Over his 15 years in the auto industry, Christian Salazar has seen it all. Starting out selling cars while still a teenager, he has managed both dealership and vendor sales teams, eventually co-founding TRAXOne, a demographic data analytics platform. Recently, he returned to the dealership world as General Manager of Matt Ford in Kansas City.
We sat down with Christian to get his best tips for team productivity, making the most of marketing efforts, and imbuing every process with a personal touch.
Tell us about how you ended up as the GM of Matt Ford, especially given all your prior experience with vendors and dealership solutions.
It was really because of a friendship. In 2012 when I was with DealerFire, Ryan Matt, the dealer at Matt Ford, was one of the first clients that we brought on. I had just moved from Kansas City to Wisconsin to work for DealerFire, and Ryan believed in us and the message we were talking about. Since then, we remained friends. Then, I moved back to Kansas City and had lunch with Ryan, initially trying to get him to invest in TRAXOne, my data analytics company. He ended up bringing me on as the GM of Matt Ford. So now I’m going back to my roots– selling cars was where I started, from when I was 18 until I was 26 or 27.
What do you think the major goals of a GM should be?
For me that’s clear: it’s to create a culture that’s fun for your employees. While watching expenses, bottom line, revenue, and looking out for all your departments and making sure the sales are going okay are important– I think that’s easy stuff. Anybody can look at a financial statement or a profit/loss sheet and see where problem areas are. My main thing is the culture and the work environment, and making sure employees are happy and want to come to work. And that is super tough, because you have to reward at the right times and you have to discipline at the right times. One example at Matt Ford is we’re really flexible about vacation schedules. As long as we have the sales floor covered and the service department covered, we’re pretty lenient when it comes to employee time off, and that is working for us.
I just read an article about a CEO with extremely high ratings. The article credited his success to a management style of sitting with employees, listening to them, and trying to make their lives better. Sounds like you’re talking about the same type of thing.
That’s exactly what it’s about.
We really try to stand out and give employees that extra incentive that helps them say yes, I really do want to work here.
You dealt with the data side of marketing at TRAXOne. What do you think today’s dealers need to know about using data to their advantage?
Marketing can get really specific right now. You can easily pick out exactly who you want to market to, as long as you have the right data providers in place. So that’s really important to do. But even more than that, you have to have a real strategy and marketing plan, because none of the data matters unless you execute on it.
Along similar lines, in thinking about data providers, they aren’t giving you any value if they are giving you all this great data but you don’t do anything with it. That’s why data providers have to give direction or insight– to say, hey here’s some cool data and here’s exactly what you do with it.
I think that is a huge challenge for people. They get a spreadsheet or they get a dashboard, and actually using it can be really difficult. How can you make data really actionable?
It’s about understanding your goals and challenges– and you do that by having management meetings often to get the team to talk to each other and all get on the same page. Because when people to talk to each other, you can say, okay what challenges are we facing, who’s got good ideas, what’s going on in service, what’s going on in sales, what are you hearing from customers. Without that, you’re not going to have any direction because you’re not going to know what the market is saying.
Another important factor is, it can’t be one person. If you just have one marketing person who is a superstar of everything, their marketing might start to stray far from what you need. They need to be talking to the support team, talking to the sales team, and they also need to be talking to other dealers, saying, “Hey, what are you guys thinking about right now?”
What are some other digital marketing tips dealerships need to use?
One great tip: There are so many companies doing digital marketing right now, you can be really choosy about who you do business with. Find someone who can come to your store and give you personal attention. That is the single most important thing that’s helped us and other dealers really be successful. Your dealership wants to be in a position where you’re actually important to your provider. A lot of digital marketing providers are pretty similar. It’s the attention you get that makes all the difference.
If you’re doing business with somebody who’s on a “set it and forget it” plan and they don’t ever check in on you, things are going to start to go astray.
How many cars do you typically sell each month, and how many are attributable to internet leads?
We sell about 80 cars a month, both new and used. Of those 80, about 17% had interacted with us in some way that we can track: they either sent in a lead or a phone call or we know they found the car online. As to how many people found or interacted with us online, it’s many more.
What’s your method for following up with internet leads?
We have an employee who funnels all the leads, and after her hours, we round robin leads out to the salespeople. And as a safety net, we have a partnership with Conversica to make sure everyone always gets a response.
We follow up with a mix of emails and phone calls, segmenting by interest and buying stage.
We also do video responses to all our leads that inquire about a specific car. So if someone inquires about a Ford Fusion, we’ll go out to our line and create a video showing our selection. We also do this for used or specific cars– we pull it up, do a walk around, open all of the doors, and show all of the ins and outs of the car. We do this for each internet lead. These videos take us a good 10-15 minutes to make, and we try to keep the finished video under 60 seconds. We don’t feel pressure to respond to the lead instantly, because we are trying to stand out and do something different, to show them the actual car. Our internet team knows that we want quality over quickness, and this is one way we do that.
That’s a lot of personalization. As a customer I would really appreciate that type of attention.
We just started doing it about 45 days ago, we’re always trying to improve our customer interactions. We hope it makes us stand out.
You’ve worked for a few different vendors, and even started your own company. Now that you’ve transitioned to your role at a dealership, what do you think dealers should ask when choosing vendors?
I always ask about the company culture. I want to know how happy their employees are, which is really important to me, as you know. I ask how many account managers they have, and if they are going to speak to us in person. There is so much value in having someone who comes and sits with you to discuss whatever you need. This type of relationship is important for so many reasons, and only works to your advantage.
The other thing I ask is how the company began. I want to know who the founders are, whose idea was it, those types of things. You’re paying these vendors every month, so you should know who you are doing business with. We have a good personal relationship with all of our vendors. Ask them to send someone to the store, so that you can ask them about the company history and culture. These are the important questions to ask, above calling references to find out information about the vendor. Of course you also need to look into the actual success of the technology to make sure that it does what it claims to do– even though ROI is a really tricky thing, but tracking to see if the tool is working is necessary.
And now for a less serious question: what is your favorite car related gadget or app?
It’s called the WizGear– it’s sold on Amazon. It’s one of those little magnets that you put on the air vent in your car. It holds your phone without any attachment or anything like that– it’s like magic. You don’t have to prop up your phone in the cupholder or anything. That’s really changed my life a little.
Thanks to Christian for his insight and thoughtfulness. Really reinforces the importance of personalization in every interaction!
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