Rice Toyota's service department makes house calls.

For employees of a local hospital, the Greensboro, NC, dealership will pick up, work on and return their cars, typically by the end of their shifts.

The dealership has found success with the 7-month-old program. It made $2,000 in the first month, $25,000 now.

The project also succeeded in winning the top $5,000 prize in an innovative-dealership idea contest at the DrivingSales Executive Summit presented with WardsAuto.

In the judging, four other dealerships won runner-up cash prizes offered by Cobalt, an automotive digital marketing firm.

“We wanted to increase service business beyond customers who are coupon chasers,” says Mary Curry, Rice Toyota's marketing director, explaining how the hospital outreach program came about.

She chose the hospital for the pick-up/drop-off vehicle service because the facility is near the dealership and “hospital employees make good customers.”

They also are good at spreading the word. “They are close to each other, eat together and talk to each other a lot,” says Curry, daughter of Rice Toyota's dealer principal.

Early participants had nothing more elaborate done to their vehicles than oil changes. But service and repair orders gradually went beyond that as the dealership “built trust,” she says.

Curry created a service menu for all makes and models. Pricing takes into account the convenience of the service, as well as the dealership's cost of picking up and returning vehicles. The menu also offers vehicle accessories.

Two designated service advisors handle the hospital employees' service orders and act as a direct line to those customers. If a vehicle requires an overnight stay at the dealership, work isn't started without first checking with the customer.

The dealership stages promotional events at the hospital, passing out service menus, phone numbers and “little giveaways,” Curry says. “I don't just take service people to the events. I take sales people too; you wouldn't believe all the questions we get on newly introduced cars.”

The dealer-idea contest's $2,500 runner-up prize goes to Dan Boismier, e-commerce director for the Suburban Auto Collection based in Troy, MI.

He set up a program tied into Twitter social media. The dealership group loaned a Cadillac SRX to a customer who agreed to Tweet about his driving experiences. The man was selected due to his large Twitter following of 11,000 people.

“We saw that number and said, ‘Holy cow,’” Boismier says.

Ironically, the selectee once had been a disgruntled customer, because a car he purchased developed major engine problems. After working with the manufacturer to resolve his complaint, Suburban asked him to participate in its new Twitter project.

“We said, ‘Write whatever you want about the SRX, but if you are critical, at least make it constructive,’” Boismier says.

One Tweet: “We're feeling pretty stylish in this Cadillac.” Another: “You can't go wrong with a Cadillac.”

A $1,500 contest award went to Brian Armstrong, e-commerce director for Volkswagen South Towne in Sandy, UT. The suburban Salt Lake City store set up a process making it easy for customers to do online reviews of the dealership for its website.

“It can be hard to get customers to write reviews,” he says. The solution: Ask in-store customers to do so with an electronic pad and writing stylus. They can rate by stars, then write comments.

The handwritten reviews are posted as is. “Keeping them in handwritten form increases the veracity,” Armstrong says.

The click rate has jumped for the Web page with reviews, he says. “It's amazing what a couple of geeks in Salt Lake City can accomplish.”

Contest prizes of $1,000 each went to Gary Sanders of Stevinson Lexus of Lakewood, outside Denver, and to Eric Miltsch of Auction Direct USA, a chain of used-car superstores.

Sanders won for his dealership's “photo-marketing strategy” in which more than 50 photos accompany each vehicle posted on website inventory pages.

Shoppers calling the dealership typically ask lots of questions about vehicle features. Sanders says it is best to respond to their inquiries by showing them, rather than telling them.

“We shoot high-quality photos, and pay attention to details,” he says. “You don't want shadows on the car or service technicians in the background repairing another car's windshield.”

The photos' order of appearance is important, Ones that show highlighted features, GPS systems and DVD players rank high on the list.

The photo project has increased customer calls, Sanders says. “There's an improved flow of conversation. It is easier to set up appointments because customers have already seen so much.”

Window shopping takes on a new meaning since Auction Direct opened a used-car store” in a shopping mall in western New York.

Without entering the store, shoppers can use nine touch screens on the front window to get information about the stock inside. Interactive kiosks inside the store allow people to shop and compare.

“The mall owner said a shopper survey indicates that after the Apple store we are the second store on top of people's minds,” Miltsch says.