Houston Honda Dealer Is Fast on Its Way To Making Car Shopping Easy

Just the Facts:
  • Russell & Smith prides itself on a streamlined, transparent shopping process, with a five-minute response time target for price inquiries.
  • The Honda dealer keeps paperwork and negotiation time to a minimum.
  • Off-site car demos and test-drives are offered for shoppers in a hurry.

HOUSTON — When people gripe about car buying, the complaints usually center on two things: their inability to easily get the price on a particular car and the length of time it takes to complete the deal.

Russell & Smith Honda in Houston is working to solve those shopper pain points and make car buying easy and enjoyable. Its Internet department, which represents about a third of the dealership's 25-person sales staff, is key to that effort.

Russell & Smith Honda is part of the Russell & Smith Automotive Group, which has been doing business in the Houston area for nearly a century. And although the parent company began nearly 100 years ago, this dealership's current business model reflects the needs of today's shoppers: Make it easy and make it fast.

According to Ray Huddleston, a 20-year car salesman who has been in the Internet department of Russell & Smith Honda since 2005, the dealership works to quickly get customers the price of the vehicle they want and to conclude the purchase with very little muss and fuss.

"Our No. 1 priority at the dealership is creating a pleasant experience for our customers," he says.

Often, a car shopper's first interaction with a car dealership isn't in person, but online or over the phone. When a potential buyer contacts the Internet team looking for information, the team targets a response time of less than five minutes, Huddleston says.

In a fast-paced world, shoppers expect nearly instant information. The five-minute window gives the salesperson the chance to create a positive first impression.

The Internet team provides the customer with a price in a reply e-mail or by phone, depending on how the customer contacted the dealership. Taking the quote one step further, the customer also gets the "on the road" price, which includes all state taxes and fees. This, according to Huddleston, goes a long way to clearing up any price confusion and helps speed up car buying.

In some cases, the buyer and Internet salesperson work out the terms of a deal before the buyer arrives at the dealership. With the price and terms already finished, often all that's left for the buyer to do is test-drive the vehicle and sign final purchase or lease documents.

To better serve shoppers who are very pressed for time, Russell & Smith Honda will bring a vehicle to a prospective buyer's home or office and do a vehicle demonstration and test-drive there.

The staff at Russell & Smith also aims to streamline the completion of the deal. In part, that means keeping the people involved in the transaction to a minimum. In most cases, the buyer only meets two people during the transaction: the salesperson and the finance department employee who drafts the final forms and collects signatures. Sales managers are on hand to help close deals when needed, but they're seldom called upon. The fewer people involved in the process, the faster it goes, Huddleston says.

Keeping the process moving is key to a great customer experience, but there are challenges in keeping everything moving fast, he says.

"Between December 26 and January 1, we sold close to 200 cars," he says. "It was a pretty busy week, and customer wait time to finish paperwork time was longer than usual."

But the staff let customers know what was going on, and that helped set realistic expectations for them on how long the process would take.

The streamlined approach seems to be working. Customer service survey scores are high, and Huddleston says about a quarter of his customers are repeat or referral business.

"My sales philosophy is simple," he says. "I treat my customers like I'd like to be treated."

Edmunds says: Working to remedy customer pain points by speeding up the sales process is paying off for this Houston Honda dealer.

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