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How New AI Technologies are Helping Dealerships Drive Growth and  Exceed Customer Expectations with Earl Wheless

  • April 9, 2024
21 min read
How New AI Technologies are Helping Dealerships Drive Growth and  Exceed Customer Expectations with Earl Wheless

Ilana Shabtay
VP of Marketing, Fullpath

Earl Wheless
Internet Sales Manager, Gaffney Buick GMC

Earl Wheless is the Internet Sales Manager at Gaffney Buick GMC. He has over 30 years of experience in the automotive industry, spending most of his time in management roles. Earl is an early adopter of automotive digital marketing and enjoys analyzing data to determine how to reach his specific market. 

Here’s a glimpse of what you’ll learn:

  • Earl’s career shift from banking to the automotive industry
  • The drastic changes that have taken place in dealer advertising in the last 30 years
  • How integrated data can support dealership growth and operational efficiency
  • How Gaffney GMC is meeting customer expectations using new AI technologies
  • The importance of celebrating success with dealership vendors
  • Earl’s predictions for the future of automotive. 

In this episode…

Marketing in automotive has gone through a massive transformation in the last 30 years. 

The switch from newspaper layouts to building and maintaining was a huge jump for dealers that required a major mindset shift – one that dealers face again today with the evolution of AI driven marketing technologies. 

Early adopted of these new technologies are witnessing the impact in real time. AI is helping dealerships, big and small, drive growth and improve operations on the ground, allowing dealerships to build loyalty by meeting and exceeding customer expectations. 

In this episode of Inside Auto Podcast, Ilana Shabtay speaks with Earl Wheless, Internet Sales Manager at Gaffney Buick GMC, to discuss the evolution of automotive marketing and operations over his 30-year career and the ways new AI technology has driven growth and success at his dealership.

Resources Mentioned: 

Sponsor for this episode…

This episode is brought to you by Fullpath (formerly AutoLeadStar).

 Fullpath is the automotive industry’s leading customer data and experience platform (CDXP).

Fullpath enables dealers to turn their first-party data into lifelong customers by unifying siloed data sources and leveraging that data to create exceptional, hyper-personalized customer experiences.

To learn more, visit

Episode Transcript:

Ilana Shabtay (00:20)

Ilana Shabtai here, host of Inside Auto Podcast, where we interview top dealers, GMs, marketers, entrepreneurs, and thought leaders in and out of the automotive industry. And before we introduce today’s guest, this episode is sponsored by Fullpath is the automotive industry’s leading customer data and experience platform, CDXP. Fullpath enables dealers to turn their first-party data into lifelong customers by unifying siloed data sources and leveraging that data to create exceptional hyper-personalized customer experiences. For more information, visit Today’s guest is Earl Wheless Earl, how are you?

Earl Wheless (00:58)

I’m doing good, how are you doing today?

Ilana Shabtay (01:01)

I’m good. I get to finally meet the famous Earl. The entire Fullpath team talks about you all the time, raves about you. So I’m very excited that you’re joining the podcast today.

Earl Wheless (01:11)

Well, thank you. I don’t know about all that, but yeah, I’ve known several of them for a really, really long time. So we go way back and really excited to be one of your, on the team with Fullpath So.

Ilana Shabtay (01:30)

Awesome. Well, we appreciate the partnership and I’m excited to have you here today to talk a little bit about your experience. Earl here is the marketing manager at Gaffney Buick GMC. Earl comes with over 30 years of automotive experience, which I love because I get to learn from people like that on this podcast all the time. Most of those roles have been management roles, so we can talk a little bit about that.

And as just like a marketer and as part of Earl’s profession, he’s an early adopter of automotive digital marketing and enjoys analyzing data to determine how to actually advertise correctly in today’s market. So I very much admire that, identify with that. Thank you for sharing that with us today and I look forward to the conversation.

Earl Wheless (02:13)

Yeah, thank you.

Ilana Shabtay (02:15)

So let’s kick it off with how did you get into automotive? How’d you end up in this industry?

Earl Wheless (02:20)

Oh, so, um, well, when I first started, I was, uh, you know, during college, I was in banking and, um, I was actually, they put me in this department in direct lending and I, I started interacting with car dealers, doing automotive loans and, um, got to be really good friends with, um, a bunch of the local dealers. And then they, um, kind of recruited me from the banking industry.

So they recruited me into the automotive business and, um, you know, I had to start at the bottom, uh, started out in sales and I was in sales, um, not really long for about six to seven months. And then, you know, kept speaking with them about, um, you know, working in the finance department. So, uh, started doing that. And I did, uh, financing for about 12 years, uh, in my early career, you know, kind of specialized in the financing and learn that you have to start.

