October 30, 2003, 12:00 AM

Driving car sales into the 21st century

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And Hendrick Automotive, a Charlotte, N.C., dealer group with 70 retail locations in several Southern and Mid-Atlantic states, says that its nine Honda web sites handle 70,000 unique visitors per month who generate 930 serious e-mail leads and 195 sales. United and Hendrick are adamant about responding to e-mail in a timely manner. In fact, both companies have a standing policy that all e-mail requests must be answered in less than eight hours and, in many cases, within 90 minutes.

An effective e-mail response program is only one part of what some dealers are doing to leverage their Internet sales strategy. Equally important is hiring and training the right staff.

New training

But selling online means dealers must train their managers and staff in new and different tactics. Internet reps must be adept at working with web-based lead generation and CRM applications. They must be skilled in analyzing and responding to a wide variety of Internet leads and in answering pointed questions raised by well-informed Internet shoppers. They also must learn how to turn electronic leads into bricks-and-mortar visits that result in final sales.

Earnhardt’s Auto Centers in Phoenix, for instance, puts all Internet sales staffers through a weeklong training session before assigning them to a web sales manager and putting them to work in the e-commerce unit. Internet sales staffers are trained on the dealer’s web lead generation system, instructed on how to effectively answer multiple requests for information and coached on proper phone etiquette.

Once a month, each of Earnhardt’s three full-time Internet sales managers meets with senior management to review training and refine procedures. For example, a recent training session helped the Internet sales staff refine their telemarketing skills. Once the sales representatives were back on the floor, all of their outgoing Internet sales calls were recorded and then played back, providing each rep with feedback on individual efforts and steps they could take to improve their performance and sales closing ratio.

Earnhardt’s credits a dedicated web sales staff and specialized training with helping the dealer close more than 7,000 web sales per year, or about 25% of total volume. “Internet sales staffers must know how to stay ahead of the customer, and ours do,” says Joe Martin, Earnhardt’s group e-commerce manager. “We take the time to get to know who the Internet customers are and to train our staff to meet their expectations.”

Taking the guesswork out

Because many Internet buyers have done extensive research on their choice of a vehicle and, in many cases, the price and monthly note they can afford, Martin says most web sales begin as higher-quality leads. The e-commerce staff handles most Internet leads after several phone and e-mail conversations with the customer, but regular showroom sales reps are also used to buyers coming in with pages printed off the Internet. They are trained to help buyers find the vehicle they’re looking for or turn the customer over to an e-commerce specialist if they need more assistance. “The Internet takes the guesswork out of sales,” he says. “Informed web buyers just want to come in and make the buying process as straightforward as possible.”

Attention to web detail and an aggressive Internet strategy are helping some dealers outsell the competition. The Herb Chambers Cos., for instance, recently purchased an underperforming Ford dealership in suburban Boston and believes its aggressive Internet program can help the store increase sales by as much as 50%.

But unlike other Internet retail channels where the transaction is exclusively electronic from start to finish, selling cars will always involve a human element. That’s why Chambers considers the Internet to be a part of his overall sales program and not a separate channel. “The sale starts on the Internet and ends in the customer driving the vehicle off the lot,” he says. “Dealers like ours who think of the web as blending well with their other sales channels are going to be the ones selling the most cars.”

Mark Brohan is principal of The Brohan Group, providing professional editorial and publishing services. 

What auto buyers want from dealer sites

MSRP and dealer invoice price comparisons

Very Important 81%

Somewhat Important 17%

Not At All Important 3%


Special vehicle discounts for Internet shoppers

Very Important 74%

Somewhat Important 22%

Not At All Important 4%


Online price quote

Very Important 73%

Somewhat Important 21%

Not At All Important 7%


Dealer invoice and NADA used car guide or Kelley Blue Book comparisons

Very Important 66%

Somewhat Important 29%

Not At All Important 5%


Side-by-side vehicle comparisons

Very Important 57%

Somewhat Important 34%

Not At All Important 9%


Online trade-in estimate

Very Important 49%

Somewhat Important 36%

Not At All Important 14%


New vehicle options

Very Important 86%

Somewhat Important 13%

Not At All Important 1%


Searchable vehicle inventory on first page of web site

Very Important 68%

Somewhat Important 30%

Not At All Important 3%


Pictures of new vehicles at the dealership

Very Important 65%

Somewhat Important 30%

Not At All Important 5%


Pictures of used vehicles at the dealership

Very Important 46%

Somewhat Important 25%

Not At All Important 30%


Model reviews

Very Important 53%

Somewhat Important 38%

Not At All Important 9%


Monthly payment calculator

Very Important 39%

Somewhat Important 51%

Not At All Important 10%

Source: Friedman-Swift Associates





GM powers up a redesigned web site

General Motors Corp., the first Big Three U.S. automotive manufacturer to launch a dealer-oriented web selling strategy back in 1997, is enhancing BuyPower, a vehicle research and dealer location site, and launching an interactive advertising campaign to make consumers aware of the redesign.

Unveiled in August, the revamped site has simplified navigation and allows shoppers to customize the features and options they want in a new vehicle. They also can search for a used car or view online inventory at specific dealerships by ZIP code.

“Our research told us that dealers want more sales leads from the Internet, and consumers want to eliminate information overload when they shop online,” says Leo Drew, general director of strategy, integration and operations for GM Customer Networks.

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