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."