At Proctor Honda in Tallahassee, Fla., salespeople are expected to respond to Internet leads within 20 minutes.
Why? Because online shoppers are receptive for only a few minutes, says Alex Jefferson, e-commerce director for the three-store Proctor Dealerships group.
"The closer you can reach them while they're in the right mental state [to listen], the better your chances are of getting them to come in," he says.
But Proctor Honda's quick replies are exceptional in an industry that has tolerated slow responses for years to Internet leads, in which shoppers leave e-mail addresses or phone numbers and request replies. Dealers respond on average in three to five hours to Internet leads, dealership consultants say.
Dealers chalk up slow responses to a variety of reasons: Salespeople are busy with other duties. Many leads that flow into dealerships are of dubious quality. And many salespeople believe customers eventually will come to the dealership regardless of how the Internet inquiries are handled.
But slow responses are unacceptable to shoppers conditioned by Google, Amazon and others to expect immediate answers to online queries, says Larry Bruce, president of consultant OnlineDrive and former dealer in the Houston area.
The consequences? Untold lost sales at dealerships that sit on leads.
Studies show that Internet leads account for about 20 percent of all auto sales in the United States.
The best way to fix the problem? Track response time carefully and reward salespeople who convert leads into test drives and sales.
In a recent study of how 125 dealerships handled 15,000 online leads, Bruce found that shoppers who received replies within 10 minutes were three times more likely to visit a store than those who had received a slower response.
Bruce says responses by phone, personal e-mail or text are useful. He considers auto-responses virtually useless because they seldom answer a shopper's question and don't stop them from seeking information elsewhere.
The study shows stores were OK if they could contact a prospect within 10 to 20 minutes, Bruce said.
But after 20 minutes, the bottom falls out. The data showed no discernable difference in coaxing a shopper in for test drive between leads followed up on in 24 minutes or 24 hours, Bruce said. Clearly, the shopper was onto something else or another store.
"If you don't get to the lead within 20 minutes, you may as well wait until tomorrow, because it doesn't matter," he said.
Automakers are aware of the problem and have moved to address it. Chrysler Group, for example, is seeing results from the effort it made 18 months ago to speed up replies to leads and to address a host of other dealer digital marketing issues.
In late 2012, Chrysler hired digital managers at its nine regional dealer business centers to promote better digital practices, said spokesman Ralph Kisiel. Another nine digital experts were hired by Chrysler vendor Shift Digital to help, he said.
"These dedicated digital experts assist dealers with building an engaging Web site, driving traffic, and most importantly responding to the shopper promptly," he said.
Despite a 25 percent increase in lead volume in 2013 over 2012, Chrysler dealers as a whole responded to 97 percent of leads in 2013, up from 91 percent in 2012. And average response time improved to 32 minutes in 2013, from 52 minutes the previous earlier.
In 2011, the response time across Chrysler dealerships averaged 20 hours, according to comments made in 2013 by Chrysler's U.S. sales chief Reid Bigland.