You have to start in sales and automotive industry and just kind of move your way up. So, you know, I did that. And then after that, got interested into sales management and then just kind of moved my way, you know, up, you know, through all the different positions in the dealership pretty much. Um, so, you know, just kind of learned it inside and out and, uh, you know, all the way up to general sales manager and, um, and then started working with, you know, started working with all of our different vendors and.

and things that, so I’ve really seen the car business change obviously, and the length of time that I’ve been in it, you know, seen drastic changes. So, but yeah, I really enjoy it and, you know, spent the majority of my time in the automotive industry. And I left for a short while and worked for a few website platforms, you know, later in my career and got to travel and kind of work on that side too. So, you know, that was.

Ilana Shabtay (03:55)

I’m sure.

Earl Wheless (04:14)

really exciting to be able to do that. But, you know, ultimately, um, I’m, I belong in the dealership, you know, you know, working with salespeople and, you know, training and with all the new technology that’s coming out. So, um, you know, things are a lot different now, uh, then, you know, than they were when I started a long time ago. So, uh, just, uh,

Ilana Shabtay (04:34)

Can you talk about some of the biggest differences that you witnessed over the years, whether that’s, I don’t know, the website to mobile or digital retail? Like, I’d love to see, I mean, we could talk about anything that you think is really interesting for our audience, but.

I love when I have people on the show that have been in automotive for 30 plus years and can really talk about the changes that completely change the face of the industry.

Earl Wheless (05:04)

Yeah, I mean, basically a long time ago, you know, we would do like newspaper ads and we would, you know, we would have to advertise in there and change those, um, and actually do photos and put photos in there. And we would have, um, one of our reps come from the, from the local newspaper and we would do like full or even, you know, double full page ads. So we would do those, um, you know, just.

a lot of different things, you know, obviously before the internet got big. So we, there was things like that we had to do. And then when the internet, you know, first came out, you know, all the, the local advertising and all the different companies that were involved, we would have to go through, I mean, just old antiquated ways of, you know, advertising. So

And then, you know, mobile took off because, you know, with cell phones, you know, you would have to, I mean, even like right now, I mean, the majority of our customer base is, you know, you know, has a device and, you know, over 70%, you know, they’re, they’re just looking at everything. So we have to make sure that, you know, our ads are optimized for, you know, for mobile and, um, you know, just all the advertising that we do and all the different types of marketing is mainly, you know, you have to make sure your website looks good on mobile. And.

and things like that, and just being able to work with our vendors to make sure everything’s put together. And then, you know, from keeping track of all your customer base and CRM, and then we use systems, DMS, a dealer management system. So we have several systems that we have to use, and with everything now, the way it is now, everything integrates together. So it just makes it a smoother transition.

because you’re running your accounting and your FNI and your service department and your dealership management system and your CRM to keep up with the customer database. And then that’s where Full Path comes in and can actually keep track of all that data for us because there’s, especially now, what I’m really intrigued by is the artificial intelligence and the machine learning.

and how it can keep track of everything and help us target people that are looking for a specific type of car or if they’re looking for some service and they’ve been there before, we can reach out to them first before someone else does. It’s just amazing to me. I’ve always dreamed about being in this business so long, you’re always trying to come up with these great ideas. And then…

I found full path and it’s made it. I mean, seriously, it’s made it so much easier. We can’t even keep up. And we’re just a small dealership, but we’re literally growing. And right now we’re in the process and this is no joke. Right now we’re in the process of hiring two new salespeople. And we’re gonna, we’ve never had, we’re small, like a medium sized store. And we’re getting ready to hire like our first BDC person because

Ilana Shabtay (07:53)

That’s wonderful. That’s great.


Earl Wheless (08:20)

We have to, we’re going to have to transition into that because there’s no way that our salespeople can do it because you know, when there’s customers on the lot, they have to, that’s their first priority. So, but all the phone calls and all the things that are the engagement that’s happening is, it’s amazing to us and we love it, but we have to grow. So

Ilana Shabtay (08:39)

But that’s incredible. You hit on a lot of different points. Just the evolution of marketing in general, but then also efficiency, meaning it’s not just about how the marketing evolved in your time, but also it’s made your operations more efficient and you can bring your data together. I mean, it’s incredible that you’ve been part of that journey. One more question on what you’ve seen evolve from the consumer side or from the shopper side. Do you…

Do you see any difference in the way that shoppers shop today? And what’s that evolution been like for you? If at all, if you’re paying attention to that, I’d love to know.

Earl Wheless (09:19)

Yeah, I mean, the way people, especially with the younger generation now, they would rather, they’re texting a lot and they’re emailing a lot. Before it was mostly phone calls, which obviously we still have to make lots and lots of phone calls obviously, but we’re seeing more people doing it the simple way. They’re texting a lot and with all the technology that’s available now.

