It used to be that whenever a customer called AutoNation Honda Roseville, the call reverberated around the dealership for anyone to answer, regardless of their specialty.
"Once the call made it past the switchboard, it was a free-for-all," said Ron Ardissone, market president for AutoNation's Western region. "Calls were being spread among all our associates, whether they were on the floor or at a computer handling our Internet leads. Anyone could have picked it up."
Internet leads weren't handled much more efficiently or urgently. The dealership, about 20 miles northeast of Sacramento, Calif., had seven associates in charge of about 1,000 Internet leads a month. But because an associate could effectively handle about 85 to 100 e-leads a month on average, hundreds of those inquiries were going unanswered.
It was no way to staff a dealership, said Ardissone: "When everyone's responsible, no one's responsible."
Last year, with phone and Internet leads growing in volume, Ardissone and the dealership's management team decided they needed to deploy their resources more strategically, reassigning staff and responsibilities with more attention paid to individual employees' skills and the changing traffic patterns.
"Traditionally, we staffed to the floor traffic, but we realized we didn't have enough people to capitalize on the Internet and phone opportunities," Ardissone said. "As we started to get more phone calls and e-leads, we decided we needed to handle the traffic more efficiently. We felt we were missing an opportunity."
So management split the 28-person sales staff into two segments and four teams: two teams of five sales associates who help buyers in the showroom and two teams of nine associates specially trained to handle phone and Internet inquiries.
To help decide who goes where, the dealership uses a computer-based test to gauge employees' aptitude for certain tasks. The score indicates whether an associate is better suited for the showroom floor -- where he or she must be ready to answer shoppers' questions, analyze prospective buyers' needs, be personable on a test drive and discuss numbers and financing professionally -- or for the phone or Internet, which requires good phone manners and the organizational skills to stay on top of email chains that can stretch to 30 messages, Ardissone said.
The result has been a smoother, more effective sales funnel for shoppers, who report better and more responsive service. "The biggest challenge was that we had individuals who wanted to do it all: answer the phone and take walk-in traffic," Ardissone said.
In 2014, the dealership's total sales rose 4 percent to 3,826 vehicles, and most of the growth was due to Internet and phone leads. Those segments are accounting for a growing share of the dealership's lead mix, according to numbers AutoNation Honda Roseville provided Automotive News, and producing better results because of the staff reassignments.
"We sold more cars through the Web and phone channels once we had our teams in place," Ardissone said, adding: "In the last six months, we have closed 11.9 percent of our e-leads and 7.9 percent of our phone leads."
The project has worked so well at Honda Roseville and other dealerships among the 23 that Ardissone oversees in California and Seattle that AutoNation plans to continue rolling it out to dealerships across its Western region, which comprises California, Washington, Arizona and Nevada.
AutoNation is the largest dealership group in the U.S.
"It's one of those things you don't think about, but dedicating staff to make sure that phone call and online info requests are given the same weight and importance as in-person shoppers is huge," said Matt Jones, senior editor of retail experience at Edmunds.com. "Especially considering how many customers begin shopping remotely."