The Village Automotive Group in Massachusetts first jumped on the Internet wave in 1999. They were even posting inventory online as early as 1999. E-commerce Director Chris Fousek recounts some of those early days, and shares with Digital Dealer what he thinks the next big technological wave will be for the industry.
Chris, you have what best can be described as a hybrid role with Village Automotive Group in Masachussetts.
Yes. I am involved on a group level to a certain extent with CRM and individual web site operations. But I mostly concentrate day to day out of our Cadillac and Saab store.
That includes making sure the web site performing and generating leads and traffic. I also manage our CRM so that we are handling the Internet leads effectively. A big part of that is making sure that the customers are being treated properly.
And I deal with the Internet sales process and Internet sales training. I talk about the dynamic a lot this where Internet sales managers say, “I’m here to sell a car today, don’t bug me right now. I gotta sell a car right now.”
Well, I’m trying to figure out how to sell so many cars daily now, that’s where I’m at a lot of the time. But I lay the groundwork so the traffic keeps coming in. I have to lay the foundation that gets the traffic to the web site; make sure it gets converted to leads and that those leads get sold. It’s about using the right sources, whether it is classifieds, lead providers, search or marketing. I evaluate whether we are putting our money in places that create quality leads. And if not, I look for the alternatives.
I look to why are these leads not performing and I’m either tweaking what we’re doing or we are dropping the source and moving to someone else. I do a lot of type-line work.
Your background is interesting.
I started in 1999 in the car business. Before that, I worked on feature films throughout New England. I worked on building movie sets. I was on the road all of the time or out of work three months out of the year. When I got the call to work, there was no question. I had to jump, whether it was six hours away or close by. I was kind of on call all the time.
So do you have your name on any movie credits?
Sure. Let’s see. “The Crucible” was the first movie I worked on. I think my name is on “Good Will Hunting,” “Me, Myself and Irene,” “What Lies Beneath,” and “The Cider House Rules.”
Do you get royalties?
No royalties, just memories. The last movie I worked on was with David Mamet, the director. He asked me a year later what I was up to and I said I took a day job. He said car sales are alright.
How did you end up in the dealership?
I was looking to get off the road be able to work locally. I knew no matter what I did I would need to learn about computers. I didn’t even have a computer at the time.
I took a computer course at the local high school for $30 for 10 weeks every Monday night for three hours. It was unbelievable because there was a guy looking to get out and a bunch of grandparents in the class trying to figure out what their grandkids are doing.
We just learned about Microsoft Word, and the Internet. We did other programming like Excel too.
During that time, I decided to take a job at the dealership where my wife purchased her car. I was a sales manager and became general manager.
At the dealership, there were plenty of computers to work on because nobody was using them. I thought, “This is great.” I wanted to learn more about cars and learn about sales because that was new for me.
What was the Internet department like at the dealership?
At the time, the Internet leads were being handled by the number one sales guy who always had people waiting for him. He was basically printing out leads on Outlook.
We handed leads out to others but no one was really responding to them. This guy Randy would check back in a week to see what happened to those people.
Finally the general manager told me to try to figure all this stuff out because I had taken a course and seemed to enjoy working on computers. So, I took it and ran basically. At the time, we didn’t even have a web site.
Someone in the group built the first web site for us. Then, if I remember correctly, the service manager’s son’s neighbor came over with a print out and telling us he could put our inventory online. It was just a list of cars, and I said to him, “Jut like that?”
He said, “Yeah. It’s going to be a page and it is going to list all of your cars. By the way, do you want to put the vehicle prices on also?”
What year was that?
That was 1999-2000.
It sounds like the management team at Village is forward thinking.
Yes. Ray Ciccolo bought the first store in 1963 and has been around a while. They’ve been supportive and trying different initiatives and vendors.
I am definitely am able to be successful and have the freedom to try. As long as we can try something out and set our goal for it, track it and determine if it is the right thing for us. One example is online chat. I wasn’t sure if it was going to get us many more leads, but we decided to go for it. We did and it has been great.
I’ve been able to learn and grow here. I’ve been able to attend the Digital Dealer Conference year in and year out. That is where you can take a lot away from individual seminars and networking with peers and vendors. That is huge.
You were putting inventory on your web site already back then.
Yes. Things went pretty quick after that. We got on board with Cars.com’s sales center platform. Then soon thereafter we got on with Dealer.com and started building a real site.
So, you are one of the early dealers with Dealer.com then? What attracted you to them?
Yes, we were. Mr. Ciccolo’s daughter, Christine, got us started with them. She was on a Honda 20 group and other dealers were talking about it. I didn’t even have a computer that I could see it on, I think I was running Windows 95, so I couldn’t see the backend. I would spend time on the phone with the developers at Dealer.com just talking through how stuff will look and work because I couldn’t see it. I learned a lot of stuff at the very beginning working with the folks there, building sites and figuring out the flow of traffic on a site. Not only on the site, but how people got to the site.
What is most important for customers once they get to your site?
One is giving them options of where to go, and it has to be clear. They want inventory, information on service and information on promotions or specials.
But, they look at inventory mostly, new and used. I use a tool called 4Q from iPerceptions to help us track that. It also allows comments. It is a quick four question survey tool, which is also free. We ask basically why customers are on the site. So far, 69% searched new vehicles, 19% checked promotions, 4% found contact information That’s a good way to monitor how your web site it doing.
