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Making the Complex Simple

Creating an enhanced customer relationship — with all customer types throughout their entire lifecycle — is a common goal amongst successful dealerships. Achieving that goal, however, is extremely complicated.

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When the leadership team at Germain Automotive Group set out to accomplish this task, they knew they had to leverage technology to tackle their robust database in order to provide personalized communications. 

A family-owned business comprised of 16 stores in five markets across Ohio, Florida and Michigan, Germain Auto Group’s brands range from Lexus to Ford to BMW and Honda, catering to a diverse clientele.  

Throughout the years, the group has relied on technology to connect with customers and to get them through the hard times. After the 2008 recession, they pulled their marketing dollars from traditional media and went to a strictly digital marketing strategy. While it was an adjustment, John Malishenko, chief operating officer, said the change prepared them for the future.

“When you go completely digital, phones and leads become the foundation of your business, so we had to realign processes, we had to realign people, we had to realign culture, we had to realign really everything,” Malishenko said. “So, we re-engineered the group to adapt to that, and we grew a lot. We achieved $1 billion in sales last year with 1,100 employees — both of which about double where we were in 2011.”

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Malishenko credits that growth and success to the group’s stability and their hiring of great people, “as well as being decentralized, adaptable, open-minded, not afraid to change, and importantly, strongly oriented to digital, which was a good place to be when the market decided to go virtual, and continues to do so.” 

The COVID-19 pandemic affected Germain Auto Group in a different way from what many businesses are reporting.

“In June and July, we had the two best months in our history, in profit,” Malishenko said. “We made more money than we’ve ever made selling fewer cars.”

Since that type of scenario is typically not the case, the team studied what drove that success, and found that their digital strategy kept them resilient. They were prepared to easily move to a more virtual customer experience. 

Customizing the Customer Experience

“Customers immediately wanted to do more of the transaction from home, not necessarily online, but virtually,” Malishenko said. “So, whether it was a Zoom call, chat, text or online, we started to do the negotiation of the price and the trade virtually through photographs, through shared conversations.

“Now we were still interacting with the customer, but when they called or a lead came in, the first questions were, ‘What are you comfortable with?’ and ‘How do you want to buy the car?’ instead of, ‘You have to come in. Here’s our process.’”

That adaptability changed everything, Malishenko said. Approximately 75% of the sales transaction was happening online, whereas it was previously about 35%. After that point customers would come in with their trade and finalize the paperwork. “We’d look at their trade, they’d look at the car and they’d take delivery. And so, it was one appointment — a high show-ratio — which is a much more efficient model,” he exclaimed. “There are a lot fewer people in-store, and we’re able to do more business with fewer people that way.”

The dealerships also had what they call “pacing and spacing.” Since no one wanted to be in a crowded environment or to be there for very long, salespeople were setting appointments more like a doctor’s office would and giving them appointment time options, instead of asking, “When do you want to come in?” 

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With fewer people in the store, there was a better ratio of managers and salespeople to customers. “We were totally focused on them,” Malishenko said. “Transactions went quicker. And the net effect was, we were able to sell more cars with fewer people, and the customers were happier. So, the customers won. They were even willing to pay us a bit more.”

Staying open-minded and following the customer’s lead, worked as an advantage.

“We delivered cars in parking lots of restaurants that were closed, because that’s what they felt safe with,” Malishenko said. “Everybody has a different interpretation of this situation and what they’re comfortable with.”

Building a Centralized Data Platform 

A few years ago, Malishenko and Shaun “NIFF” Kniffin, Germain’s marketing and technology director, were developing the group’s future growth strategy.

“It kept coming back to we needed a comprehensive owner retention strategy,” Malishenko said. “We have over a million customer records between sales and service, and I wanted to find a way to be able to communicate to 100% of them. And I wanted to try to do it in a way that was unique to them — nothing templated, nothing that was trying to sell them a discounted battery, or ‘We’ll buy your car today.’ 

“It’s not really a marketing strategy, it’s a communication strategy.”

“I really wanted to try to build a relationship using technology, and specifically, AI, to figure out ways to personalize the communication and through that, build a relationship and through that, drive retention. So, that’s where Outsell came in.” 

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After considering bringing data scientists in-house and then realizing it was such a massive undertaking that it was beyond something they could do on their own, Malishenko and Kniffin started meeting with the team at Outsell. 

They then spent a year working together developing a solution that has been beneficial for both partners. 

“Outsell is still the only one that I know of that was able and willing, and had enough understanding of automotive retail and what we did, to be able to collaboratively work out what we’re doing now,” Malishenko said.

“The idea of building a centralized data platform made sense to me and John, because we both agreed: ‘We’ve got to be able to communicate to every customer no matter where they bought the car,’” Kniffin said. 

So, after speaking with Guy Super, Outsell’s vice president of sales, and meeting with Michael Wethington, Outsell’s founder and CEO, “the next thing you know, Outsell’s developing this centralized data platform for us so that we can do this using AI,” Kniffin said. “But it’s an effective communication strategy. That’s how we’ve defined it. It’s not really a marketing strategy, it’s a communication strategy. The collaborative efforts on both sides have been amazing.” 

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The centralized data platform was built from existing technology and functionality to meet the group’s unique needs. Depending on where consumers are in their ownership cycle, would determine what messaging they receive on their preferred channel through AI-driven marketing automation. 

Whether it’s the shift to virtual or the need to make a customer feel safe, Germain Auto Group needed to convey their message to their owner base. 

The group developed their approach, “Germain To You” to let consumers know about their capabilities to purchase in-store, at home or online. Germain to You is the new simple and safe way to buy or service a car, truck or SUV from any of the 14 manufacturers that Germain represents.

“So we’re sending you a unique message and it’s personalized,” Malishenko said. “And I think as people see that, they engage, and they respond. Then we’re able to give them more information. There’s tremendous value in that.” 

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While it was a complex process to wade through, Malishenko, Kniffin and Outsell devoted a serious amount of time, resources, energy and effort into it and the outcome makes for a simple process for their customers and their overall customer experience.

“John and I agreed that this was probably one of the most important things we were ever going to do in our time that we’d been with Germain,” Kniffin said. 

“We believed in what we were doing, but we wanted to do it right,” Malishenko said. “And fortunately, we found in Outsell a group of people, each with their unique roles, but who are also connected in their vision and their support of the dealers. And that’s the big thing for us, is the level of support that Outsell has provided and the level of sincere interest.”

For more information about the Germain Automotive Group or Outsell, please visit Outsell.com.

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