With dealers increasingly relying on internet business to drive their stores’ success, the pressure is on internet sales managers (ISM) to deliver results. In this environment, new ISMs find they must hit the ground running to put effective processes in place and earn credibility with both the management team and their colleagues on the floor. In this month’s DealerADvantage LIVE webinar, we spoke with a pair of internet managers about how they built on their prior success in the showroom to produce in this new role and what they do to get the customer in the door. And, yes, they do recommend the job to others. “For the right person, it’s a great opportunity,” said panelist Rick Carlson, the internet manager for Patrick BMW in Schaumburg, Ill. “It’s a tough job that’s very rewarding. You should be the top salesperson at your store when you’re successful at it.”

Joining Carlson for the session were Michael Johnson, internet director for Billion Automotive Group in Sioux Falls, S.D., and Fred Haney, a Cars.com training manager. At their stores, Carlson and Johnson oversee different aspects of the internet sales process. Carlson acts as a one-person business-development center, responding to inquiries and then working with prospects to set an appointment before turning them over to the sales staff. By contrast, Johnson manages a team of ISMs that works with online shoppers from the first point of contact to the point of purchase.

In a wide-ranging conversation, Carlson, a 14-year veteran, and Johnson, a seven-year veteran, shared with Haney how they began their career in online sales and the strategies they used to make the transition a successful one. Here’s a look at the highlights of the discussion.

First Things First: Process

“The very first thing they should do is come up with a process that they feel good about and stick to it,” Johnson said. “You’re just starting out, so you’ve got to know what works for you.”

This process should establish procedures and timelines for every aspect of an internet inquiry, from the initial response to email and telephone follow-up for the next 30, 60 and 90 days and, if the prospect hasn’t purchased, using automated systems (e.g., email and enewsletters) to stay in touch. Beyond the vehicle itself, each message to the shopper should sell the value of buying from your store and encourage the customer to contact you for more information.

Persistence Pays: Follow Up Until They Buy or Die

Said Johnson: “A lot of the leads we close, the customer emailed us three weeks ago. If we didn’t keep the process in place — if we didn’t stay in front of them and create that doubt that they want to see us before they buy — we wouldn’t get them.”

Carlson agreed, noting the payoff to his sales efforts can be longer in the making, though no less rewarding. “Two years down the line, I’ll have people call me and say: ‘Hey, I just saw this (car in your enewsletter). I want to come in and get it.’ It works.”

Customer Rapport

Equally important to process and persistence, Carlson and Johnson said, is the ISM’s ability to connect with prospects by touching on their “hot buttons” in phone/email communication and committing themselves to serve as their advocate at the store. They said this approach not only helps the ISM get the shopper in the door, but it also minimizes the risk that he or she will be skated.

Describing the email autoresponder he developed, Johnson said he begins by thanking the customer for the inquiry before outlining what to expect from his dealership. “A customer knows that we will be calling and we will be emailing — and that we’re looking for a response. ‘If you don’t find that we’ve lived up to your expectations, then I want to know about it.’ They have my personal phone number and email address. They know that I’m not a sales guy; I’m just someone who wants to be sure they’re taken care of. That’s worked very, very well.”

Also effective, Carlson and Johnson agreed, is reaching customers as soon as possible by telephone to ensure they’re receiving the information you’ve sent via email. At this stage in the process, resist the temptation to sell the car unless the shoppers indicate they’re ready to move forward.

“People are so impressed. ‘I just sent you an email, and I can’t believe you called so quickly.’ These are the people — the first person that talks to them, that’s the person they remember,” Carlson said.

Added Johnson: “The first person who talks to them is the one who wins. That’s usually how it goes down.”

Communication Counts

Another key ingredient to succeeding as an ISM is maintaining excellent working relationships with the management team. Our dealers recommend meeting weekly with your managers so you can keep them up to date on the traffic you’re driving and the cars you’re selling. You’ll also want to coordinate with them on the promotions they’re offering to ensure your online programs are in sync.

