LIBERTYVILLE, Ill. - In a small office next to the copy machine at Liberty AutoCity, Gary Klein works up to 14 hours a day, six days a week, courting customers electronically.
As Internet sales manager, he does not sit with the traditional sales staff, whose open cubicles ring one of Liberty's two showrooms. He regularly closes his office door so he can crank up the volume on the music from his youth: the Police; Steely Dan; Emerson, Lake and Palmer.
Music fosters creativity, he says. And he draws on it daily to pursue what he calls his 'vision': conquering consumer mistrust of dealers by nurturing personal relationships over the Internet.
BAD GUY TO GOOD GUY
The 42-year-old dealer's son was raised in the car business but had grown disenchanted with the industry. Now, he's working harder than ever and enjoying it.
'After so many years of being disappointed and actually not seeing a direction in this industry, it's all changed,' Klein said.
He sees the Internet, especially e-mail, as an opportunity to bring a human touch to cyberspace, to personalize car-buying in a way that earns consumer confidence. Dealers, he says, will reap the rewards in referrals and repeat buyers.
'As long as I've been around, dealers have had a bad reputation,' said Klein, who has been in the business 20 years and whose father was a Chevrolet dealer for more than a quarter century.
'All these years I was in the showroom and I was in finance, I was the `bad guy,'' he said. 'I started selling on the Internet, and the first thing I realized was people didn't distrust me anymore. (They knew I was) telling the truth, (because they could) verify everything.
'Overnight I went from bad guy to good guy. It wasn't me; it was this new medium. That's when I realized we can take advantage of this medium to get back in a situation where we have a good relationship with our customers.'
On a recent Monday morning, Klein arrived at work to find 33 e-mail messages delivered in the previous 48 hours. Typically, he averages 10 leads a day from manufacturer Web sites, Liberty's site and Autoweb.com, the online lead-generating service.
Most of the queries are from prospects looking for a firm price quote. Klein's Web site provides detailed pricing information on every make and model of Jeep, Buick, Mazda, Hyundai, Subaru and Suzuki that Liberty sells.
Klein responds to every message, typically within 30 minutes or less. He has an array of form letters he works from, but he tries to personalize each response based on what he knows about the customer from his or her e-mail.
If they have asked for pricing on a Jeep Cherokee, for example, and there's a factory incentive program in effect, Klein will pass along that information.
'We've (all) read about how so many people believe the Web can be impersonal,' he said. 'Well I think that's nothing more than an example of people that are inexperienced in using this medium. If you always make sure you add in some of who you are, it's amazing the response you get in return.'
Klein's responses also include a series of questions about customer vehicle preferences, how soon they want the vehicle, whether they have driven one yet, and their preferred mode of communication.
If a prospect doesn't respond quickly, Klein sends a second e-mail. If there's still no response, he calls, if possible.
But he does not pester, said Penny Laing, who with her husband, Bob, recently bought a Jeep Cherokee from Klein. 'That's the reason we went to him. He responded right away and there was no pressure.'
Klein does not like automatic response programs that send a generic response to all inquiries. He uses one only at night when he cannot respond himself.
'It's like a dry white bread and bologna sandwich,' said Klein, who apprenticed as a French chef for four years. 'It takes away a lot of the things that (I'm) talking about.'
Liberty General Manager Joe Massarelli predicts he'll one day have to build a larger office to house Klein and the staff he'll need to manage the store's growing online presence. For now, about 20 percent of Liberty's 4,200 annual unit sales are generated online. Massarelli believes that eventually will jump to about a third of all sales. Both Massarelli and Klein say that's business they would never have logged were it not for the Internet.
Klein's close rate on Internet leads averages about 20 percent. But he expects that rate to go up once Liberty begins providing customers with personal Web pages where they can track information about their vehicles.
Also, the store makes service appointments online and is preparing to launch an online service-reminder program.
With the installation of high-speed Internet access in a few weeks, Liberty also will begin selling parts online. Each of Liberty's wholesale parts customers will be provided with free Internet access for 90 days to encourage use of the online ordering system. Do-it-yourselfers won't get free access but will be able to use the service as well.
As Internet sales grow, Klein sees salespeople becoming more like consultants. They will lead customers (Klein already calls them clients) through the entire buying process, from vehicle selection to financing to after-sale support.
'(Salespeople are) going to (play) a more important part in the relationship of a customer to a dealership,' he said. 'It's not going to be just a handoff to service as it has been.'
Klein has led the way on all Internet fronts at Liberty, where he arrived less than a year ago after serving in a similar function for two years at Evanston Nissan-Isuzu-Subaru in nearby Evanston, Ill.
Liberty offered a larger playing field for Klein to put into motion ideas that had been percolating since he learned about online selling while visiting a friend at a dealership in Florida.
Today, Klein even sacrifices his free time to the Internet. Always a voracious reader, typically of suspense thrillers, he now devours Web-related books and magazines.
'I always have new ideas, things I want to implement, changes I want to make to my Web site.' He has so many ideas about how to do his job better, he has to write them down so he won't forget them.
The Internet may be changing the auto industry. But no more than it already has changed the life of a man who admits he nearly failed when he started out selling cars two decades ago.
'This is exciting,' Klein said. 'This is fun.'