How do you meet the expectations of a group of customers who fit your brand's target market but may move on to your competition at the click of a computer mouse?
Leslie Hollingsworth, Internet marketing manager of Gulf States Toyota, believes that a combination of quick-loading graphics, the right information and good customer handling is the key to successful Internet marketing.
Gulf States Toyota of Houston is the independent distributor for Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi.
'Internet leads have the highest conversion of any marketing tool for Toyota nationally, greater than business reply cards or 800 numbers,' says Hollingsworth, who is the daughter of Group 1 Automotive Inc. Chairman Ben Hollingsworth. She helps with development, maintenance and updating for the distributorship's 134 Toyota dealers.
'You need easy, quick-to-load graphics and pertinent information for what you're trying to accomplish. If the dealership doesn't respond to a customer in one to four hours, the customer will move on,' she says.
Besides being pertinent and fast, Hollingsworth says the number of employees handling the site and how they treat customers also will make or break a dealership's Internet marketing efforts.
She recommends that Gulf States Toyota dealers have one or two dedicated Internet managers to ensure that their site is always fresh and that they are handling customers properly.
The Internet manager or managers should be part of the sales process and should stay with the customer through the process.
'Customers hate meeting someone, starting a relationship with that person and then being passed off,' says Hollingsworth. 'If the original contact can't handle the sale, he or she should be the guide through the system from start to finish.'
Gulf States offers each of its dealers a Web site package called Gulf States Toyota Internet Solution, which was designed and developed by Cobalt Group of Seattle. Each dealership can customize its own Web site within a standard template. The standard package includes a sneak peak at new Toyota offerings and a service department scheduling form.
The package does require dealer financial participation and is subsidized by Gulf States Toyota. Dealers who purchase Internet Solution are on Cobalt's Dealer-Net, a national locator and buying service.
Currently 134 of the 140 dealers in Gulf States Toyota's territory have purchased Internet Solutions. Four dealers use other providers, and two do not have Web sites.
Larger dealers, like Sterling McCall Toyota in Houston (see story on Page 74), have two sites to cover the growing market.
Many Gulf States Toyota dealers use online buying services and have reported mixed results. Hollingsworth cautions that some buying services are trying to develop a loyalty between themselves and customers rather than between dealerships and customers.
'The Internet's use as a research tool and an information tool will continue to increase,' Hollingsworth says. 'E-mails may be impersonal, but they are the building block of the customer-dealership relationship.
'Some people look at buying services as a way to get around the salesperson or to avoid that process for as long as possible,' she says.
Gulf States conducts Internet sales seminars for general salespeople and Internet managers to educate both groups on the Internet buyer. As the Internet becomes a bigger part of life and the auto industry, Hollingsworth predicts that one or two Internet managers will not be enough to handle a dealership's Internet leads. General salespeople will have to be trained on Internet sales techniques.
'The expectations of an online buyer are a lot higher than someone walking into your store; they are very time-crunched,' says Hollingsworth, who envisions a day when most dealership personnel will have an Internet linked computer on their desk.
'The Internet will change some of the processes in the dealership, and dealerships will have to accommodate that.'
For instance, Toyota Motor Credit Corp. is piloting a program in Portland, Ore., and Seattle in which consumers can submit credit applications through Toyota's main Web page (Toyota.com). Mike Groff, corporate marketing and leasing manager for Toyota Motor Credit, says it is too early to tell if the program will be offered nationally or if dealer Web pages will be involved.
'We're still looking at the ways consumers are behaving electronically,' says Groff, who has been testing the Toyota Motor Credit Internet credit application program since March.
'There is a fair amount of reluctance to give out that info over the Internet but in the future, as security (on the Internet) increases, I think you'll see that change.'