Billed as the world's first “Autotainment Mall,” Planet Ford is a fun place, what with a space-age theme throughout. What other dealership calls its showroom “the mothership,” its children's playroom “Starbase One,” and its delivery area a “launch pad” (complete with a light and sound show to send customers off in style)?
But they take selling cars seriously at the 32-acre facility in Spring, TX, a northern Houston suburb. And they sell a lot of them — a monthly average of 600 new and 200 used units, although June was a record-breaking month with 778 new units sold.
Much such success comes from two “Ts” — tracking and training.
“I'm big on tracking and training,” says General Manager Ron Ewer, a civil engineer by training whose first dealership job was as a car washer 11 years ago at a store owned by Randall Reed, Planet Ford's principal owner.
“When Ron first started working at the dealership he was so new to the business that he didn't know how to spell F&I,” jokes Mr. Reed.
Today, Mr. Ewer is a consummate general manager. He collects and studies data daily, something that comes naturally to him considering his engineering background.
He decides what vehicles to order — and orders aggressively.
Mr. Klein says sales people who are sent to retraining often are missing their numbers because they're “skipping steps in the sales process, not slowing down and not directing the sale.”
He says, “We track and we know our market, but we also take chances when ordering vehicles. On any given day we have 2,500 vehicles on the ground and 2,500 on order. It's a $60 million inventory, the largest in the nation for a Ford dealership.
“In October, when other dealerships were passing on inventory because of slower sales, we took ours and theirs. We ended up taking 800 trucks.”
In tracking data, Mr. Ewer also focuses on the performance of the 100-person sales staff, which comprise about a third of the dealership's total personnel.
If a sales person falls below eight transactions a month, they are sent to retraining sessions with Paul Klein, Planet Ford's full-time trainer, who works out of a section of the dealership that looks like a classroom.
It's there that newly hired sales people receive an initial week of intensive training on both the basics of selling vehicles and the Planet Ford way of doing things.
It's also there that sales people who are missing their numbers get retraining, or what's called “second-level” training. Both Mr. Ewer and Mr. Klein tactfully put a positive spin on it.
“It's not a punishment,” says Mr. Ewer. “It's educational. A lot of times it's just straightening out someone's head. It's foreign to Paul Klein to address it as a problem.”
Mr. Klein says sales people who are sent to retraining often are selling too few vehicles because they're “skipping steps in the sales process, not slowing down and not directing the sale.”
Mr. Klein is a 20-year veteran of automotive retailing. He was working at an Idaho dealership's F&I department when he read an article about Planet Ford in Ford Motor Co.'s Dealer World magazine.
He was so impressed with Planet Ford's innovative approach, he bought a one-way ticket to Houston and applied for an F&I job at the dealership.
Recalls Mr. Klein, “They didn't have any openings but then Ron Ewer said, ‘Would you be interested in being director of training?’”
Mr. Ewer believes the tracking and training is paying off.
He says, “I know from our data that for every 100 customers who come in, 35 will buy a car from us. That's pretty good. The nationwide average is 20-25%.”
Adds Mr. Reed, “We run the whole dealership on percentages. It's pretty good when you are closing on 35% of customers. That money goes straight to the bottom line.”
People arriving at the dealership first stop at the “navigation station,” a futuristic-looking booth at the entryway. An employee asks them to which part of the vast facility are they headed, then gives them a color-coded map.
That first encounter serves a couple of purposes. It's the first “greeting,” says Michael Graves, who designed Planet Ford. But Mr. Reed adds that the greeter also “hash marks” the visitors' destinations. That recorded information tells the trackers, such as Mr. Ewer, the amount of business visits each dealership department is getting on any given day.
“We visited the top five dealerships in the country, and we got a great sense from all of them that they controlled the traffic,” says Mr. Reed.
Visitors to the showroom are met by a second greeter, “so that twice guests are ‘touched’ by the time they reach the showroom,” says Mr. Graves.
Specially programmed upbeat music plays continuously from an expensive sound system in the showroom. There are no public address system calls to sales people. Mr. Ewer says that disrupts the mood. Sales people are instead called on pagers that vibrate, rather than beep, lest the noise interfere with customer interaction.
Customers are not called customers at Planet Ford. They are “visitors” or “guests.” Buyers are Planet Ford “members” and “citizens.” As such, they're afforded several amenities such as use of an opulent service lounge with free long-distance phone service, Starbuck's coffee and Internet service.
Sales people do not sit behind desks when talking to prospective buyers. Rather, business is conducted at small round tables throughout the showroom. Mr. Graves says that makes for a more informal setting.
“We never lose track that we're selling cars and automotive services, but we're trying to enhance the experience,” says Mr. Graves.