When working with online prospects, you understand the importance of promptly responding to their inquiries. Studies show that car buyers use the internet to save time while researching vehicles they’re considering and often award the sale to the first dealer to contact them. Missing from that scenario, of course, are the dealers who forget that speed can kill. In the race to be first, they fail to answer the shopper’s questions or to provide compelling reasons to buy from them. Let’s look at how you can leverage the tools in your arsenal to work with internet car buyers, whether on the phone, via email or in your dealership, to win more than your fair share of the business. Remember, if you can’t be first, be the best.

Why a Quick Response Matters

While shoppers typically contact you several weeks in advance of when they plan to purchase, they want to have the information in hand so they can buy when they’re ready. One recent study found, for example, that 20 percent of shoppers will look someplace else if they don’t receive a response within 4 hours[1]. Why is this a problem? Car buyers report waiting, on average, 5.4 hours[2].

By quickly reaching out to customers, you indicate your interest in helping them find the right car and create an opportunity to build rapport. In many cases, the shopper is still online and will be open to discussing the vehicle.

Why a Quality Response Matters

The majority of car buyers today go online to conduct their research, with an increasing percentage visiting only one dealership before making a purchase[3]. To remain in their consideration set, you must create a professional image of you and your store and answer their questions so they feel like you value their business and want to help them make an informed decision. Among used-car buyers, 67 percent said the internet influenced their decision on what make/model to buy; 53 percent on where they bought.[4] By delivering a quality response that addresses the shopper’s priorities, you set your store apart from the competition and eliminate the need for prospects to look elsewhere. You also create a basis for ongoing conversation so that the customer feels he or she needs to work with you to get the best deal and vehicle selection.

Deliver a Quality Email Experience

As with any written communication, be sure to check your email for spelling and grammatical errors before you hit the “Send” button. After investing the time to answer shoppers’ questions and provide information about the cars they’re considering, you don’t want to undermine your efforts with typos that cast you in a poor light. Similarly, resist the temptation to draw attention to certain messages within your email by using all capital letters, bold type and multiple exclamation points. Many people equate this with shouting.

Personalize the message wherever possible – especially if your store uses templates – so that car buyers know they’re receiving information specific to their request. Just as you would qualify a customer on the telephone by asking, “Is this the specific car you want, or are you open to nicest car like it?” offer one or two options that could help the customer save money. In the case of a new-car request, include information on a similar, late-model certified used and a similar, late-model used alternative.

Ask questions: Are you open to other color choices if they could save you money? If you have a trade-in, what do you like about this vehicle that you want to have in your next? These questions help your email simulate an actual conversation and give the customer a reason to stay in communication with you.

Note: If it’s impractical for you to turn off your autoresponder when you’re at your desk – and back on while you’re away – consider crafting specific messages that prospects receive during normal business hours and after. The automated reply should tell customers why they’re receiving an autoresponse and indicate when they can expect to hear from you personally. Also be sure to include your contact information and store details, including the address, website and business hours, so that car buyers can take the initiative in following up with you.

Deliver a Quality Phone Experience

As with email, how you manage the call can make or break your ability to win the deal. In talking with customers on the phone, begin the conversation by introducing yourself and asking how you can help. Be courteous, just as you would if the customer were in your store, and personalize your comments so that, even if you rely on scripts or word tracks, the conversation does not feel canned. Directly answer shoppers’ questions and take care to provide accurate information. Look for opportunities to promote your store and to continue the qualification process. The intent is to open your inventory so you can offer options they may not have otherwise considered – choices that can keep car buyers from going to your competitors should they determine the initial vehicle is not a good fit.

Here are some tips specific to inbound and outbound calls you also may want to consider.

  • Inbound calls. Create a favorable impression of your dealership by promptly answering the phone. So that you can quickly provide information on your inventory, be sure to have your listings already open on your computer. This tactic allows you to quickly toggle between your store’s website and third-party shopping sites based on which one the shopper is using.
  • Outbound calls. Coordinate your outreach activities so that you begin calling prospects within a few minutes of sending your initial email response. Rather than a sales call, treat it as a service call. Your goal is to verify that customers received your email and know you are ready to provide the requested information and deliver top-notch care. Absent clear signals from car buyers, resist the temptation to sell the vehicle. Focus instead on answering their questions and look for opportunities to learn more about they want in their next vehicle. If you believe you have a solid fit, work toward setting an appointment.

