Jim Lukegord wants customers ultimately to buy cars, but that is not his immediate goal at Group 1 Automotive, one of the nation’s largest dealership chains.

“We are not selling the car,” he says. “We are selling the appointment at the store, and all our processes are involved in doing that.”

Lukegord is the business development center manager for Group 1’s Eastern Region. He oversees Internet and phone sales for 43 dealerships.

The group’s Eastern region ranks as No.1 in the 2012 WardsAuto e-Dealer 100, with total new- and used-vehicle sales of 24,136 units.

Although the Internet and phone team didn’t do the deal on all those vehicles, it is closely aligned with the stores that did.

“We work hand-in-hand with the dealerships,” says Lukegord, who has been with the BDC since 1997, when it was a 1-store operation.

“We want to make sure our notes to the dealership sales people are updated and we want to lay out the red carpet, so the customer has a great experience,” he says at a WardsAuto webinar on Internet sales and marketing. “We are on the same page as the stores and have solid processes.”

Those processes focus on promptly responding to sales leads, sufficiently answering customer questions and properly entering current-status information in the customer-relationship management software system so salespeople are up to speed.

“Once we set up an appointment, managers at the stores make sure the leads are assigned to salespeople,” Lukegord says. “We want everything to be transparent.”

Group 1 trains the BDC staff to know product in anticipation of customer questions. That is no easy task, considering the staffers field leads for a variety of brands, such as Toyota, Nissan, Ford, BMW and Mercedes-Benz.

“We want everyone to know what types of questions customers will be asking, but we don’t want to go into too much detail about the product,” Lukegord says. “We don’t want to oversell.”

Training is extensive and ongoing, says Anthony Adamo, who manages Internet and phone traffic for 18 Group 1 Highline stores in the East.

“Some places give initial training and that’s it,” he says. “In our training, we work a lot like a dealership, doing it extensively for new hires and then half-hour daily training on everything from how to handle incoming calls to how to personally respond to Internet leads to overcoming objections to pricing, which always is a big one.

“That sets the stage and gets everybody ready for the process.”

Group 1 interviews hundreds of job candidates for the BDC positions. “Mostly we look for character, but also for a positive attitude,” Adamo says. “We want enthusiasm and cooperation in people who are team players but also working for themselves.

“You have to have people who want to make this place better and see it grow. It took many years to build this operation what it is.”

There are many forms of communication in the Internet age, but Adamo believes the telephone is the most effective way for his organization to deal with customers, even those who initially submit Internet leads.

“Tonality, understanding the customer and knowing what they are looking for come across better on the phone,” he says. “Emails work, but it is hard to get that understanding unless you can speak to someone over the phone.”

At one point, dealerships wondered if they should maintain websites. Now, they all do, and the current question for many of them is whether to get actively involved in social media as a way of connecting with customers.

But Sajeev Mehta, Group 1’s social-media manager, warns, “Improper or infrequent use of social media is worse than a bad website experience.”

Social media is an enhanced form of group discussion, he says. “Either people are talking about you or with you. Ideally, you want them talking with you.”

sfinlay@wardsauto.com