At Fresh Beginnings Inc. in Valdosta, GA, a management station in the middle of a call-center room rises above operators conducting hundreds of conversations. It gets a visitor's attention.

“We did that intentionally,” says company founder and president, Hugh Hathcock.

The call center acts an outsourced business development center (BDC) for auto dealers.

Depending on a dealership's specific needs and in-store processes, the operators set appointments with potential prospects, conduct customer satisfaction surveys, provide service appointment reminders and engage in other marketing campaigns.

“We want our operators to speak with a smile,” Hathcock says.

Sticking to strict phone scripts, the operators pleasantly handle any objections or questions customers throw their way and usually, by conversation's end, the customer is agreeing to an appointment at the dealership.

Some dealers successfully run their own call centers. Other dealers have experimented with setting up their own — often investing heavily in state-of-the-art facilities — only to watch them fail.

Developing the right phone scripts, hiring and developing employees who are strong on the phone and finding the right technology can be difficult for dealers who just want to sell cars.

“The biggest problem with business development centers is the management of them,” Hathcock says.

The one he oversees, part of Fresh Beginnings customer-relationship management division, e-Leads, began seven years ago “when dealers started asking us to make the phone calls for them,” he says.

The company had conducted only outbound phone calls using data in the dealer's dealer-management system (DMS). It recently launched an inbound service, allowing it to handle incoming calls for dealers.

Hathcock says dealers should expect a consistent and predictable level of traffic into their showrooms, based on whatever campaign a dealer wants to run.

For example, using e-Leads' Gold Digger product, a dealer may want to increase the number of trade-ins of a specific vehicle to put into the used-vehicle inventory. The call center can access data in the DMS and call customers who have purchased that vehicle within the last several years and set up appointments to have them come in to look at a new car.

“Everything we do is about setting the appointment,” says Hathcock. “For example, during tax time, we ask about the refund and when the customer filed.”

In addition to setting appointments, operators call following appointments to determine why people left the dealership without buying.

The data from those conversation go back into the DMS, giving management a view into what is going on in the dealership.

At the call center, a total of 300 operators work two shifts. Predictive-dialer technology makes more than 100,000 calls a day, leading to 30,000 actual conversations. It works out to about 100 daily conversations for each operator.

Hathcock, with his wife Judy, started Fresh Beginnings as a cookie company in late 1985.

They met at an advertising seminar and decided to work together. They developed a plan of using cookies as gifts to help dealers improve their customer satisfaction scores. The Coggin Group in Florida was their first customer.

That first year, still unmarried, they sold the concept to 300 dealers, driving city to city throughout the Southeast, taking cookies to the largest dealerships. After spending so many hours in the car together, they decided to get married.

“It was CRM (customer relationship management) without the technology,” Hathcock says of those early cookie days.

Dealers would mail handwritten lists of recent customers to the Hathcocks. They would bake the cookies and send them to the dealership customers at their work addresses.

“It was an attention grabber,” Judy says. “We learned that, by sending the cookies to work addresses, an average of another 10 people would hear about the dealership. It was an easy concept. The dealers knew this would make them money, while we did all of the work and made them look good.”

This was around the time Ford Motor Co. began popularizing customer satisfaction indexes. Auto makers began using firms such as J.D. Power and Associates and others to follow up with customers after the vehicle purchase.

“We always beat the CSI surveys,” Hathcock says. “One of the first questions was, ‘Did someone from the dealership contact you after the purchase?’ If the dealership was one of our clients, the answer was always ‘yes’ because of the cookies.”

During the 1990s, the firm began doing its own follow up of customers at the dealers' request, while never forsaking the cookies. Today, a full staff at Fresh Beginnings bakes 40,000 cookies daily, packages them and mails them to the customers of more than 1,000 dealers.

Meanwhile, the company in 2000 acquired a software firm to help move its CRM initiatives forward. Hathcock was happy with the product until they took it into a dealership owned by the Sonic Automotive Group.

They quickly learned that automotive retail was a different ball game, and ended up rebuilding the entire product so it was more appealing to dealers than techies.

“It took us six months to get the product right,” Hathcock says. “But now our dealers aren't buying stuff Bill Gates wants. Now it's what the dealers want.”

Today, the firm offers what it calls e-Lead CRM, including desking tools, e-mail and direct mail, Internet lead management, daily work plans and data extraction and analytical services to help target potential customers better.

“I think what dealers like about us is that we are a services and fulfillment company, not a technology company,” Hathcock says.

Last year, Hathcock acquired Honda of Panama City (FL) in part to use as a training and showcase model.

For 20 years, the dealership averaged 40 sales a month, according to Hathcock. Under new ownership, it sold 125 in its first month.