Article

How To Respond To Internet Inquiries: Trainers and Directors Disclose Proper Techniques

December 2007, Auto Dealer Today - WebXclusive

by John Carroll - Also by this author

The Internet was supposed to level the playing field for all dealers. In reality, however, it’s not that simple because of the various practices taught and used throughout the industry.

Trying to come up with a step-by-step process for Internet sales can be tricky. Some practices may work better than others in your own operation, and picking the best approach for your dealership can make a big difference at the end of the month.

With that in mind, Auto Dealer Monthly asked two industry Internet trainers—Kain Automotive’s David Kain and Ralph Paglia, director of digital marketing for ADP Dealer Services—and two high-performing Internet sales directors—Matt Lamoureux from Acton Toyota and Martin Citron from Maroone Toyota—how they optimize their virtual performance
 
When responding to an Internet sales lead, which comes first, an e-mail or a phone call?

Kain: Whenever you have the option, pick up the phone. If the lead comes in with a phone number and the customer hasn’t indicated that they don’t want to be called, then I would call. If there’s no phone number, then you have to resort to e-mail, but live human contact, following up as quickly as you can, is the best way to start a successful sales effort.

The consumer, if properly approached, won’t look at it as an annoyance. They look at it as a service. It’s a better service to get with a client quickly and understand what their goals are.

Paglia: An e-mail response that provides the information requested by the customer is a non-negotiable aspect of successfully responding to Internet leads because it is what the consumer expects, and usually what they have been promised by the Web site where they submitted their inquiry. However, immediately following that initial e-mail, your most successful approach is to get the customer on the phone as soon as possible.  The quick e-mail providing fast and written answers to the customer’s questions can help you start to establish some rapport on the phone.

If a lead comes in and says “call me”, you’re going to call first, but most leads are generated by customers seeking answers by e-mail first, which earns the right to call them second… and right away. The first thing you do with any lead is find out what the customer is asking for and give it to them. Sending them a quick e-mail response first, before making the phone call gives you a great opening line.

“Hey, I just sent you an e-mail with the price quote you asked for… Have you received it?”

If a customer asks why you are calling instead of emailing, you should point out that a large number of e-mails are blocked by spam filters, making phone contact critically important to ensure that the e-mail with the information requested by the customer actually made it to the customer.

Lamoureux: At Acton Toyota, the best approach is dictated by the customer. If they want an e-mailed response to a query, then give it to them. If they send out a query looking for more information, that could warrant a call back, it’s a basic principle: Find out what the customer wants and how they want it; then deliver it to them in exactly that way.

What you don’t want to do is sit back and put customers through a series of steps aimed solely at setting up an appointment. The goal is to give customers what they want, rather than using them to get what you want. It’s an effective approach for our store.

*The Internet sales department at Acton Toyota sells about 150 units a month.

Citron: The correct answer is both. We click and call. We send an e-mail at the same time we call. The purpose here is to be quick. The sooner you make a connection, the better your chances of success.
 
For most Internet shoppers, the price is the same on new vehicles just about anywhere they go. The way a dealership can distinguish itself is with a timely response. Capture the chance to make the first contact. It’s the early bird that gets the worm in Internet sales.

How do you handle a known sub prime customer versus a customer with good credit or someone you can’t identify?

Kain: With the sub-prime customer, you know you’ll want to start talking financing first. If you don’t know whether they’re credit challenged, then you’d treat them just as if they were any other customer, but ask a few subtle questions to see where they’re likely to fall. In most cases, it isn’t hard to separate the sub-prime and prime customers.

People who have credit challenges tend to wear them on their sleeve. A few indirect questions about trade-ins and financing will allow you to spot the occasional customer who slips through.

You need an integrated process with finance personnel to get in early. Sub prime is often mishandled when you don’t have that maturity in the dealership to handle that sub-prime customer. If your dealership is skewed to primary credit, if you don’t have the structure set up to get sub-prime customers approved and follow through, then you’re doing a disservice to that sub-prime customer.

Of course, if your lead generator includes pre-approval on a note, you’ll have all that credit information on the screen in front of you when you first make contact.

Paglia: Where prime credit customers will get what they want, sub prime customers need flexibility to switch to a different vehicle. The sub prime can come in looking for a truck and drive out in an economy car.

If you know they’re sub prime, you would not want them to land on certain vehicles. You would also want to make sure they’re getting coached on some of the basics about the stips they’ll need when they come into the dealership. You don’t say, “Come down! Come down! Come down! You’re pre-approved.” And then tell them they can’t get a car because they didn’t bring their pay stubs… that’s not the right way to do business.

If you don’t know the customer’s credit background, there are usually some quick giveaways. The customer could mention that they currently have a high interest rate on their existing note. If they are financed through GMAC, they are probably not sub prime. But be careful how you do this. The last thing a prime credit customer will want to hear is a bunch of leading questions, such as “where do you work?” The primary objective of making a connection with a prospective customer is to establish some level of positive rapport. One of the biggest mistakes most sales professionals make is getting into discussions around credit background before the customer has been to the dealership.

Be careful to avoid creating any red flags for the customer. If you get a lead and they want information on a vehicle and you can get an appointment, there’s no need to talk about trade-ins, credit or finances.

Lamoureux: I don’t like people divvying up leads by credit ranking. It’s important not to prejudge because you may well end up excluding customers who could buy a vehicle.

