In auto retailing, it once was all about getting the consumer to the dealership. Now, it’s about getting the dealership to the customer, at least at first.
So says Kevin LeSage, director-online digital marketing for Autotrader, a third-party lead provider and online marketplace for vehicle buyers and sellers.
So much of auto shopping has changed since the Internet took root.
“In the old days, if I wanted to know the price of a car, I’d call the dealership where someone was trained to keep me on the phone, try to set up an appointment and reel me in,” LeSage tells Wards. “There wasn’t much concern about customer experience.”
Many dealers who weren’t upfront feared if they readily gave up pricing information, customers would cross-shop with it. So after jumping through hoops, shoppers would thereupon get the price – at the dealership.
Today, that seems so Jurassic.
“All dealers have pricing on their websites now, because that is a customer expectation,” LeSage says. “People aren’t visiting dealerships like they used to, getting brochures. Instead, they are doing online research.”
Autotrader is positioning itself to serve on the front line of that movement.
“We are building products that leverage a lot of consumer data and behavior, and then personalizing the customer experience based on what people are showing an interest in during their online shopping,” LeSage says.
Autotrader draws on its own data as well as from other Cox Automotive companies such as Kelley Blue Book and Dealer.com. It also uses third-party information sources.
“Cox Automotive in the last 90 days developed 38 million profile insights leveraging the data we have,” LeSage says. “We have the most automotive data.”
On behalf of dealers and through a partner, LivePerson, Autotrader offers a communication service of fielding customer chat and texting inquiries to dealerships. (Text messaging has a 90% open rate; it's 30% for email, LeSage says.)
“We manage that conversation, answering questions immediately,” he says. “Then we capture name, email and phone number, and send that lead right to the dealership’s CRM (customer-relationship-management system).”
Shopper chat and text questions range from trim levels to tires on particular vehicles.
Those are easy to answer. “You’ll also see difficult ones, such as where they want to negotiate, asking if you will take a certain price for a car they’re looking at,” LeSage says.
“We don’t negotiate on behalf of the dealer,” he says. “We’d say, ‘Let me get a dealership pricing expert for you, but in the meantime can I get your name, phone number and email so we can reach out.’
“Then we send that information and a transcript of the conversation to the dealership CRM.” It’s a value-added service aimed at enhancing the quality of leads sent to dealers.
It benefits Autotrader to provide higher-quality leads.
It also deters getting online questions from people who are reluctant to identify themselves early in their shopping process, and so use fake names like Santa Claus and Elvis Presley who, in name anyway, is alive.
Although today’s modus operandi is to use the Internet to initially bring the dealership to customers, there’s that tipping point at which the customer goes to the dealership.
“Our technology is doing the best we can to translate customer interest and get them into the store,” LeSage says. “Automotive is a connection commerce. There will always be that need for a conversation between a product expert and consumer. That’s where the dealership takes ownership.”
Are car salespeople selling the way they did 20 years ago?
“Absolutely not,” he says. “They understand the consumer is more educated. They are familiarizing people with features on vehicles of choice. They are focused on customer experience. People are willing to pay for that, and they look for it.”