Andrew DiFeo's grandfather, father and uncle were auto dealers, but he didn't begin his career at one of the family's stores.
After graduating from Boston College in 1997, DiFeo joined a management trainee program offered by Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. Inc. DiFeo learned the manufacturer's side of the business as a district sales manager and then a parts and service manager before returning to the retail business in 2002.
DiFeo opened his own store, Hyundai of St. Augustine, in Florida, in 2008. By focusing on Internet marketing and online reputation- and customer-relationship management, DiFeo has increased average monthly new-vehicle sales from about 50 in the first year to about 115 through April this year. The store also retails about 100 used vehicles a month.
DiFeo, 37, spoke with Staff Reporter Ryan Beene.
Q. What did you do when you opened the store?
A. It was a brand-new store. Hyundai hadn't been represented in the market for at least 10 to 15 years. Hyundai as a brand was being put on more shopping lists back in 2008.
I wanted to focus on three things. One, the CRM system was going to be the foundation of the business. Even though everybody has a CRM system, not everybody uses it to near its full potential. The second thing I wanted was a strong emphasis on digital marketing. Third, and what probably turned out to be the most important thing, was a strong focus on our online reputation.
How did you improve use of the CRM system?
Not every customer was getting into the system. At times you'd talk to a dealership employee and they'd say, "Business is slow." Well, why is it slow? "There's no traffic." There's always traffic. It's just a matter of what traffic you decide to put into the system. So getting everybody into the system was really important.
My managers were held accountable. I managed it by walking around and saying, "That person in the red Toyota Corolla, they're gone and I don't see them in the system." Once they'd heard that enough, they realized the importance of it.
Once customers started getting into the system consistently, work notes -- notes about what was going on with a client -- were really important.
A lot of times salespeople would put customer information into the CRM: name, address, e-mail and "looking for Hyundai Elantra." That's it. Well, we try to get a detailed description of the customer in the work notes -- what their driving needs and wants are, how many children do they have and all of those types of things -- so that when a manager is making a follow-up call, they have some information to talk to the customer about.
Work notes were also important because if a customer decides to come in when their salesperson has a day off, the manager is able to get right into the customer's file. The guys who are diligent about putting notes in are always on top of the sales board every month.
How did online marketing play a role in your launch when you first opened?
It really started with our online reputation. We wanted to make sure that our early customers talked about us on the Internet. When people see traditional media for big purchases, it drives them to the Internet to do research. That's where the online reviews came into play.
We also wanted to align ourselves with some trusted brands. Kelley Blue Book, for example. That's a trusted brand. Edmunds.com is a trusted brand. We aligned ourselves with them with some display marketing and their premier dealer programs and we partnered with AutoTrader.com and Cars.com.
How did you encourage customers to write reviews online?
We never want our customers to review us in the dealership. It's just my personal philosophy. If I was in a place of business, I'd feel uncomfortable if someone was standing over my shoulder saying, "Hey, please write a review about us." We find that the reviews are much more genuine if the customer can go home and think about their experience. We send an e-mail out with a link that directs them to our review page on DealerRater.com, and that really helped us increase our take rate with reviews.
We typically get 15 to 20 percent of our new- and used-car customers writing reviews.
How do you deal with negative reviews?
We need bad reviews. It's an odd thing, but it adds credibility. We have more than 1,100 reviews on DealerRater.com, and maybe 11 or 12 are negative. If they were all positive, people probably wouldn't believe them.
We also look at negative reviews as a positive. If we have a process in place for something, it's not going to be followed 100 percent of the time. Reviews and customer satisfaction surveys from the manufacturer can help diagnose the problem and help us fix it. As a managing partner of the business, I feel like it's important to have someone with ownership in the business handle the reviews, especially the negative ones, right away.
A lot of times we look at it as a training tool to find out what customers like about our business -- and make sure we keep doing that -- and don't like about our business to make sure we don't do that in the future. We also look at other dealers' reviews because you see what customers like about their experiences elsewhere and what they don't like.
What would you say to dealers who are struggling with how to handle online reviews or just getting started in that area?
Every business has happy customers. Some have more than others. The first thing you need to do is build a base of happy customer reviews.
As far as getting defensive about [negative reviews], you have to look at yourself in the mirror. It's the people that can look at themselves in the mirror and be honest and make changes who are the most successful in life. That's the way we look at online reputation. Does it sting when you get a negative review? Of course, especially for the first few. Then you realize that this is reality and that you're not going to satisfy 100 percent of people 100 percent of the time.
We look at it the same way with customer satisfaction surveys: from a diagnostic perspective. For instance, our service department would always get less-than-good scores because of our waiting lounge. We needed to change it, and when we did, we did better on our scores.
We think that we have a great online service scheduling program, but what we're finding sometimes is that customers are having difficulty and they'll let us know on the customer satisfaction survey. I like to know about that.
So it's more than just online reputation. It's a business diagnostic tool, too.