Bob Taylor, in his mid-60s, has sold cars for O'Malley for more than 20 years. With his firm handshake and down-to-earth manner, he used to sell 20 cars in a good month. Now he might sell 15. He says the economic downturn and online price competition have slashed his pay by half in the past few years. And he believes the Internet has created a cold sales environment.
"I don't like to look at a screen," says Taylor with a frown. "I like to look at a face."
Fielding Internet leads also can take a toll on the staff. Nick Katsarelis, a sales manager with O'Malley, spends long hours hunched over a computer screen. Sterling Chevrolet receives 500 Internet leads a month, and Katsarelis, 51, is one of three managers who monitor leads after hours.
Katsarelis points to the screen, showing eight leads from the previous evening that came in after 9 p.m., after the store closed. One lead landed at 2 a.m.
The quick fix is auto-responder software, which the dealership installed recently. The software instantly e-mails prospects a price quote and a detailed vehicle description. But automated responses can be cold and generic, so the staff still needs to follow up quickly with a personal e-mail or phone call.
And the software requires monitoring, so Katsarelis is still on the hook. And it sometimes sends prospects information on the wrong model, he says.
O'Malley's team responds to most Internet leads in less than an hour, and he aims to get the average down to 15 minutes. He has restructured his staff several times in the last few years to manage the flood of incoming leads.
"I'm on my fifth try on how to do this and still haven't perfected it, and I don't think we ever will," O'Malley says. "You go six weeks and you're OK, then suddenly you're behind."
Since 2007, he has tried having his eight salespeople handle online leads from start to finish. He has installed a business development center, a call center consisting of three appointment-setters paid by the hour and by appointment volume.
Now he's trying a hybrid, keeping the appointment-setters but letting salespeople field some of the leads. He's also considering outsourcing calls to an independent call center as well as hiring college students and stay-at-home moms to help with phone follow-up.
O'Malley also promoted his Internet director, Stan Hale, to general manager. When O'Malley hired Hale, now 52, he was managing the Internet operation for an Indiana dealership. Even in that small-town environment, Hale says the Internet was pulling in customers from outside the state.
Hale agrees that handling Internet leads is labor-intensive. Some prospects are 90 days from purchasing a vehicle, which means they should be contacted every few days for up to three months.