The old adage about getting to know someone by walking a mile in his or her shoes holds true with car shoppers. If you want to understand how your online advertising and internet sales processes win business for your store — or drive it to your competitors — begin by taking a walk in your shoppers’ shoes. Read to learn more and then get online to see firsthand what online buyers see when they shop your store. < learn more

In the online world, your listings, your website and your online sales process all contribute to buyers’ impressions of your store. Online shoppers are often eliminating dealers from their consideration set based on the information they find and the responses they receive to inquiries. At a time when the nearest competitor is a quarter-inch away — and no longer only across the street or down the road — small details can make or break the deal. You can no longer afford to be out of step with what car buyers expect and what other stores are doing.

So what impression do buyers get when they shop your store online? Are you putting your best foot forward? To find out, we recommend taking a walk in your shoppers’ shoes to see your store from their view. You may be surprised by what you see.

First Things First: Examine Your Listings

Remember, from the customer’s perspective, it’s all about the car and finding the dealer who can help you find the right one. If the customer merely wanted your phone number and an invitation to call — during normal business hours, no less — he or she could simply look you up in the Yellow Pages.

What this advice means in practical terms is that your listings must accomplish two objectives: First, they should fully merchandise the vehicle. Second, they should sell the value of buying from your store.

In considering how effectively your store is positioning each vehicle, begin with the quality and quantity of the pictures included with the ad. Is the car shown from every angle so the shopper can determine its condition? Are interior photos included so the customer can both see the condition and confirm whether there is enough passenger and cargo capacity? Also, are you literally showing the car in its best light? For maximum impact, images should be taken from an area of your store that is well lit and free from visual distractions.

From there, you’ll want to be sure your contact information is accurate. Does the ad contain the correct address and phone number? Are emails being routed to the proper individuals or an employee who left your store six months ago? Perhaps I’m asking the obvious, but you’d be surprised at how many times we see fixes to this area alone resolve concerns we’ve heard dealers express about the quantity and quality of inquiries they receive.

What about your sell copy? When customers look at your listings, they want to read more about the vehicle than a repeat of the vehicle identification number decoder. Particularly with used vehicles, shoppers want to know what is unique or noteworthy about the vehicle. They also are looking for direction on why they should buy from your store.

To add some appeal to your seller’s notes, consider the following questions and include these details as appropriate.

  • Is it equipped with an aftermarket audio or suspension system?
  • Has the engine and/or transmission been rebuilt or modified for added performance?
  • Was the vehicle properly maintained? Do you have all of the service records?
  • Is it a one-owner car?
  • What is your business philosophy (e.g., “service after the sale” or “area’s largest selection”)? What kind of industry recognition has the store received; what is your community reputation?

Last, but certainly not least: Consider the quality of the ad itself. Carefully read the listing to be sure that grammar, punctuation and spelling are correct. Details matter to car buyers, and you can just as easily lose a sale for failing to present a professional image as you can for any other reason.

Is the Price Right?

There’s no denying that price plays an important part in any transaction, especially with a big-ticket item such as a car. What is critical to remember, though, is that car buyers are more concerned with paying a competitive price than with paying the lowest price or , of course, the highest price. In fact, the No. 1 priority for most consumers today is finding the right car; they understand the depreciation cost far exceeds the benefit of saving a few hundred dollars but purchasing the wrong vehicle.

The reason car buyers ask about price is that we’ve conditioned them to ask about price. In thinking about this question, put on your own consumer hat for a moment. When you ask a vendor whether you’re getting the best price on a product you’re considering, aren’t you really checking to be sure you’re getting a fair deal?

If your store’s prices are in line with the competition, say so. If your store’s prices are higher than the competition, explain why.

Whe
ther it’s a showroom sale or an internet sale, your ability to maintain gross reflects your confidence in the vehicle’s price, your ability to sell the value of buying that car from your store and your understanding of how and why your price truly is both competitive and the best.

Many dealers, for example, offer an extended warranty with used cars or include two years of free scheduled maintenance for new cars but fail to mention these programs in their ads. If you offer these incentives, be sure they’re included in everything the prospect sees and touches.

How do you determine where you are with your pricing? In the old days, we would have taken after-hours walks of our competitors’ lots — a chore eliminated by the internet. On automotive shopping sites such as Cars.com, you can easily learn how your pricing stacks up by searching your area for the vehicles you have in stock and ranking the results based on price. You also can access market-based reports that compare the price on your vehicle to the market average for that make/trim level combination.