In the end, if you can’t help someone, you thank them for the query and move on, but the point is every customer deserves 100 percent effort.

We handle everybody the same way and do our best to see if we can help. We do not believe in lead scoring or ranking. We provide the same exceptional service to everyone. No questions asked. If somebody is sub prime and we are certain of that, maybe they have submitted a credit application and we know their credit score, then we would have a finance manager in the Internet department work with them directly to see if we can help them before we get a salesperson involved. If we don’t know if they are sub prime, they all get treated the same … We don’t believe that anyone is deserving of any less effort.

Citron: It doesn’t matter with us. We treat everyone the same; it makes no sense to do it any other way. So avoid any leading questions to determine creditworthiness but there are ways to draw some common sense direction. If the customer is inquiring about a high-priced car, the chances are he’s got the kind of credit score that can back up the purchase. Sometimes you can tell by looking at an address in your CRM database, but treat everyone the same way.

How do you handle your own dealership’s Internet leads versus third party leads?

Kain: No doubts here. Your best shot at closing a sale starts with a lead generated from your own Web site. I definitely think that the person who has submitted a lead from the dealership site knows a little about the dealership, knows how to get there or has read something about it. When they submit a request about a specific vehicle in the inventory, treat that as a high priority item.

Make sure you understand what influences the customer had. Go to the Web site where the lead comes from, understand the nuances involved and what makes a customer respond to it. But third party leads are less loyal than the leads you’ll get from your own Web site. Consumers you contact from third party leads will need to learn something positive about the dealership. They probably have no idea who you are as a dealer. You want them to know that they have found a well-positioned dealership that can fulfill their needs.

Paglia: With a dealership lead, the customer has indicated a certain level of acceptance and a willingness to do business with that dealership, or you would never have got the lead. It’s only natural your own leads will close at a higher rate.

One of the best practices with third party leads is to invite them to your Web site. But do it quickly. Keep in mind those third party leads are probably going to several dealers at once.

You’re competing with other stores. It’s like a horse race. The gun goes off and the fastest horse to the finish line wins. Time is super critical. You can’t play games or withhold information. There will be three or four dealers responding at the same time. The moment they think you’re not going to give them what they want, they’ll start paying attention to the other dealer. You have to send an e-mail with real-world answers to their questions immediately after receiving the lead and then get on the phone as soon as possible to ensure they actually received the e-mail. Forty percent of the time, they will have not received the e-mail because of spam filters.

With leads from your own Web sites, you still have the burden of responding quickly, but there’s a little more leeway, a little less work to do with leads coming in from your own Web sites. You don’t have to spend as much time convincing them your dealership is a good place to do business; they’ve already indicated that they are willing to do business with your store.

Lamoureux: No difference. Again, if one can receive an effort scored from zero to 10, you want everyone to receive a 10 effort. Yes, more homegrown leads are closed, but the process is the same. We spend a lot of money generating sales leads, and if we don’t give them a maximum effort, then shame on us.

Citron: Our store leads are the best, and we get most of our leads from our own lead sources. Being an AutoNation store, our Web site leads are from a captive audience. It’s not coming from third party sources and going out to six dealers. You’re the only one getting that unique lead.

Are there differences in best practices between new vehicle shoppers and used vehicle shoppers?

Kain: Sure. A new car buyer is looking for a specific type of car. A used car buyer coming in is likely to be more price-loyal. We want to make sure that the used car customer understands that we have a variety of cars.

Paglia: With a used car shopper, you’re going to get into a lot more phone and physical work than Internet work. New car shoppers will look more to the Internet. A used car shopper is looking for a specific vehicle online, and if the car that generated the lead is no longer available, then you need to tell them it’s under contract, but that you have a number of other vehicles very similar to it. A new car buyer isn’t as concerned with supply because he or she knows that the manufacturer will always make more, or your store can locate the vehicle they want.

Compared to used car leads, whether or not you are successful in making a sale to a new car lead seems to depend a lot more on how you treat the customer than whether or not you have the vehicle they want in stock, or even the exact pricing specifics. Convenience is a very big factor in successfully handling new car leads. If the customer can get the
 
Lamoureux: When a query lands, the customer gets an e-mail back with a picture of the car they were interested in—just one. Try to stack the pictures too deep and you’ll run a high risk of getting blocked by a spam filter.

If they’ve seen a picture and like the car enough to inquire about it, it won’t hurt if they see it again. And if they’ve been looking over 15 different 2005 Camrys, then it won’t hurt to refresh their memory about what they had queried the dealership about to begin with.

Citron: For new car buyers, establishing a relationship as quickly as you can is the key to a sale. Rapport is more important on a new car because everybody will match the price. These days, the customers know more than my salespeople on what the car costs. It’s the same as if you walk into a showroom. “Hi, how are you doing? How old is the baby?” You make friends.
 
On used car buyers, they’re asking about a particular car on the lot, and that’s something that can’t be readily duplicated. In those cases, you distinguish yourself with a low price or a vehicle that has a hard-to-match profile, such as one with ultra low miles on it.

Although there is no perfect cookie-cutter program for every dealer, there was some consistency in the responses of both trainers and directors. Speed is a major component in Internet retailing. Beyond that, it’s all about who can establish the relationship that the customer is looking for while shopping. That’s not any different than any other dealership vehicle sales.

Vol 4, Issue 10

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