Ilana Shabtay (09:32)

Phone call.

Earl Wheless (09:48)

we’re able to send them information super fast and we’re in the process now of Hopefully switching over to the chat GPT on our website, you know because in the past we’ve used different sources But I’ve never seen anything like it if you if you’re a dealer and you’ve experienced The chat that goes on in the past with real humans a customer will ask a question They’ll say not all of them, but some customers will say

hey, what’s the horsepower in that particular truck? And now what I’ve seen, even with your chat, that’s why we wanna bring that platform onto our website. So it can answer questions super fast. So a customer doesn’t have to wait because they don’t wanna wait anymore. People want answers like right now. And it’s just amazing what I’ve seen. And we’re in process right now talking with…

Ilana Shabtay (10:34)

Yeah, it’s incredible.

Earl Wheless (10:44)

you know, with full path on, you know, getting that put on our website. And then obviously getting it onto our other platforms in the future. So that’s some things that we’re working on. But yeah, it’s just all the different things that we’ve seen with your company, you know, just to help it, just to help the automotive industry be more simplified and easier to get that information to the customer and the whole purpose is.

Ilana Shabtay (11:11)

Thank you.

Earl Wheless (11:13)

setting the appointment and getting the customer in the dealership. And it makes it a lot easier to keep engaged with these people. Because there’s no way… Go ahead.

Ilana Shabtay (11:20)

Yeah, but you do…

I was going to say you do feel, like even though maybe the way customers or shoppers get to the dealership or feel the need to come to the dealership is the same, the way that they get there might be different, meaning maybe they spend more time online, maybe they expect to get a very quick answer on simple questions that they’re asking a chat, meaning is that where you’re going?

Earl Wheless (11:48)

Yeah, I mean, because people don’t, you know, in the past, you know, manufacturers would say, Hey, you know, we want you to respond within an hour. But I mean, in today’s world, I mean, you need to respond super fast. And that’s where, you know, even having the chat, I mean, we try to do a good job of responding quickly, like within 15 minutes, no matter what, if even if we have to like, you switch it around, but with, with the new

Ilana Shabtay (12:03)


That’s great.

Earl Wheless (12:15)

with the new AI, it can answer the questions and help us. It can help us because we’re trying to concentrate on the people that are in the store. So it helps us, it just makes it more efficient to us. And the whole, I mean, everything, and I’ve been involved with different companies that do like paid advertising and things like that, but.

Ilana Shabtay (12:28)


Earl Wheless (12:41)

In the past, you had human beings looking at it, which I’m not saying anything’s wrong with that, but the way it is now, and especially with your platform, that’s why I like it so much. It’s the amount of changes it can make. You know, I mean, last month we had, last month, the AI made 28, like 28,000 changes to our ads. So, you know, if, yeah, if you.

Ilana Shabtay (13:05)

Yeah, it’s incredible. That’s one of my favorite features, by the way, the event log where you can just see, I mean, you can’t compete with any, no human can compete with that. And it’s just optimizing and changing.

Earl Wheless (13:14)

No, and it’s not taken away. It’s not really taken away. It’s just making it more efficient and more professional because customers want a professional experience. They don’t want, you know, stereotypical in the past. People are like, oh, you’re in the car business. You’re a car salesman. Well, I’m very proud of what I do. I’ve been doing it for a really long time. And I definitely take pride. And I mean, we have a great reputation. We’ve been

Ilana Shabtay (13:20)


Earl Wheless (13:44)

I mean, Scott got the store, you know, he took over like 17 years ago and he’s super young and I’ve worked with him, our dealer, I’ve worked with him since he was 23. He was our service manager at 23. So he’s, you know, he’s very engaged and we’re, we’re into, you know, providing, you know, a very professional, you know, comforting place for our customers. If you, anybody can look at our reviews online and see that we’re basically at 4.9 out of five.

because we want our customers to be happy because if it wasn’t for them, we wouldn’t even have a dealership. And obviously the reason we chose Full Path is because we want to make it more efficient because we’re small. And then this way you guys are helping us grow. I mean, I talked to our customer success manager and that’s, it was funny today we were talking about this case study that you guys did on our store. And,

And I was thinking about, I even wrote some stuff down, but celebrating our success. So to me, like I always try to build relationships with our vendors because, you know, I mean, I want to be friends with them and, you know, almost like family because I spend a lot of time like texting her, we, we share ideas. We try to figure out like our market, you know, so we try to do all those things. But I wrote down that Fullpath.

Ilana Shabtay (14:50)

Yeah, and I think that’s incredible.

