If there is a secret to sales success on the internet, it is having a defined and integrated internet sales process. Relying on an “all-star” ISM may produce results, but what happens to your program when that person is promoted or leaves for another job? Only by putting in place documented procedures can you ensure the long-term success of your operations. Let’s take a look at the four pillars comprising the foundation on which a profitable internet department should be built, and some of the specific procedures for each you’ll want to consider.

“While successful programs contain many of the same ingredients, dealers must find the right mix of tactics that work with their culture, customers and sales teams,” said Kathy Kimmel, Cars.com manager of automotive consulting and dealer training. “There are four key areas that every dealership should have a process in place for when it comes to driving online success: staffing, merchandising, and lead handling and measurement.”

Well-defined processes in each of these areas are the foundation of a strong internet sales operation, but how do you put that process in place? Kimmel offers advice on what dealerships should consider in each of these fundamental process pillars:

Pillar 1: Structure and Staffing

Because of the foundational role it plays, this area is the first one you should address. “Your structure and staffing model sets the stage for almost every other internet process and creates the environment in which you will interact with customers,” Kimmel said. Absent this context, achieving consistent performance will be difficult, if not impossible, for your internet team. She recommends the following:

  • Organize. The contribution your internet operation makes to your store hinges, to a large extent, on the framework you implement based on your store’s size, resources and culture. Strong consideration should be placed on where this department is placed and how it is managed with respect to the dealership sales organization. Options range from deploying a business development center — whether operated on your premises or on your behalf by a third party — to creating a dedicated internet department or hiring an internet sales manager who doles out leads to your existing floor sales staff. Stores also find success by fashioning a hybrid model from the specific components of each that work best for their specific situation. Once you’ve determined a structure, use an organizational chart to clearly communicate structure and the reporting model at your store.
  • Define roles and responsibilities. To ensure your internet team’s success, the team and individual members must understand what is expected of them. Be specific, describing the nature of the work to be done and the education and training required to succeed in the role. You’ll also want to agree to salary, ensure everyone understands the pay plan and outline both opportunities for advancement and what is necessary to take advantage of them.
  • Plan for turnover. While it’s tempting to think your top performers will always be with you, they eventually will leave for other opportunities. To minimize the disruption when they go, you need a process to identify and groom successors who can step into these roles. This approach also helps to create loyalty among your existing employees, who know there is room for growth on their career paths at your store. For situations where the talent you need isn’t available internally, you’ll want to outline how you’ll recruit replacements. You should include in this process who will be involved in the hiring decision, where you will identify appropriate candidates and how the interview will be conducted.

Pillar 2: Merchandising

With a well-defined internet structure and staff in place, the next step is to look at your online advertising process. “On the internet, your first chance to make a good impression begins with your vehicle listings and display ads. While automotive shopping sites such as Cars.com equip you with highly formatted options to ensure consistency and ease of use, outlining the steps your staff should follow in creating ads ensures compliance and consistency that will work to help you win business”

“Great online ads don’t just happen,” adds Kimmel. “There is a distinct formula that goes into making online listings successful and getting your inventory and your dealership to stand out with buyers. You can’t leave it to chance. You must be able to replicate the formula for success with each and every vehicle in your inventory. A strong listings campaign that drives sales results is based on a process for uploading inventory, taking and posting photos, competitively pricing vehicles and writing sell copy.”

As you go about implementing an online advertising process, Kimmel encourages dealerships to keep the following process tips in mind:

  • Tell it to sell it. Compelling ads don’t just happen. Not only does each listing require multiple, high-quality pictures that allow shoppers to take a virtual test-drive, they also need descriptive sell copy that creates a sense of what it will be like to own the vehicle. To draft copy that helps buyers form an emotional bond, look beyond the VIN decoder and provide information on the car’s unique or special features. Phrases such as “one owner,” “nonsmoker,” “bought and serviced here” further help build shoppers’ confidence, especially when they can be validated through third-party sources such as vehicle history reports or complete service records. To ensure the sell copy is accurate and delivers maximum results, assign the task to a qualified member of your staff with good writing and editing skills and be sure to add a step to check for accuracy. Encourage that person to look to the used-car manager’s appraisal notes, for example, or leverage certified book copy. As part of your system, consider leveraging software to simplify the process.
  • Develop a picture-perfect finish. As with your sell copy, you’ll need a process for photographing your inventory and uploading the images to your website and third-party shopping sites. To ensure you have high-quality pictures of each car that shows the vehicle in its best light, you’ll need to decide:
  • Who will take the photos. This task can be assigned to a staff member or a third-party service provider.
  • What pictures will be taken. While shopping sites such as Cars.com give you the flexibility to use as many as 32 pictures, you may want to develop a checklist to ensure a standard series of pictures is taken for each listing.
  • When and where the pictures will be taken. Photographing your listings at a similar time each day gives your ads a consistent look and feel. Considering establishing a dedicated area of your dealership that is well-lit and clearly branded with your store’s logo to shoot the photos.
  • Implement an inventory process. The car itself is the critical ingredient of a successful ad, making it essential that you:
    • Know what to buy. To have the in-demand vehicles that turn quickly and generate maximum gross, you may need to expand your view of which cars to stock based on demand from online shoppers. Leverage tools such as physical and internet auction reports, as well as information from your vendors. Cars.com, for example, generates a monthly CarStars report that shows you which vehicles are in the highest demand but lowest supply in your local market.
    • Manage your online listings. Now that you have great photos, sell copy and vehicles, how will you manage the information that appears on your website and third-party websites? You’ll need a process that addresses how and when data from your DMS will be transferred, as well as how and when sold vehicles will be removed. Either of these tasks can be assigned to a member of your staff or a vendor, but it’s essential that the activities occur at the optimal time. Just as you wouldn’t want to lose a sale because a vehicle you have wasn’t advertised, you wouldn’t want to be accused of a bait and switch when a customer learns a vehicle you have advertised is no longer available.
    • Set a pricing policy. Establish a pricing policy that is consistent with how you do business and accordingly set your online prices. Options include using the sticker/manufacturer’s suggested retail price, a competitive price or the lowest price. Tools such as vAuto, AAX First Look and DealerTrack provide you with up-to-date market information that can help you determine what price is the most competitive. Similarly, you’ll want to outline how pricing is updated as the vehicle ages in your inventory. Will you use a bucket system that lowers the price in stages at specified intervals, or will you manually monitor and adjust the price to ensure it moves in a timely fashion? Finally, build in checks for accuracy. A simple typo on your 2007 Mini, for example, could turn the $19,500 “bargain” into a listing nobody would consider at $195,000.

