Some car dealerships are good, some not so hot at handling internet leads

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Virtually every car dealership knows the value of responding quickly to customer inquiries on the Internet, says Fran O’Hagan, CEO of consulting firm Pied Piper.

But that doesn’t mean all dealerships are fast enough for the draw, as evidenced by Pied Piper PSI’s 2022 Internet Lead Effectiveness Study. It measures each brand’s responsiveness to Internet leads from mystery shopping sent to dealer websites.

“I don’t think there’s a car dealership that says, ‘No, it’s not important to cater to internet customers,'” O’Hagan (photo below left) Wards says. “Everyone thinks it’s important, but not all dealers are able to do it.”

That’s because it’s easy to get caught up in in-store activities. For many dealership workers, “you go to work, and all of a sudden your hair is on fire” in the face of this and that, including a hot prospect sitting across from you, he says.

Day-to-day tasks can delay responding to Internet leads unless the dealership has a designated business development center to handle phone calls and emails. “If there’s a BDC, there’s no excuse for a late response,” says O’Hagan. “It’s their work.”

Slow online responses – or worse, no response at all – hurt business. In an age when so many car buyers contact a dealership via the Internet, a non-response equals a lost sale, O’Hagan says.

“Chasing web clients because you’re busy shouldn’t be allowed,” says O’Hagan.

In the annual effectiveness study dating back to 2011, Pied Piper mystery shoppers submitted inquiries to 3,628 dealer websites. They asked specific questions about vehicles in stock, but never ventured to ask “What’s the best price?” They gave contact names, email addresses and phone numbers.

Pied Piper, based in Monterey, Calif., then gauged dealer response within 24 hours via email, phone, and text.

For the second year in a row, Infiniti dealerships had the highest score overall, although Nissan’s luxury brand fell four index points from a year ago. Rival luxury brands Cadillac and Lexus surged, ranking No. 2 and No. 3 respectively.

Mazda (#4) and Subaru (#5) rank #1 among mainstream brands. (See the chart below for all brand rankings.)

Twelve brands rose in the rankings from 2021 to 2022. Fifteen fell.

“Most dealerships had less inventory in 2021, but the dealership’s handling of sales prospects was still key, as it not only determines sales today, but also dealership success tomorrow,” says O’ Hagan.

“Dealers who respond quickly, personally and completely to website customer inquiries sell an average of 50% more vehicles to the same number of website customers, compared to dealers who do not respond.”

Twenty measures are taken into account in the notation on a scale of up to 100.

On a bell curve, 26% of dealers nationwide scored above 80 (providing a quick and thorough personal response), while 35% scored below 40 (not personally responding to website customers ).

In a detected trend, “more dealerships are using text messages and email to answer specific web customer questions, while making fewer phone calls,” O’Hagan said. “However, we’ve found that the only way to effectively reach customers is to use both email and phone, not just one or the other.”

The back-and-forth fluidity of a phone conversation surpasses email as a form of communication, he notes.

Sometimes dealer non-responses are not their fault. Customer spam filters are a dealership’s enemy, O’Hagan says, citing various instances of legitimate emails unwittingly ending up on the Internet.

Emails end up in a customer’s spam folder more than 25% of the time for Alfa Romeo, Fiat and Mitsubishi dealerships.

Conversely, Porsche, Jaguar, Land Rover, Volkswagen, Ford and Volvo dealerships were the most successful in avoiding spam filtering of legitimate emails.

It’s difficult to fully understand the inner workings of various spam filters, says O’Hagan.

Of 3,628 dealers contacted, 218 (about one in 20) did not respond to Pied Piper inquiries at all.

Dealerships owned by national chains performed well as quick responders. There’s a reason for that: “If you work for them and you don’t respond, they’ll fire you,” says O’Hagan.

Steve Finlay is a retired editor of Wards. He can be reached at [email protected].

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