This is my first column for Ward's Dealer Business, so let me introduce myself. My name is John Holt and I'm the president and CEO of The Cobalt Group. In this and future columns I hope to create a dialogue between us about important industry issues and technological developments that directly affect your business.

Specifically, I'm planning to share Cobalt's knowledge of practical e-business solutions and best practices, as well as profile dealers who've embraced e-business technology and show impressive bottom-line results for their efforts.

So, let's get down to business.

In the real world of automotive retail, best e-business results are the product of combining the best technology with the best practices. I always recommend the following best practices:

  • Using a state-of-the-art lead management system to prioritize leads and help your dealership answer every lead within at least one hour, seven days a week.

  • Using eCRM tools — such as customer personal pages and customer acquisition tools — to directly market to your best customers and best prospects.

  • Using a versatile, feature-rich online ad-building tool to create custom ads for your site.

How much of a difference can the right eCRM tools and dealership processes make? All the difference in the world. Let me tell you about Jeff Stabile, director of Internet operations at Bill Gray Automotive in Pittsburgh, PA.

When Jeff signed on at Bill Gray Automotive, its e-business program wasn't doing much. Lead volume was low, closing ratios were even lower, and, as he looked for ways to improve the situation, Jeff was quickly frustrated with the limitations of the local technology provider.

He knew he could do better. He asked his general manager to let him look for a new solution. He got the green light. Bill Gray Automotive's new e-business program rolled out in 1999. Since then, the dealership has achieved dramatic results:

  • Monthly lead volume has increased from about 80 to nearly 200.

  • Monthly page views are up nearly 800%.

  • Most importantly, closing ratios increased from 3% to 27%.

How did this happen? In short, Jeff implemented new technology and stringent processes to ensure that nothing fell through the cracks. Here are some of the key factors in Bill Gray Automotive's success:

Lead management

Before the new lead management system was in place, Jeff was drowning in paper. He'd print two copies of every lead, keeping one for his records and handing the other one off to a salesperson.

His tracking system was a bulletin board where he pinned the leads under the names of the sales personnel. Now he can check the status of every salesperson's leads on his computer screen and follow up right away if a customer doesn't receive a timely response to their inquiry.

He's also able to monitor the content of every lead response from the dealership. This capability has led to in-store training on better customer correspondence.

When it comes to leads he says, “Success depends on working them.” In his dealership, working leads means responding to customer queries in 30 minutes or less, attaching an actual photo of the vehicle of interest, and maintaining a positive, friendly dialogue with the customer.

Targeted marketing

Jeff uses eCRM tools to plan and execute targeted marketing campaigns designed to increase customer retention and drum up business for the parts, service and detail departments.

“I'm able to find people coming out of three-year leases and those who are due for service, and target market them,” says Jeff. In addition, he promotes customer personal pages that are now available through his dealership's e-business program.

Creating ads online

Before the new e-business program, Jeff had to fax ads to the dealership's website provider when he wanted to run online specials. Implementation time took one to two weeks. That cut his promotion time significantly and made it difficult to respond quickly to market opportunities.

But once Jeff started using an online tool to build his own ads, everything changed. Jeff started creating online specials himself and publishing them on the dealership site the minute they were ready. Jeff uploaded Bill Gray Automotive logos on to the ad-building tool so that all his specials are tagged with the dealership's branding. And he jazzes up his ads using customization tools.

Jeff Stabile's success at Bill Gray Automotive isn't just a matter of getting the right e-business technology — though that was an essential factor — it's the result of good process married to great technology.

The two go hand in hand.

It's nearly impossible to implement good processes if you're not working with the right tools. A dealership website can't just be a glorified billboard; it has to be a high-level marketing tool, an interactive contact point between customers and the dealership. And that's exactly the transformation that Jeff helped put in place.

John Holt is president and CEO of The Cobalt Group, a leading provider of e-business software and services to the automotive retail market.