Westside Lexus in Houston sees 275 service customers during a typical day. One Thursday, nearly one-third of customers booked their appointments through the dealership's website.
"A couple or three years ago, it was probably 10 percent," says Robert Parnell, the dealership's parts and service director. He hopes that in five years, 70 to 80 percent of service customers will schedule appointments online.
Vendors that sell scheduling tools such as the one Westside Lexus uses predict that more consumers will want to make service appointments online as part of the widespread transformation to e-commerce.
Dealerships, though, are seeing mixed reaction to their online scheduling systems. Most consumers still make appointments by phone.
Parnell told Fixed Ops Journal that online scheduling "reduces the number of phone calls you have to handle, and it lets the customer do it at midnight or whenever they want to. It takes that burden off us and allows us to focus on taking care of the traffic during the day."
Westside Lexus is ahead of the curve. A Cox Automotive study of 4,500 U.S. consumers in 2015 found that 14 percent of dealership customers scheduled service online, while 69 percent did so by phone and another 14 percent in person. (The Cox subsidiary Xtime markets an online scheduling tool.)
To increase his online bookings, Parnell plans next month to offer a 15 percent discount on service bills to customers who make appointments online.
"If I can get them to use it one time, then I think there is a great likelihood that I'm going to have a better bond with that customer, and they're going to use it again and again in the future," he says.
In contrast, at #1 Cochran, which operates 18 dealerships in western Pennsylvania, just 12 percent of customers schedule service through the websites at three dealerships that track how appointments originate.
David Bernardini, #1 Cochran's regional operations director, says he isn't trying to push more customers to make appointments online. When people book online, fewer actually show up, he notes.
"Appointments scheduled by our [business development center] over the phone or via email have a 90 to 93 percent show rate, and we've been able to maintain that level over a four- to five-year period," Bernardini says. "Our online show rate is anywhere from 60 to 70 percent."
Moreover, he adds, just 41 percent of service customers who start the appointment process online finish it there. Many have questions and end up calling the dealership, he says.
Still, Bernardini acknowledges that customer preferences are changing, especially among younger vehicle owners.
The Cox study concluded that 45 percent of service customers who didn't schedule appointments online didn't know that option was available.
To change that, Kim Saylor, fixed operations product marketer for CDK Global, which sells dealer management systems, scheduling tools and other software products, says dealerships should start promoting online scheduling when they sell a car or truck.
"That's an excellent time to introduce the customer to the online appointment tool," Saylor says. "Hopefully, in the future, that customer will feel comfortable and go straight to the tool."
Two years ago, Tom Gill Chevrolet in Florence, Ky., started using a scheduling system that is integrated with its DMS. It lets anyone with internal access to the scheduler see who is coming in, when and for what reason.
Customers who schedule online choose from available time slots. The system recognizes previous customers, so they don't have to fill out a form with vehicle and personal information.
"The customer sees a live appointment scheduler," says Mark Farney, the dealership's parts and service director. "It's going to show you what's available, even down to whether you can wait for the car."
The system also allows customers to request a particular service adviser, Farney says.