has this, this and this, but it doesn’t have this, it’s not going to sell.
DealerADvantage: You mentioned that economic slowdowns provide an opportunity to “throw out the old tools.” What are some new things you’re trying?
Shaw: At our new Chrysler store, we don’t have a service lounge anymore. We took that away. We have pods of seating areas among the salespeople’s desks, all throughout the showroom. So now we’re even more interactive with our customers. It helps salespeople to keep their customers in front of them, and it’s helping the service business, too. It’s helping bring customers back.
DealerADvantage: That strikes me as a clever idea. Going to the service area often feels like sitting in a hospital waiting room.
Shaw: Right. Who likes that? We’ve got flat screens and big comfortable couches and chairs and recliners – and all these pods throughout the showroom. It’s really neat. You can’t help but run into your customers. In most scenarios, even in a small town like this, you’re only seeing your customer a couple times a year, at best, and usually that’s if there’s a problem. But if you see them every time they’re in for an oil change or they’re here for their free car wash, it’s not so bad when they do have a problem because they’re used to seeing you and you’re used to seeing them. You’re used to being around them in the service environment, which is different from the sales environment. It’s only been a year, but I know it’s going to promote a lot stronger repeat-referral business for us.
DealerADvantage: What about social media?
Shaw: Every salesperson has a Facebook profile. We ask all our customers at delivery, sometimes before then, if they’re on Facebook. If they say yes, we ask them to add us as friends. What it does is it really helps you stay with your customer. We’re getting amazing amounts of referrals because of it. Because who’s on Facebook? It’s your friends.
DealerADvantage: Where do you look for new ideas?
Shaw: One place is dealer conferences. I attend those, and I’ve spoken at them. It’s a good way to meet other internet directors. There also are several websites with other internet managers that I’m involved in, and we talk things back and forth. I urge my people to read everything they can get their hands on and interact and network with other internet salespeople – because everybody can learn from everybody. If you’re constantly searching for the next thing, or a better way, you’re going to find it. There’s nothing written in concrete about our processes. We follow a certain set process – without question, there are some things that we will not budge on, but we are always looking for the next good idea to integrate with what we have, and I think that’s key. That way, we continue to grow. We’re not getting stagnant. We’re not satisfied with what we have right now. We’re looking to grow.
DealerADvantage: On that note, what advice would you give to a new internet sales manager coming into your operation?
Shaw: Never forget, one, that it’s a people business, not a car business. Two: Your integrity is going to sell you more cars than anything else. The customer can tell if you have integrity. And three: Don’t stop learning. Actively seek new information and new ideas. Test them against what you have, and then implement the changes that are necessary.