Online advertising puts your inventory in front of in-market shoppers and allows you to begin the sales process before they contact you or visit your dealership. To help you win more deals, Cars.com focused its September DealerADvantage Live webinar on how to engage car buyers and work with them to win their business. Ralph Ebersole, Cars.com’s manager of automotive consulting, was joined in the discussion by: David Kain, of Kain Automotive, and Cory Mosley, of Mosley Training.

Listings Start the Conversation

The road to a sale begins with stocking the in-demand cars shoppers want and fully merchandising them. For market-based insight about your area, Ebersole recommended tools such as aax, Cars.com’s MyDealerCenter and FirstLook and vendor reports from your online advertising partners. Especially in a changing economy, you want to carry vehicles that turn quickly, hold gross and motivate both your employees and prospects.

“If they’re not turning at the proper pace, that inventory stagnates – salespeople walk around it, as do customers,” Kain said. “These tools do a really great job of making sure you bring in the right inventory that really wows the consumer.”

Once you have the appropriate retail mix, you’ll need buttoned-up processes around the following:

  • Pictures. In your virtual showroom, photos allow shoppers to take a virtual test drive. Customers can determine if they like the vehicle’s color and style, see its condition and gauge whether the car will meet their needs. Multiple pictures should be included with new and used listings, Ebersole said, noting video also is becoming popular to highlight unique features and provide a walk-around demonstration.

“Images and videos will drive higher-quality traffic to the dealership when they contact you on that particular vehicle,” he said.

  • Pricing. Price plays an important role in the purchase process, Ebersole said, so you need to include it with every listing. With today’s robust search tools allowing shoppers to view vehicles within a specified range, cars without a price may not appear in the results. Successful dealers, he added, understand that offering a competitive price neither means being the lowest nor giving away gross. Rather, they set their price relative to similarly equipped models in their market and look for opportunities (e.g., one-owner cars) to earn additional profit.

Price, the panelists agreed, typically becomes an issue for customers only when the vehicle’s value hasn’t been demonstrated. Address their concerns head-on, and you can eliminate a lot of back-and-forth negotiating.

“We’re finding with Cars.com listings and on third-party sites that the consumer’s No. 1 question is: Is the car still there?” Kain said. “Price is taken out of the equation, and you need to train yourself to not always be looking for that consumer to state, ‘What’s your best price?'”

  • Sell copy. Effectively written sell copy complements the photos and videos you include with your listings to give shoppers the complete picture. Kain recommended looking beyond the VIN decoder to describe what the vehicle will be like to own and operate, draw attention to key selling points (e.g., “one owner,” “non-smoker,” “local trade,” and “bought and serviced here) and promote the value of buying from your store. If you’ve personally checked out the car or driven it, say so.

“We’ve found that to be very effective, not only in ad copy but also in email communications and when you’re on the phone,” Kain said. “What it does is it builds that connectivity that you really are representing the needs of the buyer.”

Button Down Your Processes

To get your store in the running, the panelists said you’ll need buttoned-up processes around chat, email and the phone that position you as helpful and customer friendly. Anything less will cost you the deal.

“Once a customer flags you as irrelevant, you could offer them the deal of lifetime, and you still won’t win the business” Mosley said. “But it’s almost too little, too late in those instances.”

The panelists offered these guidelines for communicating with prospects:

  • Chat. Online chat connects you with a wide range of car buyers – from shoppers with a quick question about a listing (e.g., Do you still have it?) to prospects who aren’t ready to contact you through traditional channels. How well you follow their lead to provide the information they need while working to get the information you want – their name and contact information – lays the groundwork for an appointment and a sale.

“What we’re trying to stress is to get away from this urgency to convert a chat into a lead,” Kain said. “We’re encouraging people to convert a chat into a friend that will become a lead. It becomes much easier to bring them into the dealership when they’ve found someone they are acquainted with and feel great about.”

  • Email. While it sounds basic, the panelists stressed the importance of a quick, quality response that answers shoppers’ questions, introduces additional options that may be a good fit and lays out next steps. Most importantly, the email should prompt a conversation that engages buyers and invests them in working with you.

“We need to create interactivity in every email we send,” Kain said. “Always, always put a question in there so the customer’s not thinking, ‘I guess they don’t want me to interact yet, so I’ll wait until they make the next move.'”

  • The phone. To capitalize on what Kain described as the “golden lead – second only to the consumer driving up to the lot,” Ebersole recommended word tracks. When used with inbound and outbound callers, they help you stay in control of the conversation – whether answering questions, addressing objections or selling the appointment.

Follow the “Me-Plus-3” Rule

When responding to inquiries from internet shoppers, Mosley recommends a unique response that sets you apart from your competitors. If you’re unfamiliar with their tactics, he suggests mystery-shopping them to learn how they’re using chat, email and the phone.

“Whatever you’re doing, there are three other dealers who are taking that action,” Mosley said. “If you think it’s great that you left your name, store hours and when you’re off on the voicemail, the other people did that, too – and the customer won’t return every phone call. If you knew what everybody was doing elsewhere, you would take all that into consideration for how you made your pitch. Think about that every time, and make it actionable.”

Kain agreed: “If you aren’t shopping your competitors, then you really are flying blind. What it does is help you own up to the fact that the me-plus-three rule is alive and well. The fact of the matter is we really do need to differentiate ourselves – and it starts with the individual person.”

Once you’ve identified the staff members at your store who embrace this approach, the panelists said you need to fuel their success with the appropriate equipment and ongoing training.

“Quit throwing out people who aren’t really able to facilitate a good dialogue,” Kain said. “You need to make sure every person goes out there with the faculties and technology in place to succeed. I just want the right person meeting customers and giving them great, great service.”

Communicate for the Sale

While the car is the star, your performance during the initial contact often sets the stage for what happens next. How well you answer shoppers’ questions, build rapport, promote the store and follow up influences the buyer’s decision to work with you or move on to a competitor. To win more than your fair share of the deals in your market, Ebersole said you need to make the case for both buying from you and buying now.

“Cash for Clunkers renewed a lot of consumer interest and brought them back into market,” he said. “Now that it’s gone, we still have the opportunity with things like manufacturer incentives, store promotions, model-year closeouts and the federal sales tax deduction.”

Kain agreed. “We’ve got to remind them that every day we’ve got great opportunities for them.”