In 1998, I rolled out our dealership’s first internet department. It made sense that I would manage it, because I had a computer and knew how to use it—and early on, those were very important qualifications. My first training session focused on how to use the CRM to respond to customer requests and how different the internet customer was from the showroom or phone customer. This was reinforced when the first lead we received came from 150 miles away and the internet salesperson delivered the car to the customer without him ever seeing the car or the dealership.
As the volume of internet customers grew (along with the size of our internet departments), we needed a sales process that could help manage the sheer number of prospects our internet people dealt with each month. And, knowing that the internet customer had a longer average buying cycle than our traditional “ups,” the process needed to focus on long-term follow up. I trained people on a revolutionary 63-day click-and-call sales process, balancing emails and calls for, you guessed it, 63 days. Hey, it made sense at the time.
Today it’s different. Studies have shown that more than 80 percent of customers use the internet to do research prior to contacting a dealership. The volume of online requests for information for most stores is equal to or greater than the number of showroom visitors or sales calls. Our websites are sophisticated, offering all of our customers a way to interact with our sales teams and service departments in the way that’s most convenient to them: chat, web form, online appointment scheduling, and more.
So it’s time to update our thinking. It’s time to break down the walls we’ve built up to segregate the internet department and “their” customers and bring them into the sales department, where they belong. It’s time to look at the truths to which we hold so dear and recognize that we may be managing based on what we learned in training many years ago.
Does the internet customer need a different process?
Today’s Facts: The internet customer has typically gone through the same research any other customer has; he or she just chose to contact the dealership through the internet. So consider that the customer is on your virtual lot and treat them as such. Make the initial email, the greeting, just as you would with a showroom visitor. If you can get the appointment there, great! If not, proceed through the sales process. Take the opportunity to build rapport and value in yourself, your dealership, and the vehicle, just as you would face-to-face. And just like you would in your follow-up with any other unsold customer, keep giving reasons for, and asking for, an appointment.
Does the internet department need its own space and manager?
Today’s Facts: On average, a full quarter of dealership sales come from internet customers and, every year, that number continues to grow. If your internet department is hidden away and managed separately, you’ve taken a huge chunk of activity and energy out of your showroom. Moving it into the showroom adds activity (which is energizing and motivating for all of your salespeople and customers who visit), gives your managers more visibility and encourages them to work with the internet salespeople and vice-versa. Your sales managers can measure progress through the process, just as they would with a showroom customer and salesperson, and take T.O.s, just as they would face-to-face.
Is the internet department all about volume?
Today’s Facts: For years, the focus was on giving the internet customer the best price on the first email, or at least the first day. While there are some stores that still treat the internet as a virtual fleet department, a recent study conducted by AutoUSA shows that the average internet customer generated 94 percent of the average gross profit generated by all other sales categories. It’s not hard to find invoice pricing online and, given that most of your customers have spent time on research sites, they probably have a good idea of what they’ll be paying for a car. They’re looking for the who and the where before they purchase.
I’m not saying avoid price. I’m saying focus on value. It’s no different than with any other customer.
Josh Vajda is a highly regarded sales and business development executive. He currently serves as the director of inside sales for AutoUSA. He can be reached by email at VajdaJ@autousa.com