Dealers warm up slowly to live chat on Web
After missteps, many hire subcontractors
Laura Isbell, e-commerce marketing director for Bob Rohrman Auto Group, likes live chat with prospective customers on her Web sites. But she has stopped asking busy salespeople to do it.
"I read the transcripts," Isbell says. "All of a sudden, the customer on the chat would say, 'Hello, is anyone there?' or, 'I guess you really don't want me to buy a car from you.' It was painful to watch."
Three months ago, Rohrman, which is based in Lafayette, Ind., hired a third-party vendor to handle live chat at its 28 dealerships. Now the stores get contact information on nearly every shopper who engages in chat, compared with just one in four previously, Isbell said. And test-drive appointments scheduled by live chat have doubled.
But Rohrman's earlier problem is all too familiar to automotive retailers trying to get their arms around the live-chat approach. Many dealers are still warming up to marketing on the Web, and they ignore another way to connect with some Web customers. Chat, often available through pop-up boxes on a dealership Web site, can engage Web shoppers and prevent them from drifting to a competitor's site. By typing responses, the chatters answer basic questions about product and available inventory, while gathering contact information and possibly scheduling appointments.
20% have chat
Todd Smith, CEO and co-founder of ActivEngage, the chat vendor chosen by Rohrman, says only about 20 percent of dealerships have chat on their Web sites. That's a small number, since the technology has been around for two decades and is used widely in retail, financial services and other industries.
Smith says many dealers make the mistake of putting a small, static chat button on their Web sites and expect shoppers to find it.
Third-party vendors, including Contact at Once! and Outsell, are creating more attractive chat services. For instance, pop-up bubbles, often adorned with the faces of models, automatically appear as a shopper scrolls around a dealer Web site.
The vendors have centers staffed with trained chatters. Center staffers get to all chat invitations within seconds and immediately collect contact information on the online shoppers, Smith said.
Contact at Once! CEO and co-founder John Hanger said chat is about to come of age in auto retailing. He predicts that within two years, 70 percent of dealers will offer chat.
The growth is being fueled in part by the adoption of chat by such large online vehicle shopping networks as Cars.com and AutoTrader.com, which now contract with Contact at Once! for chat on their sites, Hanger said.
As dealers grow accustomed to getting sales leads generated by chat on third-party shopping sites, they may want chat on their own Web sites, Hanger said.
Contact at Once! has 3,000 dealer customers and thousands more who get leads from third-party sites through the chat function on those sites.
The base price for setting up a chat system is about $300 per month, for a simple button on a dealer Web site. Dealership personnel answer questions from Web shoppers.
For about $1,500 per month, dealerships get a highly visible pop-up box with chatters in a call center trained to answer questions and make appointments.
Isbell said the Rohrman Group is getting results from its new approach to chat, even though just 1.5 percent of visitors to the group's dealer Web sites engage in chat. The 1.5 percent is about the industry average of those who want to chat.
Yet, 2,415 corporatewide chats last month yielded 250 appointments and resulted in about 110 vehicles sold, Isbell said. When Rohrman, the nation's 18th largest dealership group, was trying to manage chat in-house, appointments were set with just 5 percent of chats rather than 10 percent now, she said.
Curt Richards, the business development center administrator for a four-store Rohrman operation in Fort Wayne, Ind., was an admitted skeptic who is now a believer.
Richards said that 13 percent of chats at his stores in March resulted in appointments, a percentage at least as high as those Internet leads that were followed up by phone. The four stores, including the largest, Fort Wayne Kia, sold 456 cars in March.
Said Richards: "I was worried that the new system would be more of the same. We've had pleasant results."
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