You constantly hear about internet programs that are driving 30 percent of dealership sales. Your office is inundated with a line of media vendors who are quick to show you the value of the online traffic they can deliver, but you’re simply not seeing the results in your store. You’ve analyzed the numbers, and your online services drove only a few sales last month. Before you throw in the towel on internet sales and marketing, it’s time to identify the root cause of the problem and ask yourself if your internet operation is in need of a tuneup. Read more to find out what may be derailing your results.

As an automotive consultant and trainer with Cars.com, Ralph Ebersole works with hundreds of dealerships to help get their internet operations on track. “I’m in stores each week where they bring me in to address a performance issue, and I also frequently hear from attendees in my local market workshops that they are not getting the results they had hoped to see from their internet program,” Ebersole said.
“Many stores that are not closing internet traffic are quick to blame their online service providers or to cast stones at online shoppers,” Ebersole said. And while he agrees it is essential to have quality vendors that drive in-market traffic, he finds the root causes of most performance issues generally go beyond the online media plan. “Occasionally I see a store where they are not getting the volume or quality of traffic they need from their online providers to have success,” he said. “But in most cases, after I delve into the store’s process for driving, managing and measuring leads, I find under-delivery issues most often stem from obstacles within the store – inadequate measurement, poor merchandising, lack of process or poor staff performance.

“If a dealership is struggling to close online sales, I encourage the management team and internet staff to first evaluate these areas to figure out what’s broken. Once they have a better understanding of contributing factors, they can put an action plan in place to fix the problem,” Ebersole said. “If a store is struggling to perform in any of these areas, simply shifting dollars in the media plan or cutting a lead source won’t drive better results.”
If you think you should be closing more internet deals than you are, Ebersole suggests you consider the following:

1. Is Your Online Measurement Inadequate?

“The first question I always ask a struggling store is ‘How do you measure internet sales?’ Often times, there isn’t really a performance issue after all. What had been viewed as a matter of under-delivery simply turns out to be the result of an inadequate measurement system or a poor sourcing strategy.” Ebersole offers these tips to ensure you properly source the sale: 

  • Make sure your online ads drive phone calls to a trackable number: Internet shoppers, particularly on used cars, are more likely to pick up the phone than they are to send you an email, so make sure you are using unique toll-free numbers in your internet ads to source the sale. You’ll also want to be sure the phone is ringing to the right place in the dealership.
  • Don’t underestimate the value of walk-in traffic: According to industry studies, 80 percent of car buyers go online during the shopping process, but only a relatively small percentage of them contact you by phone or email. While the ones who reach out to you in these easy-to-track ways are easier to source, an important question remains: What happened to the others? They didn’t drop out of the market; rather, they’re just more difficult to track. While they’re difficult to track, there are tools that can help you understand what’s actually happening with your online advertising. Using OnlineAdReports from Cars.com, for example, you can determine the number of consumers who requested directions to the dealership or who printed the vehicle listing. Using this information, many of our dealers have identified 35 percent to 40 percent of their walk-in shoppers as internet customers.
  • Know when and how to source the sale: Another important component to consider is how and when you ask customers to indicate what advertising influenced their decision to visit your dealership. Because of how the question is most often presented – “What brought you in today?” – the answer is often vague and usually not very helpful. Properly crafted and consistently asked, though, the question allows you to determine where you’re getting the best bang for your advertising buck. Ebersole believes it should be included as part of the F&I process and suggests you phrase the question as: “In your shopping and buying process, how did you use the following:
    • Internet: Which websites did you visit?
    • Newspaper: Which papers do you read and on what days? What sections do you read most?
    • Radio: To what stations do you listen and at what times?

