What do Space Invaders, Asteroids and a good old-fashioned game of checkers have to do with selling cars? Apparently a lot, if you ask Tom Vann.

They're all part of a strategy that has enabled his Chrysler dealership, Team Hillsdale, to more than double its yearly sales total in five years.

In that time the dealership in Hillsdale, MI, with a population under 10,000, went from being ranked 260th to 60th among the approximately 320 Chrysler dealerships in the region.

Mr. Vann isn't content. He predicts his store will be in the top 10 within 2-1/2 years. “We have a lot of work to do before we get there,” he admits.

So how do those games help Team Hillsdale sell cars? They can be found on a web site that Mr. Vann and his brothers, Bill and Fred, developed. www.amotors.com is part of an intensive Internet strategy, which includes an innovative web site and a carefully planned sales process that Mr. Vann devised over the years.

That strategy led to 1,400 Internet transactions last year. Mr. Vann credits the Internet for the store's success the past five years.

According to one school of thought, there is no need for extra stuff on a dealership's web site. Mr. Vann disagrees.

“We didn't just stick with automotive because I think that's a bad call,” he argues. “We want people to get used to using our site. So we developed some customer relationship-type tools to keep customers coming back.”

And they come back. Mr. Vann says that many people will return to the games section as many 40-50 times throughout the course of the year. And when they're ready to buy a car which dealership comes to mind?

Another unique and popular tool on the site is the use of pictures. When someone buys a vehicle from Team Hillsdale, a photo is taken of the customer with the vehicle, then placed on the web site. The customer, with a unique password, can view the picture on the web later that day. The customer can also email a card with the picture to friends and relatives.

Mr. Vann also likes to take a Dodge Viper (he's the nation's 5th ranked Viper dealer) to local businesses and schools and take pictures of people sitting in it.

Those folks also can see their pictures on the web and email them to friends and family. Mr. Vann got the idea while on his honeymoon at Disney World where pictures are taken of water ride participants as it ends.

The dealership web site also provides true interactivity with a tool that allows consumers to chat in real time directly with an Internet department employee. Mr. Vann says it's the area on the site that gets the most hits. The store closes approximately 80% of the leads that originate on the chat tool.

The web site brings them in but it's the process that sells, according to Mr. Vann. That process closes about 60% of the leads from the web site and about 25% of the leads coming in from Autobytel.

Without giving away to many of his secrets, Mr. Vann explains, “I can't say the process is an eight- or 10-step program. But it is a very consumer-friendly approach. It's very non-traditional. It still requires persuasive selling skills, though.”

The customer emails the dealership with a purchase request. Within one business day, someone from the Internet department will call the customer and explain the process. During the explanation, the Internet facilitator makes sure the customer understands the differences between the traditional method and the Internet method of buying a vehicle.

Then the customer gets the option of continuing with the alternative process. “Most of them say yes,” Mr. Vann states. “They feel, by separating themselves from the traditional process they are smarter. And frankly, they are smarter.”

The whole process can be done over the phone — including the trade and the financing and insurance. Once the customer evaluates the vehicle, the dealership conducts a mini-auction with other dealers to determine the vehicle's worth.

“We've only been burned four or five times,” says Mr. Vann. “We've learned the customer is very honest and accurate when evaluating the vehicle.”

A 60% closing ratio is impressive, but — get this — almost none of Team Hillsdale Internet customers ever set foot in the store. The average Internet customer lives 110 miles from the store.

The Internet is the key for the small dealer's survival, Mr. Vann believes. “If you can't spread yourself beyond your 20-25 mile radius, you either are going to be gone or you're going to be strictly a used-car dealer in the next five to 10 years,” he cautions.

“The Internet is the small dealer's advantage,” he argues. “I can now go attack the big guys and say ‘Now let's play fair.’ This makes the ground even and if the ground is even, they're going to have to compete against us the way we are now, and that's going to be hard for those guys because we're out in the forefront.”

What makes a good Internet salesperson

The question is asked frequently, “What type of person is successful in the Internet department?”

Dealer Tom Vann says, “Not people who have sold cars before. Once someone has been selling cars for three months, they tend to think they know everything, so you can't teach them anything new.”

Instead his Internet employees at Team Hillsdale in Hillsdale, MI, are of varied backgrounds.

One was a factory manager for years. Another wants to play piano for a living. But what they have in common is aggressiveness and confidence. “They have to be powerful closers — not be afraid to ask the customer to make the purchase,” Mr. Vann explains.

He separated the sales and F&I functions in the department a couple of years ago and saw the F&I sales increase threefold.

“It's just too much for one person,” he says. “The Internet facilitator has to be thoroughly knowledgeable about several products. And the F&I person sells about a dozen different products. We operate in five states consistently, and she has to be familiar with the regulations of each state, and the products that best fit the customer.”

The people who deliver the vehicles have to be very talented also. Thorough familiarity with the paperwork, product knowledge and customer-friendliness are musts.
Cliff Banks

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