BEST PRACTICES

Sonic: E-sales offices speed replies to leads

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Five years ago, Sonic Automotive Inc. dealerships' response times to electronic leads were all over the map. Some took as long as two hours.

Today, Sonic, the country's fourth-largest dealership group, says most of its stores reply to the leads within seven minutes.

"I don't even concern myself with response times anymore," says Rachel Richards, Sonic's vice president of retail strategy and business applications. "There may be an outlier here and there once in a while because someone is sick. But response time isn't an issue for us anymore."

The difference: new response procedures and e-sales offices that operate at 63 of Sonic's 105 dealerships. For stores with e-sales offices, the average response time is seven minutes. For Sonic dealerships overall, response time to electronic leads has averaged 15 minutes for the last year, down from 30 minutes two years ago, Richards says. Even the stores without e-sales offices now typically respond to the leads, which consist of mainly e-mail inquiries, within 30 minutes, Richards says.

Cutting the response lag
Sonic has slashed its response times to electronic leads …

- 5 years ago: As long as 2 hours
- 2 years ago: 30 minutes on average
- Last year: 15 minutes on average

… largely by implementing e-sales offices

- Average at stores with e-sales offices: 7 minutes
- Average at stores without: Within 30 minutes

Beating the norm


That's far better than the three to five hours that dealership consultants call the average industry response time to Internet leads.

"There's no question that our dealerships understand the importance of electronic leads," Richards says. "Customers are shopping comparatively. Most of us are so busy today, so they're sending out inquiries to multiple dealerships. Whoever gets to that customer first has an opportunity to build a relationship with them."

That's why all Sonic dealerships will have e-sales offices by mid-2015, Richards says. The conversion is required before a Sonic store can roll out the company's new customer-experience initiative, One Sonic-One Experience.

As part of that initiative, launching in July at a Toyota store in Charlotte, N.C., a sales representative will use an iPad to handle a vehicle sale from beginning to end, a process expected to take 45 minutes or less once a vehicle is selected. The approach is aimed at reducing transaction times, improving customer satisfaction, lowering employee turnover and increasing overall sales.

Sonic began implementing e-sales offices almost four years ago. The shift isn't easy, Richards says, because it's a significant culture change. Each store puts its e-sales agents in an office to answer electronic leads with someone always on duty during business hours.

The offices are similar to what the industry commonly calls a business development center, but Sonic avoids the BDC lingo. That's partly because the term has a negative connotation for some, Richards says, and Sonic wanted total buy-in from staffers. In addition, Sonic's e-sales offices generally only respond to leads; they don't typically call or send unsolicited messages as some business development centers do.

All electronic leads, Internet chats and phone calls go through the offices. Staffers set up what Sonic dubs VIP sales appointments. When the customer arrives, the vehicle is pulled up and waiting with that person's name on it.

Elevating the customer experience is a key goal, Richards says.

"It's how you do it," she says. "That's far more important than just the [response] time."

Why Sonic


In their responses, regardless of communication type, Sonic's e-sales agents tout what the company thinks differentiates it from other auto retailers. One factor is Sonic's True Price initiative, through which a vehicle price is set within $300 of its lowest acceptable price.

A response to a query about a specific vehicle will answer the question at hand and will include suggested alternative vehicles.

Sonic dealerships with e-sales offices outperform the stores without on several key traffic-management metrics, including response time, appointments set, appointments for which customers show up and appointments in which a vehicle is sold, Richards says.

Dealerships are graded on their adherence to standards in the company's e-commerce playbook and are audited annually. Employees in the e-sales offices are paid both a salary and commission based on vehicle sales.

Although e-mail and text leads dominate, Sonic is starting to see a trend of those leads decreasing and phone calls increasing because of mobile devices, Richards says.

Consumers handling their searches from smartphones often don't want to type out long e-mails on tiny keyboards. It means that Sonic's e-sales agents have to be superb communicators not only online, but on the phone, too.

You can reach Amy Wilson at awilson@crain.com.


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