Meet Your Neighbor / Apr/May 2012
Meet Elise Kephart
In this installment of our “Meet Your Neighbor” series, SLO LIFE Magazine sits down for a conversation with Elise Kephart. She was born in Seoul, South Korea and adopted by her parents when she was just a year old. She grew up in Nipomo and worked three jobs while attending school, later becoming a top performing car salesperson. After pioneering an innovative method for communicating with prospective buyers through personalized video messages, she was named the “YouTube Diva” of the auto industry. Today she can be found flying all over the country teaching dealerships how to harness the power of the internet. Here is her story…
Let’s start from the beginning, Elise, tell us where you’re from.
I was born in Korea. My mom could have had more kids - my brother and sister are her biological children - but she had it in her head that she always wanted to adopt an Asian baby. We lived in Thousand Oaks until I was three then I was raised in Nipomo. There was one exit off of 101, no McDonalds, no Vons, no chain store of any kind. No bank, no Starbucks. If you wanted to go the grocery store you had to drive to Santa Maria or Arroyo Grande. They had a little Mesa Market there that my sister and I would ride our bikes to when we were little to check out the Teen Bop magazines.
Can you tell us about your adoption?
When I’d look at the family picture, I’d say, “Wait, my brother and sister look the same as my mom and dad,” but here I am looking nothing like any of them. There was a little information sheet that came with my adoption paperwork that included a few other details, but not much.
Do you know your birth name?
Before I was adopted my name was Yeong Ja Lee. When I was adopted my parents named me Elise, but they converted my Koren name into one word and reversed the sequence to make Leeyeongja my middle name. My full name is actually Elise Leeyeongja Kephart. I recently had a translator print Leeyeongja in Korean characters and had it tattooed on my shoulder. As I get older, I think that it’s kind of cool to have that story about how I was adopted and I wonder if I was never adopted what things or what personality traits would be different about me? Or, is it more about how you are raised and the people that you surround yourself with that mold you into who you are? When I was adopted my biological mother checked off the box stating that she didn’t want me to contact her. I’m sure I could find her if I really wanted to, but it’s not something that I really think about. My family is my family. I do want to go back to South Korea someday, just to take some pictures and experience it a little bit.
What else stands out for you about growing up?
My dad was in the car business when I was younger. I remember being the one who was at the computer making his little newsletters and mailing them out to his customers. I went to Arroyo Grande High School, graduated from there. Did a few classes at Cuesta. I was always working, juggling two or three jobs. My parents were very, you know, they raised me right – they always wanted me learn the value of hard work.
What did that look like?
When I graduated from high school I was working at Del’s in Shell Beach, at the Starbucks in Arroyo Grande, and I also had a paper route in Pismo Beach. I remember folding papers at two o’clock in the morning. But, I was still wanting to get together with my friends. I just couldn’t keep their schedule, so I would meet them at Denny’s after they would come back from the bars. They would be heading home and I would be going to work. So, I was able to catch up with them over breakfast before going out to deliver papers. The truck would drop off the papers somewhere in Arroyo Grande and I would pick them up and go park at a gas station where I would fold them, then do the route through Pismo Beach. After finishing up there, I would have my shift at Starbucks – it was the one right by the movie theater in Arroyo Grande. After ended I’d have about an hour break and would go to Del’s where I was the hostess. I feel grateful that I did that because it really teaches you a good work ethic. Now, when I start thinking that things are tough, I realize, “Well, at least I’m not folding papers at two in the morning anymore!”
What is it that drives you to work so hard?
I don’t know, I’ve always been very competitive. I used to win all the sales competitions at my various jobs. Like, when I worked at Del’s, they would have a wine selling contest and I would win. It really didn’t matter what the winning prize was, I remember once it was a wine tour for the day. That was a lot of fun. Or, at Starbucks, they would have a contest to see who could sell the most coffee beans and my co-workers would say, “You need to chill out.” [laughter] Nobody else would care but I was always determined to win.
What came next?
I had lived in Nipomo my whole life. So, out of the blue, I decided that I wanted to move to San Diego. I’m 27 now so I must have been 22. I transferred to a different Starbucks, got a waiting job at P.F. Chang’s, and enrolled at the community college. Moving there was a really big experience for me. I didn’t know anyone there and my dad called one day and just kinda threw it out there and said, “Maybe you should try selling cars… you can make an okay living doing it and you’re good with people, and you’re working these three jobs. You might as well dedicate that time to one job.” So, I took his advice and applied to a few dealerships and wasn’t hired by any of them. It was the first time in my life that I had experienced real rejection. Then, I walked into a Ford dealership and we did a quick interview and they said, “Ok, we’re going to give you a shot.”
What was your first day like?
