Internet director, Joe Machens Nissan
Samantha Sonnemaker had the drive to learn what it took to run a dealership's Internet department.
She was familiar with the automotive industry — her father was a dealership general manager. While in college, she worked for one of the Nebraska dealerships for which he was general manager. Her fundamental tasks were to greet customers and follow up with them.
After college, she worked as a horse trainer for a few years. But when she returned home to look for a new job, the automotive industry came calling — in Nebraska was seeking a receptionist. Sonnemaker got the job in 2016 and in a matter of three years moved from that role to working as a service business development center agent to joining the dealership's sales BDC.
Sonnemaker described those three years as the cornerstone of her automotive career. As a result, when she was hired in May 2019 by Joe Machens Nissan, a McLarty Auto Group dealership in Columbia, Mo., she came armed with a plethora of knowledge on how to run an Internet department.
Prior to her arrival, the dealership had "very little" in place as far as lead follow-up processes, she said. That soon changed.
For starters, when new-vehicle shortages intensified in 2020 and 2021, Sonnemaker worked closely with the dealership's new-vehicle manager to make inbound inventory available online for customers.
"It really entailed continuing to follow up with that customer … and just making sure that we are the first people to engage those customers, that we have the best responses for them and that we are able to answer any questions they may have," she told Automotive News.
When it became apparent Joe Machens Nissan needed to switch digital providers, Sonnemaker worked closely with its new provider to execute a seamless website transfer. That also meant making sure the dealership's digital marketing was targeting the right audience.
The switch increased the dealership's impression share — up to 68 percent through mid-June 2023 from an average of 44 percent in 2022, Sonnemaker said.
Incorporating data mining into the department's processes also was fruitful: It resulted in an additional 264 vehicle sales between 2020 and 2022, she said.
"We added AutoAlert to our process which goes really in-depth into a customer's buying cycles, when they may be in the market, when they have equity in their vehicle and ... those different alerts that those customers may have," Sonnemaker said.
Her direction has paid off: In 2019, the dealership's Internet closing percentage averaged 10.3 percent for the year. By the end of 2022, it had grown to 20.4 percent, she said. And within the last six months, she has been asked to provide consultation to three other McLarty Auto Group dealerships as they transition to managed BDC departments.
— C.J. Moore