How do you measure conversion on your site?
We measure conversion on my monthly reporting. I look at leads and phone calls. But I am also going to look through my analytics and I am going to look at page views. Those would be two things, goals completed and then conversion. The conversion is going to be a lead submission of a form or a phone call or a chat.
There are some vendors who will qualify a conversion as time on site, looking at how many hours the page was open. That’s not conversion, in my opinion.
How do you get traffic to your web site? You mentioned search.
Our site is designed very organically. We make sure we have strong links into our site. A lot of our outbound e-mail campaigns, making sure we have targeted and relevant links from the body of the e-mail back into the pages of our site. So you’ll see through our monthly analytics, there is a good amount of traffic coming off of our e-mail campaigns.
How much traffic do you typically generate over the course of a month?
For the Cadillac site it is about 5,000.
Are you doing anything with pay-per-click?
A little bit. I’m watching how that converts for us. However, we have never been blown away by the results. I think that is also because we have also since 2000 have had a very good platform so our organic results are strong. Our group is definitely the exception in that space. Along with Dealer.com, we use DataOne, which is hugely successful with SEO. We also use AutoDealerTraffic.
Which CRM tool do you use?
We just switched to iMagic Lab. Our previous vendor didn’t have an Internet lead management component, so we were using two systems. That had been going on for many years, but it was difficult. We researched the market and went ahead with the iMagic Lab CRM. It makes my job a little bit easier.
Where do you go to learn what you need to know to keep up with the latest best practices?
By staying tuned into the social channel and the going to the Digital Dealer Conferences and other events. I follow people on Twitter. I try to be in touch with what is happening. Also, talking peers around the country too is the biggest thing to find out what people are using. You can’t be afraid to ask questions.
What kind of play is social networking, Facebook primarily, having in the automotive retail space?
Everyone is learning it still. We are dabbling in it some. We try to have a consistent presence alerting people to newsworthy, seasonal worthy, regional news. Some fun stuff and some informal stuff.
Are you doing it just because everyone else is doing it and is there? Or do you really think there is a need?
We’re doing it because, when we say, “Everyone is doing it,” we should say the culture is doing it. It is a space where people are, where buyers are. There are brands that I and my employees follow in the social space so we need to be there as a brand in the social space as well.
We are certainly learning what our role is. You have to listen. You have to be out there. We have a great example of turning a situation around using Facebook. An employee in one of our stores saw that a friend of a friend commented that they were upset, really upset with our service department. This guy sees it and reaches out to the person. He told the employee that he just left and the service light came back on. While at red light, he decides to blast out a comment on his smart phone.
Because of that, we were able to turn the situation around and create a happy customer. But if you aren’t out there listening with employees, you are going miss those opportunities. So I think certainly for monitoring things that is key. You want to use that space to monitor, you want use it to promote and use that space to drive traffic back to your web site. You want to put content out there that is going to have links back to your content. That is what we are trying to do with it. Someone posted on Twitter if you fall down seven times, stand up eight. But don’t lose sight that social media is not your primary way to drive revenue.
What is going to be the next big thing here in our space with technology? What are you looking at down the road?
The next big thing? I am an analytics and report junky. With me it is all of the business intelligence out there. And again, this ties into social media and search and how that world is changing.
What is relevant to you as a user, when you search for a product and are connected to products and people socially, the search engine would recognize that. At least that is what the supposed trend is now.
Are any vendors providing that now?
Companies are presenting it to us more and more.
I think we’re going to see a growth in CRM where people use the phrase “social CRM.” I think web site and lead providers might.
It kind of goes into that lead storing territory. You are going to be able to prioritize who you are working. You can prioritize your responses.
This person comes in as a lead, and this person is coming to your site every day, do you want to be notified they are coming to your site every day? You are just going to be able to gather up a lot more information. You are going to be able to say, “Hey, there’s the guy with the white Seville that drives through everyday but never comes into the showroom.” You will be able to watch your customers that way and gather up intelligence with your software.
Are you starting to formalize any reports, are you looking at ways to leverage this at all right now?
I use Outlook and there is a product called Xobni, it is “inbox” spelled backwards. It was a developed years ago by a young 22- or 23-year old who hated Outlook. He thought it wasn’t relevant, couldn’t organize, couldn’t figure out who people were. Xobni matches up the social profiles and plugs it right into your inbox. The search tool also allows me to see a photo of the person, to see their Facebook and LinkedIn profile. So, I started to like it as a tool in Outlook because I get over 100 e-mails a day.
It also compensates for certain lead providers that can only provide a text copy of an e-mail lead. When that lead comes in as text, I would get the profile of that customer in my Outlook.
Then I can if I see the salesperson isn’t really working the lead, I can show them, hey, this guy is a corporate VP right down the street. Or I could say hey, this is a young student in town.
I’ve told CRM vendors they need to plug this into their products — share the profiles that I was seeing with the salespeople. Now we are starting to see that.
I think a lot of people at dealerships who are not in a role like mine, or want a role like mine are afraid to ask a question. How can I do this or how can I find this out? You can really push to find the tools that are out there to help do your job.
You tweak your site, you have a web site you can push and say I need my site to do this.
Editor’s Note: Chris will be presenting at the 9th Digital Dealer Conference in Las Vegas October 12-14, on how he is using business intelligence to better efficiently manage customers.