Earl Wheless (15:08)

celebrates our success with us. Like we together I was like, hey our goal, you know, this month is to do I mean and some of the other people out there will laugh but for us to do 70 I mean that was our goal and so we hit 68 and it’s well and it’s because so our next our next step would be to Get to a hundred because our stores and we’re right in the middle of two major markets. So Gaffney’s this little town off of Interstate 95 in South Carolina and

Ilana Shabtay (15:21)

It’s incredible.

Earl Wheless (15:38)

Interstate 85, excuse me, and it runs to Charlotte, North Carolina, which is a big market. And then it runs to Greenville, South Carolina, which is another big market. So we’re right in the middle. So we can pull off of both of these markets and you guys are helping us do that. So anyways, it’s just, it means a lot to us to have a good relationship with our vendors that we’re spending, we’re investing a lot of money.

and you guys are investing a lot of money in your technology, but it kind of works together. So that’s, you know, that’s what, yeah, and that’s what we like about it. And it helps our salespeople because we have a small team, but like I said, we’re growing, we’re in process of hiring more. And I try to train people, you know, I try to give them access to everything, full path, so they can actually see because you can look in Fullpath

Ilana Shabtay (16:08)

Of course, and that’s a real partnership.

Earl Wheless (16:31)

And when it takes that customer out of there and it shows you their whole journey, like you can see everything. You can see when they clicked on an ad. These are our previous customers and it shows everything. So it gives us all that insight so we can better answer their questions or, you know, help them with service, you know, all these different things that you guys do to help us. So it means a lot to us. So definitely.

Ilana Shabtay (16:55)

Yeah, that’s great. I’m so thrilled to hear this and really thrilled that you’re sharing this. I think also just having the real, really taking advantage of the fact that you’re de-siloing your data and actually putting it into a platform where you and your team can leverage it for better results. I mean, that’s the ultimate goal for us. So I’m happy to hear that. And before we sign off here, I do wanna get your perspective on one more thing. I’d love to know.

Earl Wheless (17:18)


Ilana Shabtay (17:26)

If you have any predictions for the market, for automotive, it could be, you know, I mean, you’ve really touched every job at the dealership right now, so it could really be, you know, sales or marketing-related technology. It doesn’t matter to me. I’m just interested in seeing, I mean, where do you think the market and where do you think automotive will be in, let’s say, 12 to 18 months?

Earl Wheless (17:49)

I mean, I think the inventories are starting to come back, because we’ve been through a lot. I mean, both, I mean, yeah, so Fullpath has had to adapt and the automotive industry, we’ve definitely had to adapt to not having people come in, doing more stuff online, trying to figure out how to do that. But from what I’m seeing now with all the manufacturers ramping back up and…

Ilana Shabtay (17:53)

Mm-hmm. Oh yeah, we’ve been through the wringer.

Earl Wheless (18:18)

Um, and you know, just inventory starting to come back in. I mean, you know, to me, to me, I can see it trending back up, you know, I mean, maybe we’re going to have to make some more adjustments, but, um, but we’re good at that. I mean, obviously in the last, you know, 30 years, we’ve been able to adapt to all, all kinds of stuff, you know, higher interest rates, I mean, which they are right now, so just different things. But, um, we just try to, like I said, we just try to adapt to that. But I mean, to me, I see the market, for us anyway, I see it definitely getting a little bit better because of the things that are happening, all the suppliers and all the different things starting to ramp back up now. But I mean, I have a good outlook for the futures, especially because everything like we’ve been on…

Ilana Shabtay (19:07)


That’s great.

Earl Wheless (19:16)

full path for about a year now. And it takes a while for, you know, the AI to go through all this data and sift through and, you know, not really tracking, but, you know, just kind of learning your customer, learning where they’re going, you know, what they’re doing. And that’s where it makes it so much easier for us. But yeah, I mean, we’re super excited about, you know, all the things that come, you know, with the future and just being one of your partners. So, I mean, it’s been really exciting for us, you know, working with you guys. So, but.

Ilana Shabtay (19:54)

That’s wonderful. Well, thank you, and thank you so much for joining the podcast. And I do agree with that prediction. I think…

I’m very hopeful and optimistic, but I do think within the next 12 months, automotive will get some kind of break, which the industry 100% deserves, and things will be looking good. And I think sales teams are getting back at training, and demand is staying up and supplies coming back, and it’s really nice to see that. So thank you so much for sharing your insight, Earl. It’s so good, as I said in the beginning, to finally spend some time with you, the famous Earl, as we call you in full-blot.

Earl Wheless (20:12)

Yeah. Yeah, it’s nice to meet you too. Yeah.

Ilana Shabtay (20:33)

Thanks for joining Inside Auto. And for those that are listening, if you liked this episode, please tune in inside auto You can find us on all your favorite streaming channels. Thanks again, Earl. Bye bye.

Earl Wheless (20:43)

Thank you, bye bye.

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