“You’ve got to have 100 percent management onboard in order to be successful in this position. If not, you’re just running into the wall, and it’s very frustrating,” Carlson said. He recalled how he made an initial good impression with his managers when “they saw my work habits. Hard work paid off. They saw I was serious. They saw I wanted to make it work.”

ISMs: Master Your Domain

Said Johnson: “You have to look at being an ISM as being more than just a salesperson. When you’re a lot guy, you have the advantage of that customer walking on to the lot and wanting to kick some tires and take a test drive. When you’re an internet guy, it’s your job to create that interest. When you’re a lot guy, you think, “Hey, boss. You’re not getting me enough leads and walk-in traffic. What’s the deal?” When you’re the internet guy, there are the phone calls, and there are the leads. Now you have to be smart enough to figure out how to turn them into a walk-in customer so you can actually sell them a vehicle. You have to have marketing in mind; what email campaign am I going to send out that’s going to raise some hands that I can start working on and accomplish this task?”

Ongoing Challenge: Find the Right People

What are the makings of a successful ISM? The dealers told us that they’ve found no surefire way to identify, from a resume or an interview, the people who will succeed as an ISM or internet salesperson. While follow-up skills, a commitment to work hard and the ability to build rapport with a customer you can’t see are essential, they said it’s difficult to know whether candidates will be a good fit for the job until you see them doing it. “There is no mold,” Carlson said.

“That’s where most dealers fail,” Johnson said. “They think that if their No. 1 salesperson can’t do it, then we can’t do it, so that’s why they give up on the internet.”

Develop Good Work Habits

“Come into work knowing you’ve got calls to make,” Carlson said. “Have a good web process. Have a good follow-up process. I’ve got steps I do everyday for each lead. You’ve got to be organized and stick to it.” He added: “There’s never any downtime for an internet manager. You’ve got to come to work and know you’re going to work eight hours, 10 hours, whatever your schedule is.”

Continuing Education: Keep Learning

Both Carlson and Johnson said they continuously evaluate their processes, looking for areas they can refine to drive better customer response. Each has increased the number of photographs he includes with his online listings, for example, and each gives more attention to the quality of his seller’s notes. Carlson said he looks for new ideas by reading trade publications and attending industry seminars. Johnson said he’s now looking at how to rework the email autoresponder his ISMs use to encourage prospects to pick up the phone first and call them for more information.

“You always have to keep an open mind,” he advised. “We’ve had some good success, and we’re doing well, but you can’t look at it as ‘I’ve arrived.’ There’s always something better around the corner, and there’s always a better way to do it.” Johnson added: “We’ve had follow-up processes that really weren’t that great, and we changed them. We moved on to different things.”

ISM, Know Thy Competition

Car buyers tell us they use the internet to identify dealers who not only have the vehicle they want but who will also treat them professionally and offer the car at a fair price. So they know how they fare in the comparison, Carlson and Johnson said they regularly check up on their counterparts.

“I get to see who’s on the ball, who is our main competition,” Carlson said. “I know what dealers in my area are just shooting out a price—they don’t even care if they get to talk to a person. I know the price issue, so I know what I’m up against. Then I know what we’ve got to do.”

The Secret to Success: There’s No Secret

Said Carlson: “When you come into the department, assess what you’re working with. Look at your lead management tool. Look at your website. Get yourself situated and set up a procedure. Just go to work and find out what works. Keep track of what you’re doing. You’ve just got to get in there and get yourself established and show people that you’re there to do it. If you have a good follow-up procedure, it’s going to work. There is no secret to success: It’s hard work. You’ve got to have sales skills, social skills and phone skills, but it all comes down to hard work in the end.”

Additional Resources

Each month, Cars.com produces the DealerADvantage enewsletter and DealerADvantage LIVE webinar to provide you with the latest tips and techniques that can help you drive more traffic to your store and sell more cars. Topics cover every aspect of online advertising and the internet sales process. DealerADvantage and DealerADvantage LIVE are free, so be sure to subscribe or register today.