If you advertise your vehicles on online automotive shopping sites such as Cars.com, chances are you understand the importance of ensuring your listings are accurate, fully merchandised and up to date. But how do you manage that process? While many stores choose to go it alone, others prefer to keep their staff focused on selling and turn tasks such as photographing the vehicles and updating inventory over to an outside company. Given the importance of these functions to your online success, there is a lot to consider before turning over the keys to a third party. Read more to find out what you need to know when choosing an inventory management or photography partner for your dealership.
Online advertising destinations such as Cars.com offer free online tools that allow you to manage every aspect of your listings, but using them takes both time and effort. Working with a third-party photo, data and inventory management service provider automates most of the required steps and frees you to focus on other priorities. For example, you can give more attention to writing sell copy that captures what is unique about each of your cars and promotes the value of buying from your store. You also will be available to respond promptly to customer inquiries and aggressively follow up with prospects.
But how do you know when to turn to outside for help, and how do you then choose the right partner to handle these services for your dealership? To offer you practical advice, we recently spoke with representatives from two leading vendors: Glen Garvin, general manager of Dealer Specialties, and Mo Radji, senior business development consultant at CDMData.
“What we’re basically going to provide the dealership with is the heavy lifting in terms of helping their customers understand what their inventory currently is, what’s in those cars and what those cars look like,” Radji said. “Maintaining accurate inventory is incredibly important as more customers use the internet as an ultimate decision-making medium to connect with dealerships. When the process becomes too much to handle, it makes sense to bring in a service company.”
Once you decide to bring in a partner, both Garvin and Radji suggest that you interview prospective providers with a series of questions:
- How consistent are you and your staff?
- When will you be at my store?
- What is your process that is going to produce my desired results?
- Who are your references?
When the answers align with your objectives, they said, chances are you’ve found the right match.
While some stores may require daily visits to keep pace with their business, Garvin said that most stores ask for two visits per week. Tuesday and Friday, Radji said, are the days most often requested by dealers. “Fridays because you want to get your cars ready for the weekend; Tuesdays because you probably got a lot of fresh inventory from the weekend.”
How much of the process the company takes on, though, varies by dealership. Leading providers typically offer a range of options:
- Full-service model: The vendor takes the photographs of the vehicles and provides the software that integrates your dealer management system (DMS) with your automotive shopping site(s). Once you’ve entered the sell copy for a vehicle, the listing is automatically uploaded to the listing service. When you indicate in your DMS that the car is sold, it’s removed.
- In-house model: The vendor provides the software that integrates your DMS with your automotive shopping site(s). You can then use your digital camera or one supplied by the company to photograph your listings, add sell copy and upload the data to your automotive shopping site(s). As with the full-service model, the car is removed from third-party sites when it is marked as sold in your DMS.
- Hybrid model: Similar to the full-service model, this arrangement gives you the added flexibility of being able to add new listings between visits by your representative.
Perhaps the most tangible service companies such as CDMData and Dealer Specialties provide is taking the pictures for your listings. Both Garvin and Radji recommend you include a minimum of nine photos with each used car and several pictures with your new-car inventory. They also suggest you:
- Stage vehicles, if practical, so you can present them in their best light, away from other cars.
- Photograph each car from the same initial angle, giving your listings a visual consistency that appeals to shoppers.
“It might be the most important thing a customer’s thinking about,” Radji said. “When shoppers go online, they have an idea in their head of what they want that car to look like. It’s up to the dealer and the provider to provide as accurate a visual description of that car as possible.”
These core pictures should simulate the walk-around process a customer would follow at your dealership: A front left and right three-quarter angle; a rear left and right three-quarter angle; head-on photos of the car’s front and rear; two interior shots; and a picture of the odometer. If you’re working with a shopping site such as Cars.com that allows you to include up to 32 pictures, Garvin and Radji suggest that you also highlight unique and interesting features.
“Bring back the emotion,” Garvin said. “The more emotion you can bring back into the process, the more likely you are to get people excited about the vehicle and earn a higher gross.”
Some service providers suggest you include your store’s phone number and website address as a “digital stamp” on each picture, a practice that Garvin and Radji do not endorse. They instead recommend using your store’s logo because it will build and reinforce your brand without creating confusion for your customers or affecting your ability to track traffic. For example, shopping sites such as Cars.com include a free toll-free phone number with your advertising package. If you use your store’s direct phone number or the toll-free number provided by another shopping site in your digital stamp, you cannot identify which advertising source (e.g., your website, the telephone book or the third-party site) connected you with the prospect. Also, customers may not know which number to dial – the one in your ad or the one embedded in the picture – and simply move on to the next listing. Similarly, many listings sites feature a direct link to your store’s website within the listing. If you add your URL to your vehicle, you lose the ability to identify which company delivers results and the highest return on investment.
Remember to Do Your Part
To create a connection between shoppers and the cars they’re considering, be sure to write compelling sell copy for each listing. These seller’s notes should look beyond the information provided by the vehicle identification number decoder to highlight the car’s condition and special features. Phrases to include range from “one owner” to “nonsmoker,” “upgraded sound system,” “bought and serviced here” and “vehicle inspected by our ASE-certified technicians.” Chances are that you or someone at your store knows this car better than anyone else, so investing the time to personalize your listings will help you to minimize days to turn and maximize your gross.
No Contract Required
Many of the leading photo, data and inventory management service providers do not require their customers to sign a long-term agreement. In fact, Garvin and Radji said both of their companies operate on a month-to-month basis.
“We’re as good as our last day,” Garvin said. “It’s the same with your salespeople: We’ve got to be delivering for you every day.”
Although a contract may not be necessary, Garvin recommends working only with a vendor that employs people with clean driving records and maintains the proper insurance. You want to be sure you are protected, he said, in the event of an accident while vehicles are being moved to be photographed.
The Final Analysis
In selecting a vendor, you want to choose one that can both meet your current needs and anticipate future trends in the industry. Video demonstrations, for example, are increasingly utilized with online listings because they allow you to merchandise both your store and the vehicle itself. A service provider taking a consultative business approach will bring these new techniques to your attention.
“You want a provider that’s going to be able to help you connect the dots so you can be more successful,” Garvin said, “It’s one thing just to show up to take photos and collect data – and that’s an important thing to get right – but beyond that, what are they bringing to the table?”
Get the Most Out of Your Relationship
To get your program off on the right foot and ensure results, Dennis Galbraith, vice president of dealer products and operations at Cars.com, recommends that you hold your service provider accountable across four metrics that will drive your online success.
- Accuracy: Are the correct pictures and sell copy being used with each of your listings? Are new vehicles promptly added to your third-party site(s) and are sold vehicles promptly removed?
- Completeness: Do your listings include all the information needed to win the sale? Gaps in your merchandising are more likely to send customers to your competitors rather than to your store to get the missing information.
- Freshness: The pictures in your listings may need to be updated, particularly as a vehicle ages. A picture of a car with snow in the background is OK in February but works against you in August.
- Quality: Are the pictures that appear with your listings good, crisp photos? If you want to create an emotional connection between the prospect and the car, be sure to use high-quality pictures that emphasize its special features.
Galbraith also suggests that someone at your store be assigned to monitor your vendor and provide regular reports on the provider’s performance. “Keep a close eye early on in the relationship,” he said. “Show the company what is expected and what is not acceptable. Set the stage. Get started on the right foot.
“You get what you pay for,” Galbraith said, “if you insist on it.”