Special Report

Ward’s
e-Dealer 100

Telephony is the first area Shaun Kniffin mentions when asked what three areas he considers most critical for dealers wanting to strengthen their Internet operations.

Kniffin, who manages the business-development center and phone operations for the Germain Motor Co. in Columbus, OH, says there are two areas to measure: How well do we make phone calls, and how well do we answer them?

“The phone is the 900 lb. gorilla in the room,” Kniffin says. “Phone traffic keeps going up while our e-mail traffic goes down.” In 2007, phone calls generated by Germain's Web-advertising (including traffic from lead generators) outnumbered e-mails by more than two to one.

The information from those phone calls and e-mails are entered into the customer-relationship management tool. The BDC's job is to respond to each of those leads and set the appointments.

“We don't carry the title of Internet managers anymore,” Kniffin says, adding that Germain doesn't send out auto responder e-mails anymore either. “Who reads them?” he asks.

Germain's process is similar to that of a relay team, Kniffin says. The BDC hands customers off to a manager who then transfers them to a salesperson.

“We capitalize on the strengths of our people,” Kniffin says. “Our BDC people love talking on the phone and making calls. The managers get to manage and the sales people get to sell.”

Still not every phone call gets tracked properly. One issue is that calls are made with cell phones today, which provides a technological challenge in capturing customer information. Another challenge is getting 165 sales people to always ask the right questions when they receive calls from customers.

Knowing your limitations is a second area that is critical, according to Kniffin. “In the words of Steve Germain (the owner), ‘You can't do everything,’” he says.

As new technology continues to enter the automotive space, Kniffin thinks dealers should carefully evaluate what they choose to do.

“We spend so much time figuring how we can do something, and not whether we should do it — we're getting to that point,” he says. For dealerships on the Ward's e-100, who typically are leading the change, Kniffin says, “We need to stop occasionally and look over our shoulders and ask, ‘Is anyone following us? How fast should we go?’”

So far, Germain has avoided playing much with video, primarily because Kniffin isn't sure of its place yet. “I don't think video has a place everywhere in the store.”

A third area Kiffin believes dealers should focus is optimization. “Let's make sure what we are doing, works,” he says. In the last year, Germain has simplified its operations, eliminating tools that weren't working. It focused on one CRM tool, getting rid of others; and is buying leads only from the main lead generators, rather than going everywhere to create traffic.

But the group is beginning a search strategy with AutoDealerTraffic that will provide it greater intelligence into who's searching and what they're searching for. “We want to be able to trace a sale all the way back to the click,” Kniffin says.

Germain also is posting and indexing its new inventory online so it is more visible to the search engines.

“It's a trend that's going on,” Kniffin says. “People have been acclimated on eBay to searching for specific vehicles rather than dealerships.”

Clicking on a vehicle that comes up on the search engine will take a shopper right to that vehicle's page on the Germain website. “Now we can optimize both our new and used inventory,” Kniffin says.

Germain also is beginning a pilot with AutoBase and R.L. Polk to score its leads.

Germain is not neglecting other advertising channels, though. It still buys numerous leads from the major lead providers. “They're still in play.” Kniffin says. “We need that blended mix of search and leads.”

Newspaper advertising also plays a big a role, according to Kniffin, who says he works closely with our marketing director so online and traditional advertising complement each other.

“The liner ads are killing it for us — we're doing great with them,” says Kniffin. “And we continue to use the big newspaper ads for brand awareness and to keep us top of mind.”

Whatever Germain is doing is working. Its sales were up 7% in February, when the market was down 6%. In 2007, the Web generated more than 2,400 sales for Germain, good enough for 15th on the Ward's e-100 ranking.