Deliver a Quality Showroom Experience

Remember, not every online shopper will contact you through a phone call or an email. A significant percentage of car buyers prefer to learn more about the vehicle they’re considering by visiting your store. Chances are you may not be able to differentiate these prospects from someone who truly was “just driving passed,” so be prepared to make a good first impression.

In greeting showroom customers and welcoming them to your store, be sure to follow a process centered on the traditional steps to a sale:

  • Conduct a needs analysis. Understanding shoppers’ wants, needs and budgets provides you with the clearest path to connecting them with a vehicle at your store. Ask prospects to share with you what they like about their current vehicle and the features they’re most looking for in the next one.
  • Introduce the sales manager. Making this introduction helps you land the sale in two ways. Not only do you create a resource that you can leverage later should the prospect stop responding to follow-up emails and phone calls, but you give the shopper an additional point of contact at your dealership. Should you be unavailable, the person can reach out to the sales manager – rather than a competitor – for additional information.
  • Tell the brand value story. In visiting your store, car buyers are looking for guidance on both what and where to make their purchase. Beyond telling them about the attributes of the vehicle they’re considering, share information about your store in the context of how doing business with you helps them. The area’s largest inventory, for example, indicates that you likely have in stock the vehicle they want; a state-of-the-art service facility gives them confidence that maintenance will be reliably performed.
  • Identify the right vehicle. Taking into account the shopper’s criteria, assemble a list of vehicles available at your store.
  • Present the vehicle. Rather than simply say, “Here it is,” give the shopper a quick introduction to the car. Include, for example, the model year and name, manufacturer and a rundown of the vehicle’s features.
  • Begin the trial close. After the demonstration, ask shoppers if the vehicle meets their needs. If so, edge them closer to a purchase by asking if the car is one they’d consider buying.  
  • Complete the trade appraisal. Once shoppers indicate they’re interested in a vehicle you’ve demonstrated, suggest that your used-car manager provide a professional trade appraisal of their current vehicle.
  • Ask for the sale. With the appraisal of the trade-in completed, assure customers you’ve offered them a fair value for their vehicle and ask them if they’re ready to buy. Allowing them to leave with the estimate without asking for the sale essentially gives them a license to shop you at your competitors.
  • Introduce the F&I manager. After customers decide to move forward with a purchase, take them to the finance and insurance department to seal the deal.
  • Deliver the vehicle and introduce the service manager. Once the sale is completed, position your store to earn additional accessories, part and service revenue. The more time the buyer spends in your store following this purchase, the more likely he or she is to buy from you in the future. These regular visits keep the customer current with your inventory and any special promotions you’re offering that make

Continue to Work for the Sale

Regardless of whether your initial point of contact with car buyers occurs in the dealership or via email or the telephone, leverage a lead management system to ensure you work with prospects throughout their purchase process. While some customers will buy today, many require 30, 60, 90 days – or more – to make a decision. Sixty percent of Cars.com shoppers who contact a dealer via email or the telephone, for example, will leave the store with a new or used vehicle – among them, 70 percent within 90 days and 30 percent after 90 days.[5]

A lead management system helps you to win more of these deals by notifying you when an electronic lead (i.e., email or third-party purchase) arrives your store and tracking how you manage all of your inquiries (i.e., walk-in traffic, emails and phone calls). These systems help you to follow your store’s sales processes and make a good impression on car buyers by quickly and consistently responding to car buyers and assisting them in making an informed purchase. With forty-seven percent of dealers saying the don’t use a lead management system[6], implementing one in your store can provide you with a competitive advantage translates into greater customer satisfaction and increased sales.

Additional Resources

Cars.com automotive consultant and dealer training director Ralph Ebersole discusses the importance of delivering a quick, quality response to online car buyers in a recent DealerADvantage Live webinar.


[1] Capgemini: Cars Online 06/07: Understanding the Dynamics of Consumer Buying Behavior and Customer Loyalty

[2] 2007 Cobalt National eMystery Shop

[3] Automotive Retailer Today – Image 2006 Shoppers & Non-Shoppers Survey Results, September 2006

[4] J.D. Power and Associates 2007 Used Autoshopper.com Study

[5] Cars.com, Experian Automotive Analysis, 2007

[6] J.D. Power and Associates Dealer Satisfaction With Online Buying Services, August 2008