When third-party Internet buying services broke onto the auto scene, many dealers were pleased to get another source of sales leads.
The buying services still provide leads. But it was easy to find dealers at the National Automobile Dealers Association convention last week who are concentrating instead on their own Web sites - for good reason. Sales leads are too important to leave entirely to third parties. Dealerships are essentially sales operations. And what is more important to sales than good leads? Dealers must take control of Internet leads.
A parallel situation developed among manufacturers in the 1980s. Some manufacturers toyed with the idea of saving money by outsourcing engines to suppliers. But they resisted. Engines are a critical part of a vehicle's identity. Keeping control of that identity is worth the extra money. For dealers, it is worth the extra time and money to take control of Internet leads.
'The No. 1 place to get referrals is our own Web sites,' said Brian Kendrick, CEO of Asbury Automotive Group in Stamford, Conn., at the convention. 'A year ago, most of them came from third parties. But today 60 to 70 percent of our Internet leads come from our own Web sites. The quality of leads from dealer Web sites and automaker Web sites is much higher. They have much higher closing ratios than third-party referrals.'
Of course, taking control of dealer Web sites and Internet leads is difficult. And it requires dealers and salespeople who understand Web customers. Too many dealers instinctively want to treat Web customers like showroom customers and bring them into their showrooms as soon as possible. Wrong.
Many customers use the Web precisely because they disliked being treated like just another 'up.' They want something more out of the buying experience. To use the Internet most effectively to build long-term relationships, dealers must treat Web customers as individuals.