Online Dialogue Helps Sales

Auto dealers, who use Internet chat functions to communicate with customers, are more likely to see them show up for scheduled appointments and, ultimately, buy cars. So says Shaun Kniffin, director-Internet sales and e-business development at Germain Motor Co., a 17-store, Columbus, OH-based dealership group. It is No.36 on the Ward's Megadealer 100. Chat is one of the most amazing things we have

Auto dealers, who use Internet chat functions to communicate with customers, are more likely to see them show up for scheduled appointments and, ultimately, buy cars.

So says Shaun Kniffin, director-Internet sales and e-business development at Germain Motor Co., a 17-store, Columbus, OH-based dealership group. It is No.36 on the Ward's Megadealer 100.

“Chat is one of the most amazing things we have done, even though we were not quick to jump on it,” he says during a Cars.com webinar entitled, “Beyond Listings: Drive Sales with a Comprehensive Online Presence.”

Citing early results of Germain's newly launched chat effort, Kniffin says 70% of consumers who used it kept sales appointments. Of those, 54% ended up purchasing vehicles.

Germain's call-center staffers who handle the chat duties enjoy doing so, he says. “They love talking to customers on chat. When the chat signal lights up, they fight each other to get it.”

Certain key associates at Germain stores also chat online with customers. “You have to have someone there and engaged,” Kniffin says.

A dealership must respond quickly to chat inquiries or else the prospective customer on the other end will bolt, says Andrew DiFeo, general manager at Hyundai of St. Augustine (FL).

He hired an outside firm to take on his store's chat responsibilities. “In a perfect world, I'd love to have it in-house, but it's not a perfect world. That chat message has to be picked up in five to 10 seconds.”

ActiveEngage, the firm DiFeo uses to field customer chat inquires, responds on average in three seconds, he says. “I'm impressed with that third-party's knowledge of the Hyundai product line and our dealership.”

Chat results in better quality leads and higher closing ratios for Hyundai of St. Augustine. Ninety percent of chat requests come from new prospects.

More and more car shoppers are using smart phones to communicate online with dealerships and access inventory listings, says Jack Simmons, a Cars.com training manager.

Currently, one in three Americans with cell phones have enhanced mobile-device versions, he says. It's a phenomenon on the upswing.

“At Germain, we are like surfers waiting for the big wave to come,” Kniffin says. “It hasn't come yet, but we're ready.”

DiFeo adds: “We are anticipating the big move of people using mobile to access dealerships. It's definitely coming. We're preparing to make our sites mobile and we use Cars.com site.”

About 75% of Germain's dealerships have websites that can accommodate mobile-device access to inventory and the like.

Use of video also is on the forefront of effective online presence for dealerships.

“Video is hot,” Simmons says. “It sells and it is great for search. Sixty-three percent of people who saw a video of a listed car online sent leads. Yet, a lot of dealers struggle to use video.”

On third-party car-selling sites, a listed car with accompanying video stands out from those without such a sales enhancement, DiFeo says.

“If 10 cars come up on a search, and one of those has a video button, which one do you think a shopper will click for more information?” he says.

All Germain stores include videos for online vehicle listings. Those videos are posted on YouTube.

“I'm getting 63 views per video,” Kniffin says. “When you get 9,500 views in one month on YouTube, that's phenomenal. That's eyeballs on inventory.”

Simmons says the videos needn't be perfect, but nor should they drone on. Kniffin says that before Germain “embraced” video, he wanted to make sure it didn't come across as a dealer version of the TV show America's Funniest Home Videos.

Other techniques dealers can use to enhance their online presence include:

Banner ads that promote a dealership's brand and highlight inventory listings.

Internet specials to thin out aging inventory and increase the likelihood of a sale. To do that, Kniffin recommends using inventory-management software such as vAuto “to get aggressive on pricing.”

“Branding and engagement are keys to success in today's online advertising environment,” Simmons says. “Dealers who leverage new tools to demonstrate their inventory, brand their stores and communicate with car buyers will stand out above their competitors.”

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