Say 'Cheese!'

Photos lure people online and into dealership

INSIGHT: How 7 pioneers are finding ways to stay in front
Tom Vann Company: 3 dealerships, no corporate umbrella Age: 36 Title: Co-owner Annual revenues: $55 million Stores: Team Hillsdale Chrysler, Hillsdale, Mich.; Albion Motors Chrysler and Albion Motors Ford-Mercury, Albion, Mich. Franchises: Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep, Ford, Mercury How I come up with my best ideas: "I stopped talking to car guys and I talk to people in other businesses and industries who are doing innovative things and using the latest technology. I study other industries."

Tom Vann, co-owner of three Michigan dealerships, knows a picture-perfect way to lure people to his Web site: He takes their photo.

Vann snaps digital pictures of buyers when they take delivery of a new or used vehicle and of eager children who want to pose behind the wheel of a Dodge Viper. Then he tells them - and their car-buying parents - how they can find the picture on his Web site,

In June, Vann brought Vipers and Plymouth Prowlers to a local credit union and took pictures of 80 to 100 customers who stopped to admire the cars. They were all handed cards detailing how they could see their photo on He also has brought vehicles to schools and factories.

The site, which was revamped in April, is a customer relationship tool that has helped more than quadruple his sales in five years. Vann, 36, part owner of Team Hillsdale Chrysler, in Hillsdale, Mich., and Albion Motors Chrysler and Albion Motors Ford-Mercury in Albion, Mich., takes Internet marketing seriously.

Web is the focus

Vann cut conventional advertising to focus on his Web site and the referrals he gets from Irvine, Calif., online buying service He has a dedicated online sales force of seven people - the majority of his 12-member sales force - who receive six weeks of training. And his dealerships perform trade-in appraisals over the phone.

The results speak for themselves.

He says that of the 3,200 new and used vehicles the family's three dealerships sold last year, 1,300 of the sales were generated from the Internet. So far this year, about 50 percent to 65 percent of his monthly sales leads were generated from the Internet.

Since Vann began using the Internet five years ago, his sales have almost doubled at the Hillsdale store to about 50 new vehicles and 50 used vehicles per month. Albion Motors Chrysler has held its ground in a tough market - about 65 new cars and 45 used cars per month. The Ford-Mercury store was purchased in 1997, when the e-commerce push already had started, so there are no before-and-after comparisons.

Vann says that the average Internet customer lives 130 miles from the dealership. He says he has customers in Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, Pennsylvania and New York.

Disney approach

The revamped Web site opened in April. Vann said his dealerships had a Web site before that, but it was ordinary. It had new and used inventory and locator maps, and it looked like every other dealer's Web site. He wanted something different.

Then Vann remembered an amusement park ride he and his wife rode at Disney World 7 years ago. The riders plunge down a steep hill, get soaking wet and a camera snaps their picture. By the time the riders got off the ride, the pictures are developed and prominently displayed.

"You see your picture, and, of course, you buy it," he said.

Now Vann uses pictures as a traffic-builder. "It's great for marketing," he said.

Vann does no TV, radio or newspaper advertising. He sticks with Autobytel referrals, his photo marketing program, direct mail and targeted bulk e-mail.

His snub of conventional media has saved him money. Vann said his Hillsdale store sold 88 new and used vehicles in July, and 47 of them were generated from the Internet. He spent less than $7,000 in marketing costs, or about $80 per car.

When he advertised on newspaper, TV and radio, Vann spent $16,000 or more on advertising, $285 per unit and up.

The Internet allows Vann to target buyers. He said bulk e-mailers have databases that contain the e-mail addresses of millions of Internet consumers who have indicated they are interested in buying specific vehicles within a specific time.

Training for is more rigorous than it is for conventional salespeople, Vann said. salespeople get six weeks of training, compared with one week of training for bricks-and-mortar salespeople.

Internet salespeople must be familiar with all aspects of the dealerships, he said. They must be able to handle the transaction from beginning to end. When they are on the phone with a customer, Vann wants them to be able to answer any question. He does not want online salespeople to hand the customer to someone else. Internet customers are online seeking a hassle-free experience.

Internet sales representatives come from all walks of life - a former factory worker, a former dental office receptionist and a video rental store clerk. They have a common trait: They do not fear rejection.

Customized compensation

Vann ensures that his Internet salespeople are motivated. He creates compensation plans to fit employees' needs. For instance, one employee has small children and sometimes works from her home. Another employee drives a Jeep Wrangler as part of his compensation plan.

"Individuals are motivated by different things, so I create pay plans for individuals," he said.

The trade-in can be a stumbling block to Internet marketing - but not to Vann's operation. The company offers trade-in appraisals by telephone, a feature favored by Internet customers. Using a checklist, the representative asks the consumer for a detailed description of the vehicle's condition.

Vann said the company reserves the right to cancel the trade-in purchase offer if the vehicle description offered by the consumer does not match the vehicle, but that rarely happens.

The trade-in policy, radical shift from conventional advertising and dedicated sales force have all been worth the risk to get the sales.

Arlena Sawyers is a staff reporter at Automotive News

You can reach Arlena Sawyers at

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