During the past year in DealerADvantage, we’ve discussed tips and techniques that help you gain a competitive edge and sell more cars by fully merchandising your inventory and building stronger sales teams. As we prepare to enter the new year, these strategies help to keep you on top of your game and desking more deals.

Make Process the Foundation of Your Online Program

In May, we looked at why process must be the foundation of your online program. For many dealerships, the idea of taking time out to put process in place and train employees to act upon it may seem daunting or time consuming, but the benefits of doing so are clear and proven time and again.

“Process is what sets great dealerships apart from good dealerships,” said Kathy Kimmel, Cars.com manager of dealer training and automotive consulting. “I’ve been in hundreds of dealerships all across the country, talked to countless general managers and ISMs, and I see one common thread: Those stores that have clearly defined processes and operations in place outperform those that do not.”

The chief benefits of a well-defined process are the ability to maximize leads, provide consistent customer service, hold vendors accountable and replicate results. There is a great likelihood that the next few weeks will be slow ones for sales as consumers kick back for the holidays, taking a “wait-and-see” attitude toward major spending. Use the time wisely to evaluate your processes and get your store ready to compete more effectively for the business that is there and take advantage of the pent-up demand when the spending thaw comes.

Recession-Proof Your Media Mix

The June issue was definitely prophetic in looking at how dealers can recession-proof their media mix. If you’ve been through an economic slowdown before, you know the routine: When the lot is missing what’s hot and full of what’s not, the showroom can get eerily quiet. It’s not surprising that when revenue significantly slows, the ax comes down on expenses. Those who have survived and even grown when sales are off, however, have learned a lot of good lessons – one of them being the importance of maintaining overall marketing spend so that you remain in shoppers’ consideration set when it’s time to buy.

Alex Vetter, senior vice president of sales at Cars.com concurs. “Now is not the time to cut ad budgets,” he said. “Instead, it’s the time to get really smart about how you are spending your dollars. Now is the perfect time to review planned spending and focus on media that deliver a measurable return on investment, while cutting those campaigns and outlets that don’t.”

When serious prospects are fewer and farther between, it’s important to go where the shoppers go. The numbers on Cars.com (e.g., the average shopper spends 30 minutes per month on the site and 80 percent of these shoppers purchase a vehicle within six months) haven’t changed despite the economic environment. Those are results you can bank on — and verify.

While it may be tempting to cut advertising budgets to obtain a short-term gain in the books, smart dealers instead will spend less on branding activities (e.g., broadcast advertising) so they can double down on high-yield ones, such as internet advertising. There is plenty of evidence that marketers who maintain spending during a downturn, and do so effectively, will emerge stronger than competitors who reduce spending.

Vetter said that there is evidence to support this in the internet departments that advertise on Cars.com. “While overall sales volume is down at many stores, sales within internet departments are up.”

Fully Merchandise New- and Used-car Listings for Sales Success

Under any economic conditions, it’s a proven fact that the better job you do merchandising new and used vehicles online, the more likely they are to sell. When the amount of inventory available greatly exceeds the number of prospects, effective merchandising becomes critical.

Using more and better photos is one. Pay attention to little details, such as shooting the main photo in a way that looks better on the page (e.g., a three-quarter view from the passenger side versus the driver’s side). Be sure to tell a story, too. Show what’s great or unique about a vehicle, and if there are flaws, show them as well. Shoppers hate surprises.

Leveraging the CARFAX One Owner program is another. If a used vehicle had only one owner, shoppers perceive that it’s probably been maintained better. It could mean listing the vehicle for $500 to $700 more than you would otherwise.

Be sure to merchandise specials as well online as you do in newspaper advertising. Many dealers will go to great lengths in print, yet ignore or shortchange their online special listings. A well-done online special, however, can help draw attention to your entire inventory and bring in more shoppers.

Finally, use video. Most dealers are onboard with photos, but few are taking advantage of the power of video to show off their inventory. Having a good video available helps you stand out from the crowd. Adding a little narration that describes the vehicle, its history and special features makes it even more attractive.

Ring Up Sales With a Phone Call

In September, the talk turned to hitting the phones to reply to email inquiries. While it may be tempting to hit the “reply” button, answer a few questions and then hit “send,” making the extra effort to reply on the phone can definitely pay off. Most of the time, shoppers appreciate the extra effort, and it gives you the opportunity to establish a relationship you wouldn’t get via email.

One tip for making the call count is to have your inventory up onscreen when you call customers so you can see what they see. Another is to be sure you listen carefully. Many customers will tell you how they want to be sold if you’ll listen for the cues.

Opening your inventory, of course, is always important. If all you have handy is the original vehicle the buyer identified, the decision becomes yes or no. Opening your inventory allows you to provide alternatives that help keep the dialog going and shows you’re looking out for them.

Selling the value of the store is effective as well. Letting the prospect know about your convenient location, your commitment to customer satisfactory or the free Wi-Fi access in the waiting area can be an advantage.

When speaking with the car buyer on the phone, remember the strategic hold. At the appropriate time, excuse yourself for a minute to retrieve information the shopper needs: Ask for a callback number in case you get disconnected. This tactic is an effective way to engage the customer and capture information you’ll need to follow up later.

While you’re talking, remember to ask for the appointment. It sounds simple, but in the process of answering questions, it can be easy to overlook this important step. Finally, if a customer asks for a price, give it. Internet shoppers are wary of anything that smacks of playing games, so you have to build their trust.

Drives Sales With a Quality Response

Many dealers assume that the first responder to an internet query wins, but that’s not always the case. While a quick response is important, the October issue explained why it’s really a quality response that drives sales.

For example, a quick response that has typos and grammatical errors or is just not very well worded likely will turn off a prospect. A well-crafted email shows car buyers that you are a professional who values their business and wants to help them make an informed decision. Personalization, where possible, definitely helps – especially when the competition is using generic auto-responders. Be sure to ask questions that help you open your inventory and learn more about what the customer really wants.

Responding to an online inquiry with a phone call gives you the opportunity to establish a more personal relationship if you do it right. 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 provide accurate information.

A quality response has to carry over to the showroom as well. Many more customers research vehicles online than the ones who send an email or make a call about the car. Walk them through the normal showroom steps and make the experience a pleasant one instead of the stereotype they may be expecting.

No matter what the initial point of contact may be, use the leverage of 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.

Bring It All Together

With a new sales year just around the corner, take time in the next few weeks to re-energize your internet sales efforts and refocus your program on proven online marketing techniques. Adopting the resolutions we’ve discussed should help you to set priorities and chart your progress, which is sure to be rewarded with more traffic and additional sales. Particularly as your competitors relax during the holiday season slowdown, your initiative reflects well on your store and will generate momentum well into the new year.

Additional Resources

Looking for additional tips you can implement in your store today to drive more traffic with your online advertising and desk more deals with your internet sales processes? Check out Cars.com’s DealerCenter. Here, you can read previous editions of our DealerADvantage newsletter or listen to archived recordings of our DealerADvantage LIVE webinar series.