How to Personalize the Online Sales Experience

by : John Federman Digital Dealer Magazine
November 2007

Professionals in the automotive industry are known for their knack of engaging customers the minute they walk onto a showroom floor. However, most dealers fail to deliver that same personal touch when it comes to their online presence.

Some dealers have yet to embrace the Internet as a sales channel, while others are hesitant to dedicate full-time resources to managing Internet driven leads. At this year’s annual Vehix Auto Sales Summit in Deer Valley, Utah, one dealer told an industry analyst from the Kelsey Group that,“Some dealers drop everything for that customer that walks in the door, but they won’t answer the phone or pay attention to electronic leads.” However, that auto dealer also noted that, “For people that come in the door the closing percentage is about 16 percent, but with online leads the closing percentage is much higher. These customers are more knowledgeable and more armed to buy a vehicle. If we get back to them right away, it’s a better prospect than a person walking in the door.”

Clearly, dealers that view their web sites as simple brochures, and fail to engage customers as proactively as they would in the showroom, do so at their own peril.

Engaging customers online
Personal service goes a long way with car buyers on the dealer lot. A standout sales professional is usually one that has established such a good buying experience with customers that they are motivated to not only buy another vehicle from him, but also recommend the salesperson to friends and family. These sales professionals remember names, promptly return phone calls and follow up to address customer questions and alert them to service deals or new specials. In short, they anticipate customer needs and deliver on customer requests.

A recent study by J.D. Power and Associates found that online customer satisfaction was highest for those dealers and automotive marketplaces that responded promptly to online inquiries once they’re submitted. “Walk-in and call-in shoppers receive responses in a more timely manner at auto dealerships compared with online shoppers,” said Steve Witten, executive director of marketing/media research at J.D. Power and Associates. “An opportunity exists for dealers to improve the return on their investment in lead services by paying as much attention to online leads as they would to in-person or phone sales leads by responding just as quickly.”

Dealers who haven’t embraced their web site as a customer-focused sales channel are losing their chance to promote potentially lucrative customer relationships. Another J.D. Power study found that consumers that research vehicles online are likely to convert at higher rates than those that don’t. If these online researchers contact a dealer, they’re quite likely hot prospects.

In a world where competitors are just a click away, delays in responding to online leads could make all the difference in closing a sale. Any lag time between online shopping and the visit to the dealership can be expedited simply by enabling potential customers to ask questions and receive answers in a timely fashion.

Proactive conversion solutions
As a compromise, dealers often adopt a minimalist approach that relies on self-service tools like FAQs, low-touch e-mail exchanges and anonymous web forms to provide online customer service. Though these tools certainly have their place on dealer web sites, studies have shown they are less effective in promoting customer satisfaction or generating qualified leads than offering live assistance.

As a result, some of the leading names in the industry have adopted click to call and click to chat technology to engage high-value prospects with a live sales agent online or over the phone. Because not every customer visit merits live assistance, click to call and click to chat both allow dealers to create business rules that dictate which online prospects should be escalated to the phone or chat. For example, customers that have spent several minutes on your site and begin to configure and price a vehicle can be prompted with either click to call or chat, while those that are looking to simply schedule a service appointment are directed to an e-mail form.

Click to call services deployed across key purchasing points on brand web sites for Chrysler, Dodge and Jeep drive sales conversions, with twice as many click to call callers purchasing a vehicle compared to standard inbound callers.

Autobytel, an online only automotive dealer, also implemented a customer service program that quickly connects online patrons with its call center. Using a form to phone solution, Internet browsers simply fill out a quick form, and the online retailer of choice or nearest franchise of that brand is immediately alerted to the customer request and sent a copy of the form. Once alerted, companies can reach out to these prospects and speak with them while they’re still hot. And as it turns out, timing is everything. Since deploying form to phone, Autobytel has increased the volume of qualified leads by 52 percent and doubled the closing rates of Autobytel car dealers.

Click to call offers the power of voice, allowing Internet sales professionals to answer questions while they are fresh in the consumer’s mind. Chat, on the other hand, enables dealerships to handle multiple web visitors at once while still allowing consumers to interact with an agent to answer a few questions.

To use these technologies, customers need only to click a button embedded on a web site and a customer service representative contacts them instantly via their preferred channel – online or offline. While the power of direct customer contact has been documented at length, click to call and live chat solutions leverage real-time web analytics to inform dealers about the customer’s activity the instant a connection is initiated. This sharing of data from the web to phone or chat channels, enables dealers to offer personalized and effective service, as well as insight into potential cross-sell and up-sell opportunities.

Using click to call and click to chat technology extends personal customer service beyond the dealer walls. As online marketing matures, leading companies are focusing on providing a consistent customer experience across all of their sales channels. Soon, a sales agent – regardless of whether he is in a showroom or chat room – will be able to proactively engage customers and kindly say, “May I help you with something?”

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