Mystery Shop Your Store

Other businesses — restaurants and hotels, especially — frequently hire other companies to provide undercover shoppers who a buy a meal or an overnight stay, for example, and report on the experience. These findings are then sent to the management team with an eye toward customer satisfaction and ongoing improvement.

Even if your store doesn’t have money in the budget to work with an outside firm or isn’t open to this approach, you can mystery shop your store. Simply visit your dealership’s website or a third-party automotive shopping site it uses to advertise listings and submit an online request for information. Regardless of whether you work at a franchise or an independent dealership, this tactic is sure to provide a wealth of data.

  • How much time passed before you received a response?
  • What was the quality of the response? Did you receive an autoresponder acknowledging the request you sent or a personalized email that answered your questions and provided information on the store? Were the spelling, grammar and punctuation correct in the message? Did it enhance or undermine the dealership’s professional image?
  • What kind of follow-up attention did you receive? Did the salesperson include in the initial email a promise to call you — and then follow through? How many days passed before attempts to make contact with you stopped?

Keep asking yourself: If I were an in-market shopper receiving this email, or this series of emails, am I getting the information needed to make an informed buying decision? Would I want to buy this car from this dealership, or would I be inclined to give the competition a try? Very often, what we’re not doing to try to win the customer’s business costs us the sale.

Consider the Competition

What does your competition do or have that you don’t? You won’t know until you check.

Just as it’s no longer enough to advertise your listings on the internet, it’s no longer enough to do what everybody else is doing on the internet. As with your offline advertising, winning more than your fair share of deals hinges on how well you stand out from your competitors.

Points to consider include:

· Pictures. If your competitors show only one or a few images of each vehicle, you can show more. Sites such as Cars.com allow you to include up to 32 photos that help you merchandise the vehicle and demonstrate its condition and capabilities. It’s one thing to say the engine has low miles and another thing to include a picture that shows how pristine it is.

· Video. If a picture tells a thousand words, video tells the full story. Not only does video add visual interest to your ad, but it also allows you to include a voiceover to discuss the vehicle and highlight its special features. Many stores strengthen the impact of their videos by incorporating a brief segment at the beginning and ending of each clip to market the dealership and outline its business philosophy.

· Bridge the gap: Recognizing that the sales process begins online with internet advertising, some stores are looking to ease the transition from the web to the store. To do so, they’re including pictures of their managers, sales staff, service personnel and finance team as a point of introduction. Customers typically then feel more comfortable making contact with you to get the information they need and more at ease when they visit.

Revisit Your Website

Of course, no journey in the shopper’s shoes can be complete without a stop at your own store’s site. Once you’ve determined how you fare on automotive shopping sites, it’s time for a good look in the proverbial mirror. In addition to all the points outlined above, be sure to take your website for a full test drive that puts it through all of its paces. Don’t be shy about comparing it alongside the competition.

< p class="MsoNormal">Begin with the design itself. As with a dashboard in a vehicle, are the controls sensibly placed and intuitive to use? Do they work? A “Specials” link that leads you to an out-of-date, nonexistent or perpetually “under construction” page, for example, shapes buyers’ impression of your store and their interest in doing business with you.

In a similar vein, are your store’s address and phone numbers (e.g., sales, service and finance) easy to find — on each of your site’s pages — and current? Do you include maps and directions to your store? Are your business hours listed? If you feature your full inventory, are you including multiple photographs, video and descriptive sell copy with each listing? Is your inventory up to date? Can shoppers find your specials?

Dealers frequently tell us they generate their highest-quality leads from their websites. For stores looking to improve their performance, just being sure you’re getting the basics right on your own site can yield worthwhile results.

In the past few years alone, internet advertising has evolved from a nice-to-have to a must-have tactic that allows you to promote your store, merchandise your listings and connect with in-market shoppers on a 24/7 basis. As we’ve seen, capitalizing on this investment requires ongoing care, attention to detail and mindfulness of how well customers’ expectations for your online listings and store’s website match their experience. The rub is that most buyers will express their dissatisfaction not with a phone call or an email indicating the problem, but with a purchase from your competitor. Only by seeing what customers see — ideally before they would have seen it — can you be sure they see your store at its best.