Many dealer websites, if not exactly designed to fail, don't connect with customers.
Ideally, customers will be motivated to call or visit a dealer showroom after a web search. They abandon websites for a number of reasons.
“There are lots of reasons websites tank,” says Patrick Kelley, CEO of Ghostnet Inc., an Internet consultancy in Jasper, GA.
Typical problems include poor layout, disastrous design, ho-hum content, missing meta data and inbound links, confusing navigation and buried information.
Add to that a Las Vegas-like look (too much flash and animation) on the home page and no substance, he says.
Successful websites offer a customer-friendly environment and are easy to figure out.
“When a site comes up that has 30 different avenues that someone has to go through to get the answer to a question, most people become frustrated with the entire process,” Kelley says.
They typically will leave the site and go to another until they find one that can answer their question quickly.
Having the right website is vital to dealers because Internet marketing is so important today.
The notion of divorcing Internet marketing from sales is a thing of the past, says Brian Allan, general manager of Galpin Premier Collection, a multi-franchise dealership organization in North Hills, CA.
“I heard someone say that today's Internet customer is yesterday's showroom customer,” he says. “I believe that to be more and more accurate.
“The challenge is to get that philosophy into all of your business processes that are customer-facing, from the showroom to the service drive. We are addressing that challenge.”
The family-owned Galpin Motors chain, with more than 900 employees, has been the largest retailer of Ford Motor Co. products in the world for the last 20 years. It also rates high in customer satisfaction and loyalty.
Allan credits its success to owner Bert Boeckmann's philosophy: “Relentless pursuit of customer and employee satisfaction.”
The 10-store group is No.54 on the Ward's Megadealer 100 list. “Over 85% of our business is repeat or referral,” Allan says.
What makes one dealer website stand out over others?
Complexity and too many required clicks can drag down some dealership sites. Consumer attention span, or patience, is not long when navigating sites that don't give results quickly. Consultants say stick to the KISS principle (keep it simple, stupid).
What frustrates customers the most when navigating is “the inability to find what they are looking for quickly, or they can't find it at all,” Kelley says. “The biggest complaint I've heard is not being able to find the product or service they went to the site to locate.”
Kelley says that for any dealer who needs to rebuild or reconfigure a site, the starting point is to understand that a customer website must be about two things: being found by more prospects and converting more inbound leads into sales.
Search-engine optimization, a fancy term for landing on the first pages of search engines, is a skill that any good web designer can help with.
Another mistake owners of multiple franchises make is using a cookie-cutter look for websites and brands, consultants say.
A Miami dealership will not sell the same cars as does one in Atlanta. Customer sales expectations vary by region. Dealers who like to use that one-size-fits-all approach to save money or just because it's easier, will get stonewalled at some point, Kelley says.
Jeff Skobin, Internet marketing manager at Galpin, says the group uses a family look, but customizes each site for the different brands. “Our sites are simple to use,” he says. “Inventory is one click away and directly associated with brands we carry.”
The Galpin sites include a build-your-car configurator. There also are social network links. “It's our way of staying in touch and letting customers know about the little things happening here that are not in our ads,” Skobin says.
Ease of use is the main thing, he notes. Contact numbers and locations are clearly posted. “Technology is changing so fast. We show the coolest movie clips and chat links. Mainly, we ask ourselves, ‘Is it easy and beneficial for customers?’”
The payoff is in repeat customers and plus sales. “About 70% of our customers say they searched online before coming into the dealership, and we have about a 90% repeat rate.” Skobin says.
Galpin General Manager Allan adds: “For most of our brands in 2009, market share increased even though sales fell. The good news is that this year is doing so much better — with increased market share and sales up over 30% across our franchises.”
A fast-food mentality is pushing customer sales today and customers expect instant responses. The Internet helps with that, says Dan Barfield, Internet and sales manager at Rahal Miller Chevrolet-Buick and Cadillac in Florida.
In addition to its Internet staff, the Rahal dealerships, located in Marianna and Tallahassee, uses smart phones to try to respond to customer inquiries by an average of 12 minutes. Slow response rates can be fatal in the Internet world.
“The No.1 thing is to respond quickly and use common sense,” Barfield says. “One of the most important things is to answer exactly what the customer asks you, whether it's vehicle availability or features. We try to build a relationship around that,” he says.
Allan says developing the ideal dealer website can be an elusive pursuit.
“Our site is far from perfect,” he says. “It's a constant challenge to balance information, sales messages and just good fun stuff.”
The bottom line is that website design and content — from product to customer contact — is a journey, not a destination, he notes. “Our current challenge is to make our site mobile-friendly, and we are in the process of doing that.”