I worked in a big auto parkway. I put street clothes on and walked on to all of the other neighboring dealerships pretending to be a prospective customer. I wanted to see how other people did it. I was really turned off by many of the salespeople I encountered and it got me thinking, “How would I want to be treated?” So, headed back to my dealership and I’m there waiting on the patio and nothing was happening. It was a very hot day in San Diego. And, I started thinking, “You know, if I don’t sell anything, I’m going to make less than I did before. Maybe this was a mistake.” But, at the same time, I knew there was so much potential. I learned how to filter out the negativity and focus on my ultimate goal. And, at first, for me, that was just to replace three jobs with one and not have to work sun-up to sundown every day. Within my fourth month there I was the top salesperson.
You obviously learned very quickly. How long were you in San Diego?
I worked at the Ford dealership down there for two years then moved back here to San Luis Obispo and was hired at Sunset Honda. I started on the sales floor, but after about three months I was moved to the Internet Department, which is where the dealership handles the leads and inquiries that come through the various websites where we post our cars for sale. My job was to get the customer who made the inquiry online to physically come in to the store because you can’t really buy a car through the internet. You have to come in and see it and test drive it.
And, how did you do that exactly?
I really didn’t have much training, it was all so new. Everyone was trying to figure out how to use the internet effectively. So, I started the same way I did the first day as a salesperson at the Ford dealership, I became a mystery shopper. I created a bunch of different aliases and email addresses and started shopping online. And, that’s when I started to realize that most everyone was just using autoresponders and very rarely did anyone contact me personally. It’s so hard to create a relationship online because there is no body language, no tone inflection… it’s all words on a screen with some punctuation. So, that’s when I started to think, “Ok, what can I do to make this experience different?”
What did you do?
I started the Sunset Honda YouTube Channel and made some videos about some pre-owned cars. I made some fun little walk-around videos showing off the cars, something with a little bit of personality. If you go back to that channel and look at the early videos you can see how it evolved. I started figuring out what was working and what wasn't. Somewhere along the line I went from making videos about cars to making a personalized video for people that inquired about cars through the internet.
You made a personalized video for each person? That's a huge undertaking!
I learned video editing when I was younger and it's always something I've been really comfortable with and enjoy. A quick 30-second greeting to a customer would only take me about five minutes to put together, and I had a lot of it already pre-made in the software program. But, just from a value perspective I know that was going to be a different way to start to build a relationship with a prospective customer. Because, if you are a potential customer and you want some information about a car you don’t want to work with an autoresponder, you want a real person. So, if you are getting twenty emails that are pretty much the same from all the other dealerships, then you get a personalized video from an actual person, ultimately that’s going to be the one email that’s going to stand out.
What happened next?
So, as I was doing these videos other dealerships started catching on and pretty soon I had other salespeople and managers contacting me to ask, “How did you do that? Can you teach me?” Then, about a year ago Jim Ziglar, who is a sales guru and trainer in the automotive industry, started showcasing the Sunset Honda YouTube Channel at his conferences. That’s when things really started to take off. At first, I thought, “My job is to sell cars, so I don’t have time to answer all of these questions.” But, it just kept growing and growing. Then Jim asked me to come and speak at his conferences. He started introducing me as the “YouTube Diva.” People in the industry call me that now, it just sort of stuck. And, then recently, I accepted a job working with a firm that trains salespeople at dealerships all over the country. It was a very, very tough decision for me to leave Sunset Honda. You know, I had been there for about three years and had built relationships with all the people I had worked with and with my customers, but ultimately I got a full time position to train others to do what I have been doing.
How did this YouTube idea come to you?
I really don’t look at this as a groundbreaking idea, I just really wanted to do a better job. I guess I’ve always been more on the creative side of things, and I’ve always enjoyed video making, and photography, writing, so it came very naturally to me. I never could have imagined that making these videos was going to do anything other than help me to sell a car, but then it just spiraled into this big thing.
How’s it going so far?
I’m really enjoying it, I really like teaching people how to do this. I’m enjoying the traveling. I just got back from a dealership in Cheboygan, Wisconsin, of all places, yesterday. It was great. But, I know what is going to happen though, is I have to continue to be forward-thinking because something else is going to come along; there’s always something that you’re going to have to keep up with. Even the YouTube thing, that goes back three years now and in that time there are other forms of communication that you have to keep up with. It never stops.
Tell us, can these lessons be applied elsewhere?
Yes, definitely. For example, I just bought a T.V. and I went through a similar process. First, I went online and did some research. Then I went to BestBuy and nobody helped me. I still had some questions and needed a salesperson to sort of walk me through the different options. I hung out for a bit and then said, “Well, alright, I’m going to walk across the parking lot to Sears.” When I got there I checked in on Facebook and one of my old friends sent me a message saying that he is working there. I hadn’t seen him since high school, but he is now the assistant manager. He helped me and I had a great experience, which led to me walking out with a new T.V. Buying a car, or buying anything, it always follows the same process.
Well, we know you have a flight to catch, but it’s been great visiting with you, Elise.
Thank you – it’s been really nice talking with you, too. And, having this conversation with you and reflecting on some of this stuff makes me realize - everybody has their rough times and their story to tell, I guess, but it just makes me so grateful for everything and all of these experiences because there is a lot of stuff on the other side of the fence, where it could have been different.