When you're shopping for a car, the experience you have at a dealership can make all the difference. Edmunds.com Senior Editor Matt Jones worked for 12 years as a car salesman, Internet sales manager, and finance and insurance manager. He now highlights dealerships and car-selling best practices that make car shopping easy and enjoyable. Got an innovative dealership story to share? Contact him: matthewj (at) edmunds.com
Meet Laura Madison, 25, the next generation of car selling. To connect with customers, Madison tweets. She's on Facebook. She has a YouTube channel and her own Web site. She doesn't work on commission. And in Bozeman, Montana, a city of fewer than 40,000 people, she sells twice as many cars as the average auto salesperson in the U.S.
Toyota of Bozeman is where Madison began her career three years ago, after finishing college. While she was studying for her communications degree at Manhattan College in New York City, she worked in high-end women's clothing stores on Fifth Avenue — and hated it. Madison wanted to sell cars, namely Toyotas. In fact, while still in New York, she applied for a job selling cars, but was turned away.
"The dealership I applied to didn't even give me an interview," Madison says. "Maybe they thought I was too young. I don't know. I do know there weren't many women selling cars in Manhattan, but I figured I could do it."
Manhattan's loss was Montana's gain. Madison moved there to be closer to her twin sister and found a job at Toyota of Bozeman. When she was hired, she was the only saleswoman at her store. And though she already makes 20 car deals a month, she plans to increase her average to 25 sales per month for 2014. How? By using social media.
Madison takes her social media seriously, but in a fun way. On her YouTube channel, she includes product demonstrations, driving tips and vehicle comparisons. She has recorded more than 140 videos that have been viewed more 115,000 times. In this video, she demonstrates the 2014 Toyota Highlander. In this one, she shows shoppers three driving modes in the Toyota Prius with some local Montana color (a field full of cows) as a backdrop. She doesn't shy away from engaging, diplomatically, with YouTube's notoriously prickly commenters.
Madison uses her Facebook page to publish customer reviews and Toyota product updates and to post pictures of customers using the vehicles that she has sold them. It has more than 2,500 "likes."
Put those together with the exposure from thousands of tweets, Google Plus views, online reviews and her Web site LauraToyota and the result is the Laura Madison brand. She has even wrapped her Toyota Prius (which is not a demo car) in an ad that trumpets "Insist on Laura." She makes the car available as a loaner for her customers while they have their cars in service.
Social media is a smart move for Madison, and it's good for her customers, too, says Tammy Darvish, vice president of one of the nation's largest automotive groups, Darcars, with more than 30 locations in the Washington, D.C. area.
"Social media gives salespeople a way to humanize themselves," she says. "Car shoppers can learn about the person they are going to be dealing with beforehand, and that can help reduce the stress of meeting an essential stranger."
Darvish, who has been in the car business for 30 years, believes social media has a permanent place in automotive sales, and says we will see it used more and more in the coming years. "Social media isn't just about how many cars a dealership sells," she says. "It's about connecting with people."
The efforts are paying off for Madison. One customer drove from Seattle to buy a Toyota Land Cruiser from her. It wasn't because she had the absolute lowest price in the country; she didn't. In fact, the shopper said, her price was a few hundred dollars more than what was advertised in the Seattle area. But he had seen the videos and was so impressed by her professionalism that he thought the drive was worth it.
Social media might get the customers to Madison's doorstep, but a speedy and easy sales process wins them over. Madison says her average deal takes about 90 minutes, but can be shorter if the shoppers already have a strong idea of what they want. The deals tend to be quick because of the minimal negotiation time.
Toyota of Bozeman uses a one-price program it calls its Best Price Philosophy, which has been in place at the dealership since 1999. The dealership's owners believe that most customers don't like negotiating prices on the cars they plan to purchase, so that's no longer part of the sales process.
The program discounts all vehicles in inventory to the lowest price for which the dealership will sell the car, and places a big tag on the car with that information. It's the same price shoppers will see online.
Salespeople earn a flat amount per car sold, regardless of the price. They'll earn the same amount for selling a $5,000 used car as for a new $75,000 Land Cruiser. Not having to worry about earning a commission makes it easier to focus on simply getting the buyer the right car, Madison says. The more cars she sells, the more that flat amount increases. So her motivation is to sell as many vehicles as she can.
Her social media efforts have done more than just introduce her to new customers. The product comparison videos she regularly makes have helped her become more informed about cars in general.
"When making a comparison video, it's vital that your facts are 100 percent correct on both your car and the car you're comparing to," Madison says. "If I compare a Silverado to my Tundra, for example, and make a mistake while talking about the Silverado, online commentators will find the mistake and tear me apart. It's important I know my competition backwards and forwards."
She says the extra time spent studying her competition pays off for her when working with customers face to face on the lot. "When I have a real-life customer who is comparing a Silverado to my Tundra, I can accurately show and tell the customer the differences because I truly study the competing cars," she says.
After a deal is done, the relationship with the customer continues. Part of Madison's success is her follow-up routine. Along with the industry standard after-sale phone call, Madison keeps in touch with handwritten thank-you cards, holiday cards and most impressively, the personalized thank-you videos she sends to every customer with whom she makes a deal. Madison says her goal is to contact all the people who have bought cars from her at least once a quarter.
She says selling cars in Montana has challenges, especially for a young woman.
"This is truck country," Madison says, laughing. "I may not fit the image of who some customers expect to buy their hunting truck from." She says she's been quizzed by customers, just to see if she really knows her stuff. To make sure she's not caught off guard, she makes flashcards to memorize product specs and features.
She attributes some of her success to working for a progressive, family-owned dealership that's been supportive of her and her social media outreach. She says she has no plans to move into sales management in the future.
"Heck no," she says. "I like selling cars, and I'm happy doing it. I plan on doing this for years and years."
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