LAS VEGAS – The head of an 88-store dealership group regularly checks to see if his sales people make follow-up phone calls to prospects, not just send them emails.

One day, while checking his electronic activities log, he noticed one store’s Internet department was skipping the calls. He phoned the manager and identified himself. At first thinking it was a prank call, the manager said, “Yeah, right.”

When the manager realized who it was, he started making excuses, telling his boss that many customers prefer emails to phone calls.

“Baloney,” said the dealer principal, who then got in his car and drove to the dealership for a face-to-face talk.

“I said, ‘Did you fire him?’” Jonathan Ord, CEO of the customer-relationship management firm, DealerSocket, says in relating the story.

The dealer replied: “Heck no, I didn’t fire him, but he won’t be doing that again.”

Ord relates the story at the recent Driving Sales Executive Summit presented with WardsAuto. His point is that successful CRM efforts require dealer principals playing active roles.

CRM software helps dealerships systematically capture, record, sort and leverage customer information on a grand scale; track sales leads from beginning to end; and keep in touch with car buyers post-sale.

Still, many dealerships fail to use CRM systems anywhere near their capacity.

“It has to come from the top, you can’t expect sales people to roll it out,” says Cassie Broemmer, director-marketing and customer retention for the VanTuyl Group, a dealership chain based in Phoenix, AZ.

Management should set daily work plans, make sure calls indeed are made, monitor calls periodically for quality purposes and coach staffers on best practices, she says. “You have to push it or it won’t succeed.”

Every customer’s name and contact information needs to go into the system, says John Velicsanyi, CRM administrator for Galpin Motors Inc., a dealership group based in North Hills, CA.

His boss, Bert Boeckmann, “wants that,” he says. “It’s really important. We regularly train people on how to use the CRM system. Otherwise it’s garbage in, garbage out.”

Part of Galpin’s pay plan takes into account sales people’s efforts at scheduling customer appointments.

Besides monitoring follow-ups, Galpin also looks into lost sales opportunities, Velicsanyi says. “We want to know why they were lost. Sometimes, a salesperson will call back a ‘lost’ customer and end up getting an appointment.”

If sales managers use the CRM system, so will their staff, Ord says at a conference session on maximizing the value of existing customers.

Short-term, staffers will use CRM tools because management is monitoring them, he says. “But long-term, it provides value and sells more cars.”

CRM systems also allow dealers to conduct email customer-satisfaction surveys.

Ord recommends brevity. “Ours asks three questions: Were you happy? Did you get what you wanted? Would you recommend the dealership to family or friends? And there’s a comment box. We get a 34% response rate.”

Last year, Galpin Ford put its CRM system in high gear in an effort to retain its title as the world’s No.1 Ford store for the 20th year in a row.

“We were 200 units behind the other store as the year was ending,” Velicsanyi recalls. “We put money into spiffs. We sent out emails saying, ‘Help us be No.1 for the 20th year. We did calls, email blasts and end-of-lease programs.”

Galpin ended up keeping the title by a 13-vehicle margin.