Many U.S. dealers might need to hire additional Internet sales staff and improve the quality of their responses to online customers if they want to join in this year's expected sales rise, a research firm says.
With U.S. vehicle sales projected to climb almost 10 percent this year to about 14 million units, the volume of online leads will rise accordingly, retail consultancy Urban Science of Detroit said in its annual Automotive Franchise Activity Report.
"Dealers need to be able to handle increased Internet leads," says Jody Stidham, global practice director for Urban Science. And that means providing more than speedy responses.
"When talking to these consumers online, a quality response is important," Stidham says. "Last year's theme was beat the clock, with all dealers pressured to respond quickly to leads. This year the theme is respond quickly but with a quality message."
Urban Science says the volume of Internet leads could rise 15 to 20 percent this year, with the average dealer getting about 85 leads a month, up from about 75 in 2011.
The average Internet sales manager can handle 80 to 90 Internet leads a month, Stidham says.
Last year, up to 30 percent of automakers' retail sales originated from Internet leads, Urban Science's data show. More than 30 percent of customers submitted a request to at least two dealers. As competition for those online shoppers increases, dealers must make their online lead responses more personal and not just rely on auto-generated ones, Stidham says.
She recommends that dealers quote a price, provide alternative vehicles in a similar price range, confirm that the vehicle requested is available in a range of offerings, and invite the customer in for a test drive.
Not all dealerships agree with those recommendations. Indeed, last year, about one-third of the dealers Urban Science surveyed reported they did not quote a price to a customer in their online responses, Stidham says.
Village Automotive Group in Boston does not quote a price to customers in online-lead responses. Chris Fousek, the dealership group's e-commerce director, defends that policy.
He says he has found that the various option packages, with widely ranging prices, often confuse customers. Instead, his Internet staff talks about the vehicle's features and promises to find "the best pricing" possible for the customer.
Village Automotive Group has 11 stores selling eight brands in the Boston area. It handles about 1,500 Internet leads a month and sells about 7,600 new and used vehicles annually.
Fousek says the stores generate an automated response to all online leads. In those responses, customers are asked for details about what they want in a vehicle. Then, a sales manager personally follows up to discuss those specifics with the customers.
Fousek realizes the system probably needs improvements. "We're starting to pay more attention to how we're doing what with all the leads and who needs to pay attention to it and why," he says. "It comes down to finding a human connection through an e-mail, and that's hard."
David Barkholz contributed to this report