The great equalizer

Your Web presence is as important – maybe even more important – than the boat shows you attend.
That’s the message Channel Blade Technologies Managing Partner Chuck Lewis wants to send to boat dealers and builders.

No surprise there, you say. As co-owner of a Web site, lead management and sales consulting solutions provider, Lewis makes his living selling online tools. But what may surprise you is that while the company has more than 2,000 dealer clients, Lewis says only a few dozen of them are maximizing their online potential through an integrated e-business plan.

One of those select dealerships is Lynnhaven Marine in Virginia Beach, Va., which was among the first boat dealers to have a Web site and was one of Channel Blade’s – then known as Boat Ventures’ – first customers. The company’s e-business strategy begins with driving potential buyers to its Web site, www.lynnhavenmarine.com, by placing that address everywhere it can, including employees’ e-mail signatures, business cards and clothing, the dealership’s trucks and boats, in all its advertisements and marketing materials, and on letterhead and fax cover sheets.

In fact, Lynnhaven recently had one of its billboards vandalized. While it worked to replace the billboard ad, the dealership simply put its Web address on the sign. Six months later, the company has received such a positive response from this move that it has kept it up.

Once consumers are on your site, you want them to have the same type of experience at your virtual dealership as they would have in your brick-and-mortar location, according to Channel Blade. Lynnhaven accomplishes that with its signature theme song, “It’s a Breeze at Lynnhaven Marine,” as well as a video tour hosted by Lynnhaven co-owner Chuck Guthrie and its boat delivery video.

In addition, you should have a call-to-action strategy that gets consumers to take the next step, whether that’s entering their contact information online, picking up the phone or stopping by.

Guthrie says the Internet has become one of Lynnhaven’s largest sources of leads, second only to consumers walking through the dealership’s front door. And more than half of those walk-ins have already been to its Web site, though many didn’t leave their names. In 2006, for example, 62 percent of Lynnhaven’s boat sales customers went to a Web site before buying. The dealership’s site generated almost 2,000 unique leads that year, 32 of which were converted into boat sales using Channel Blade’s Footsteps lead management tool. Lynnhaven used it to conduct more than 26 e-mail campaigns, the average open rate of which was 21 percent. Its average online lead response time is about 3.6 hours.

“The sales manager in your operation today, he may be the best face-to-face salesman in the world, but if you don’t get customers in the door, that guy has less and less value to you,” says Guthrie. “If I had to choose between an Internet-savvy person who could converse well over e-mail vs. on the floor, I might take Internet guy first.”

It may sound complicated, but forming an integrated e-business plan involves the same types of steps you’d take to plan for the future of any other department in your business. It means making sure that all the different ways the Internet touches the business are aligned for the sake of efficiency, consistency and trackability. Sound easier said than done? As a full-service company, Channel Blade can send its instructors into a client’s company to blueprint a customized e-business strategy.

Once you’re measuring how your e-business is working, you can then set future goals for it that complement the overall business strategy. Lewis says he’d actually like to see boat dealers follow in the steps of their automotive siblings by creating business development departments to manage their e-businesses, complete with their own staffs.

Lewis realizes most marine industry dealers aren’t quite there yet, but he’s optimistic they will arrive over time. What he warns against is perhaps the biggest mistake dealers can make – overestimating the cost.

Not only does Lewis suggest that the cost of an integrated e-business can be mitigated with the right planning, he suggests it can be offset by the gains a dealership makes. In comparison, the cost of owning an independent Web site without the management tools a company like Channel Blade can provide can be quite high due to the labor involved.

“The Internet is a great equalizer,” says Lewis. “With the Web, the smaller dealer can compete with the big guys on an equal basis, something they can’t afford to do in other arenas, like boat shows. For a few hundred bucks a month, you can have a world-class virtual presence and the start of a world-class e-business department. I’ve seen the Web transform small businesses.”

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