2. Can your ads stand out online and compete with other listings?
“Online, your closest competitor is only a quarter-inch away. To engage online shoppers and drive traffic to your listings, it’s essential to take online merchandising seriously,” Ebersole said. “It’s eye-opening for some stores to realize that their low lead volume often correlates to a lack of photos or overpriced inventory, but you have to remember that with millions of cars at shoppers’ fingertips, the details really do matter. Take advantage of every merchandising tool at your disposal to drive strong results.” Ebersole stresses the value of taking time and care with each and every one of your listings, just as you would have with newspaper liners. The following are considered must-haves to drive interest in your vehicles among online shoppers.

  • Price your vehicles competitively: While you don’t need to offer the lowest price, you do want to take into account local market conditions and price accordingly. If you are the highest-priced vehicle in your market, offer shoppers an explanation as to why by calling out unique features that justify the car’s premium.
  • Showcase multiple photos: Online, pictures truly are worth a thousand words, and the more the better. If an ad does not feature a photo of the vehicle, many buyers will simply move on to the next listing. Ebersole recommends using multiple high-quality photos of the car from every angle to give buyers the complete picture.
  • Differentiate the vehicle and your store through sell copy: While the VIN exploder will help populate your online listings, the original sell copy you add to your listings is what will set your cars and your store apart. Use this copy to build credibility for the vehicle by noting its history as a one-owner vehicle, for example, or its pristine maintenance history. Call out special features like dealer-added accessories. It’s also important to tell buyers why they should do business with your store.

3. Do you have an effective internet sales process in place?
How you manage internet leads and follow up with online shoppers from the inquiry to the close will be one of the greatest determining factors in the success of your online sales program. Without a proved and repeatable online sales process, you are leaving success to chance.
“The internet sales process should define how your sales organization generates prospects and outline how you work with shoppers across the buying cycle. It includes training people to follow the process and holding them accountable. Most importantly,” Ebersole said, “it requires constant oversight and involvement from top management to ensure consistency and ongoing improvement.”
While there are countless details that combine for a strong process, Ebersole advises stores to first look at the following when evaluating their program.
Response times: Online shoppers demand a quick response and view the time it takes your store to follow up as a sign of how they’ll be treated as a customer. “Ideally, we recommend that stores ‘click and call in 10,’ responding via email and following up with the customer by phone within 10 minutes of receiving the inquiry. We know that works,” Ebersole said. He recognizes that may not be a realistic option for all stores, but he cautions those whose response times are averaging longer than an hour. “If you’re not seeing the sales and your response time is weak, there is likely a connection between the two.”

  • Response quality: “It’s not just a matter of acting fast, you must also provide shoppers with a quality, meaningful response,” Ebersole said. “Be sure to directly answer shoppers’ questions, offer options and alternatives, sell them the value of your store and give them a reason to come in for a test drive.”
  • Follow-through: Ebersole recommends that you work each lead until the shopper dies or buys: “Some stores continue to follow up on leads over months; some give up in a week or two,” Ebersole said. “If you want to make the sale, stick with shoppers until they purchase or ask you to stop contacting them.”

4. Is your staff performing?
Once you’ve identified whether or not you have the right process, it’s also important to see if you have the right people and whether or not they are consistently following your store’s process. “Your staff can make or break your online success,” Ebersole said. “I often see cases where the person handling internet inquiries does not have the necessary phone skills or sales skills to drive appointments and close deals.”
When evaluating staff, Ebersole recommends that you look beyond close rates and that you monitor the following:

  • Call quality
  • Number of appointments set
  • Number of appointments kept
  • Number of sales

“Assuming your measurement systems are intact and that you are posting high-quality ads, these metrics will give you a solid understanding of staff performance.”
By looking at each of these areas when sales falter, you’ll gain an objective snapshot of the processes that are working and will often discover what’s not, allowing you to create a roadmap to improve in areas that fall short. This approach helps you to avoid the initial temptation to cut vendors without first identifying which providers deliver results and examining other contributing factors. Absent this analysis, you may do more harm than good if you inadvertently eliminate a good source of traffic but overlook the internal obstacles to success.