Some people in the car dealership world once thought the telephone was dead as a primary sales tool.
But then Apple introduced the iPhone in 2007, quickly changing that fatalistic thinking, says Matt Muilenburg, senior vice president-automotive for Marchex, a company that systematically monitors phone calls for quality purposes.
The smartphone with assorted functionality (such as website click-to-call buttons) gave the telephone renewed relevance in auto retailing, says Muilenburg (pictured, below left), whose conversational analytics company has introduced a new product that uses artificial intelligence to gauge dealership employees’ phone skills.
Called Marchex Engage, it detects and evaluates key words, voice tones and the intensity of customer interaction, then provides analytical feedback on inbound and outbound dealership sales calls. Among other things, the new software:
- Automatically scores and categorizes conversations between consumers and a dealer’s sales team, using conversation intelligence.
- Identifies which vehicles were discussed and whether an appointment to test-drive was made.
- Generates action lists that enable sellers to focus follow-up conversations on the highest-value leads.
- Generates deal-saving action alerts so a team specialist can save a lost lead when a conversation ends unsuccessfully
- Enables users to share conversations with team members and sets status to coordinate actions or next steps.
Marchex Engage’s AI also creates simplified reports on phone conversations for management review.
That’s important, Muilenburg tells WardsAuto. In the early days of phone-conversation monitoring systems, “dealers didn’t have the time to listen to recordings of the calls to see how they went.” Now, they only need look at an AI-created summary report.
Pilot Marchex Engage testing at select dealerships showed a 108% increase in salespeople booking a customer appointment on the phone, he says. “Salespeople do a better job if they understand management is monitoring conversations.”
He gives an example: A customer may call to ask about a particular vehicle model, but the dealership doesn’t currently stock it. Rather than say it’s not available, a resourceful salesperson would say, “But we have three models like it on the lot.” That could lead to an appointment and ultimately a sale.
McClusky Chevrolet in Cincinnati was among the pilot dealerships testing the new AI-reliant software product.
“Having real-time examples of mishandled conversations made it easy to coach our sales team in the moment, while the conversation is fresh,” says CEO Keith McClusky. “Our salespeople did meaningfully better, immediately.”
Phone calls and digital text messages now rank as primary communication channels that car shoppers use, says Muilenburg. He sees phone calls and texts working in tandem to advance the potential sale.
For example, a salesperson, while on a phone with a customer, can text him or her a vehicle of interest on the lot.
In the pre-smartphone days, when phones were losing their relevance as a sales tool, automakers spurred dealers to hone their email skills, Muilenburg says.
“OEMs were emphasizing emails, especially the need to respond to the ones customers sent, because a lot weren’t being answered,” he says. “That problem was solved. But the phone was kind of forgotten in the process.” Consequently, dealership phone skills waned.
That was then. The phone, invented in 1876 (when Ulysses S. Grant was president), is back as a powerful and, ironically, modern sales tool. Now, it’s a matter of salespeople knowing how to get the most from it.
Moreover, it’s important that dealership management knows through conversational analytics that the staff is using the phone to the best of their – and its – abilities.
That’s because many in-market consumers for various reasons call a dealership early in their shopping process. How that conversation goes – if the customer does or doesn’t sense trustworthiness, transparency and the like on the other end – determines “which dealerships win or lose the sale,” Muilenburg says.
Steve Finlay is a retired WardsAuto senior editor. He can be reached at [email protected].