Pillar 3: Lead Handling

Just as you have a process for greeting customers who visit your store, you want to control how your staff responds to emails and phone calls. Putting these guidelines in place ensures prospects consistently receive a quick, quality response and minimizes the risk of inquiries falling through the cracks. It also helps you to qualify and build rapport with car buyers as they take the next step toward a purchase. Ignoring or providing a delayed reply to these shoppers signals a lack of interest and encourages them to look to your competitors.

In determining your process, Kimmel suggests that you take into account several criteria: What are your sales goals? What lead sources will support your department? How many leads do you currently receive? How long do you want your team to follow up with each lead? How many people are responding to each lead? Your answers to these questions ultimately should shape the process and, in the end, drive the experience your customers will have at your store and the likelihood that they’ll buy from you.

“Keep in mind that 20 percent of shoppers expect a response within four hours and that 30 percent of leads are left unanswered,” Kimmel said. “Consider your own performance and ask yourself: Is your store earning the business, or are you leaving it on the table?”

  • Email. How you manage emails can make or break the deal. Shoppers expect a prompt response that addresses their questions, so be sure to provide the information they request, and minimize the use of auto responders. If you rely on them during busy times or after hours, you’ll want to provide an actual reply as soon as possible so the customer doesn’t feel taken for granted. Pay attention to details (e.g., proper spelling and grammar), be courteous and personalize the message, especially if the shopper is a current sales or service customer. You should also take the opportunity to qualify the shopper (e.g., Is this the exact car you want or the nicest one like it?) and promote the value of buying from your dealership.
  • Phone. When car buyers call, they want to speak with a salesperson who can provide information about the vehicle they’re considering without being rushed toward a sale. That means ensuring the phone is answered within a few rings by a professional who is familiar with your inventory, provides courteous service and knows how to lead up to suggesting an appointment. Before asking customers to come into the dealership, you’ll need to assure them their time is respected by first assuring them you have the cars that meet their needs and that your store offers the purchase experience and amenities they want.

Pillar 4: Tracking and Measurement

Your ability to manage your internet program hinges on how effectively you measure its performance. To ensure key components are working as they should and to gauge the effect of new tactics, Kimmel advises dealers to have a process to collect relevant sales and performance metrics. If you’re looking for guidance on where to begin, your vendors and consultants can provide direction based on your objectives and your store’s size, sales history and market.

“Only after you’ve established a baseline of where you are,” Kimmel said, “can you chart a course for where you want to go.”

  • Decide what to track. Criteria to monitor begins with the basics, such as the number of vehicles you sell each month, gross and per-sale costs. You’ll also want to track appointments per lead, appointments kept versus appointments made, sales per appointment, sales per lead, CSI and the quantity of calls and emails your staff manages each day. Armed with this information, you can determine whether your staff is performing up to its potential or if additional coaching and resources may be required.
  • Use the appropriate tools. With so much data to track, you’ll want to leverage technology wherever possible to ensure you’re uniformly collecting and accurately reporting it. CRM and lead-management systems help automate this process and generate reports that allow you to monitor status and progress. You can also leverage reports supplied by your third-party service providers, post-sale surveys, telephone tracking tools and website tracking. As with other areas of your business, the more information you have, the better able you are to fine-tune performance to achieve desired results.

While developing a process may seem complicated and time-consuming, you don’t have to invent it from scratch. Chances are good that you already have many of these procedures in place, so the task likely amounts to documenting the activities you’re already doing, communicating them to your department and training team members on them.

“Formalizing your internet sales process fosters an environment in which your success occurs by design, rather than accident,” Kimmel said. “It gives your salespeople the confidence and direction they need to drive the business forward.”

Additional Resources

To learn more about how process can help your store, view the DealerADvantage Live webinar presented in May by Kathy Kimmel, a Cars.com manager of dealer training and automotive consulting. The free session “It’s All About Process: How to Take Your Internet Sales Operation From Good to Great” is available online and can be downloaded to watch at your convenience or to share with a colleague. You can also email dealeradvantage@cars.com for a copy of the presentation. For more tips on why process is essential and how you can go about establishing process for your dealership, see April’s feature article: Flying High or Flying Blind? Why Process Must Be the Foundation of Online Performance.