Special Coverage

2011 Ward's e-Dealer 100

When it comes to dealing cars online, the Texas-based John Eagle Auto Group has one firm playing strategy: Go all in or don’t bother at all.

While that might not be a prudent when playing Texas Hold-’em poker, it has been a winning plan for the dealership group with two stores on the Ward’s e-Dealer 100.

“We’ve had the same philosophy all along, about everything we do,” says Jim Flint, corporate director-Interactive sales and marketing. “If we don’t think we’re going to end up in the top 5%, we’re just not going to do it.”

Deciding to enter Internet auto retailing in a big way was a high-stakes, high-pressure move at the time for the dealership group.

“(John Eagle) went all in about six months after the economic collapse, so March 2009,” Flint says. “They recognized that a new business model was going to be developed with or without us and decided they wanted to be out in front.”

Flint’s job is evidence of the new-age model. He is among a new breed of car salesman that aggressive and successful dealerships are finding a need for: Sales people who don’t actually sell cars –not directly, that is. Flint heads a team focused on one thing: Internet sales.

Last year, between all 12 locations, the John Eagle Internet team sold 9,351 units, up 25.8% from the year before. Flint credits that to a willingness of employees across the board to both embrace and use the Internet process.

“We’ve reached a tipping point,” he says. “Today, for the most part, every customer is an Internet customer. Even if it’s a walk-in, they come loaded with information. It changes the process completely.”

Developing and sticking to a process makes it work. At any given time, Flint’s team can say not just who’s in the sales funnel, but, thanks to customer-relationship management software and other tools, knows about where they are in the funnel.

The group dedicates 50% annually to the Internet marketing effort, says Rene Isip, owner of three of the family dealerships. “If you don’t have about half of your money allocated to the Internet, you’re probably not in the right place.”

Isip was at the forefront of the company when it came to moving the Internet strategies forward. Flint describes Isip and the rest of the corporate board members as “visionaries.”

“We started seeing the trend and watching how everybody was doing their shopping,” Isip says. “We’re still watching trends.”

The next step, he says, is putting iPads in the hands of all sales members so they can walk the lot with customers, yet stay online and call up relevant vehicle and financing information.

The dealership group tries to make good use of search-engine marketing and optimization, as well as different forms of social media.

The group made its first big move to Facebook and Twitter in 2009 when it hired a full-time intern to focus entirely on social media. Today, it’s a corporate management job.

Isip sees social media as a chance to stay tuned to what customers are saying in order to maintain and enhance the dealership’s reputation.

Harvesting new relationships is also an important function, Flint adds.

“Facebook allows you to humanize the dealership and to be part of the community,” he says. “It also allows us to be part of the conversation that used to happen outside the dealership.”

It’s tough to fully demonstrate how social helps sell cars, Flint says. “However, I believe that it can prevent you from selling cars, if you ignore it. You need to stay tuned to what’s going on so that you can stay connected to your customers.”