Just a year ago, the idea of adding a virtual sales manager — who worked from home and monitored showroom traffic via online cameras — would have earned a chuckle from John Connelly, owner of Acura Columbus in Dublin, Ohio.
Today, the chuckle would be over how well it’s working.
Connelly can’t imagine operating without the store’s “VSM,” in the rapidly evolving lingo of pandemic retailing. The longtime dealer is now also interested in hiring a virtual finance and insurance manager, and maybe even a virtual service representative. Maybe even one who lives out of state.
“If this would have come up a year before, or even six months before, we would have said, ‘That’s crazy,’ ” Connelly told Automotive News.
That changed last March as it became clear the coronavirus was threatening the survival of businesses that relied mostly on in-person sales. Dealership staff began brainstorming ways to keep selling vehicles through existing digital tools — and new ones.
“When the VSM idea came up, we thought it could be perfect,” Connelly said. “Once we discussed it, within the first day, we were thinking, ‘Wow — this is going to work perfectly.’ ”
The VSM position, filled by 20-year store veteran Jay Barger, was critical to keeping the store’s growing digital operations running smoothly.
“Everything can be done digitally,” Connelly said. “He can see everything in the store because we have cameras everywhere. He has access to our DMS. And he has experience. That gives us great flexibility when we need the most help, when we need an extra manager to desk a deal or to be active on our social media and answering texts.”
Some tasks still have to be done at the store, of course. Barger coordinates with on-site staff to take photos or videos of vehicles for potential buyers, or to prepare an in-store test drive.
But over the past year, Barger has visited the dealership just once — to drop off his own lease return. Even that could have been done with the dealership’s pickup and drop-off service.
The transition from the showroom floor to a virtual presence has been remarkably smooth, Barger said.
“I can create an experience similar to the showroom by online chatting, texting or a personal phone call,” he said. “I make the customer as comfortable as possible and give them as much information as they need to complete the transaction.”
Acura Columbus offers online purchase and at-home test drives, but Barger can also interact with customers who are in the dealership through video chat, text or a phone call.
One advantage of not being physically in the store is the ability to work on multiple deals without leaving one customer hanging when another arrives. An additional advantage is his availability outside of normal business hours.
“I basically put myself on call 24/7. Anytime a call comes in, I’ll take it,” said Barger.
The VSM is not a temporary position, Connelly said. It’s the beginning of an expansion of at-home work.
“He’s my virtual sales manager and he’s never coming back into the store,” the dealer said.
The results have been impressive, Connelly said. Sales staff productivity has increased from an average of 10 cars per month to about 14. Total sales of new and used vehicles at the Acura dealership were 1,269 last year, nearly matching the pre-pandemic figure of 1,313 deliveries in 2019. Sales of new Acuras increased in 2020 over the previous year, Connelly said.
That’s a big win, given the steep drop in sales activity last spring and a 13 percent drop in sales of new Acura vehicles nationwide in 2020.
“Our Internet sales are 60 percent of our sales, and our VSM has his hands in all of them, whether it’s talking with a customer or texting or arranging vehicle videos,” Connelly said.
Having a virtual F&I manager is the next logical step.
“The technology is there. You can have somebody who doesn’t have to be in Columbus, Ohio,” Connelly said. “It helps probably to have them in the same time zone because of scheduling.”
A virtual F&I manager could serve both in-home and in-store customers through video chat, Connelly said.
“I think a lot of customers would love the opportunity to be at home, relaxed and see our offerings. A more informed customer is a better customer for us. They are willing to do more and feel better about the whole process.”
Going forward, Connelly said a virtual service consultant could also make sense.
“The person answering those questions wouldn’t have to be sitting in my store,” the dealer said. “And since we do a lot of service pickup and drop-off, they can schedule that. It really opens up the possibilities.”
Offering remote work opens up the talent pool geographically, Connelly said, and could attract sales and service workers who simply don’t want to sit in a dealership all day.