Get ‘em OFF the keyboard!

By Jeff Scherer, Associate Partner, Callbutton LLC – Many years ago, before the Internet was “cool,” I was the Internet sales manager for one of the largest automotive retailers. This was a very interesting time because prior to this, no auto entities had really stepped out to try to market vehicles through this new budding medium known as “the Web.” To say that many of the old-school general managers in our dealer groups were skeptical would have been a tremendous understatement. They said over and over that this Web thing was a fad, and would never work to sell cars. Our team was often looked at as the “geek squad,” (no offense to the Best Buy’s guys) and as competitors to the retail sales team. Much of this doubt and fear was understandable as we were jumping quickly into territory that was undefined and unknown.

I have never been one to shy away from challenges and although in many respects this new division was operating on an unintentionally formed corporate island, my team took on this project with confidence. It helped that we were well-funded at the time. This allowed us to try a myriad of different software and develop many of our business processes on the fly. Many worked, many didn’t, but we were out to change the way people bought vehicles in our own little world. And we did.

Besides starting most of our customer relationships from the keyboard, we also took a different approach to how we presented, financed and sold vehicles. We were not shy about giving quotes over the phone or e-mail, much to the chagrin of the sales and F&I managers who could not grasp this concept of actually being up-front, “up-front.” (Today these strategies are colloquially referred to as “transparency” and “full-disclosure.”)

The results? Month after month, we consistently beat the retail group in gross margins and CSI, and did so with a cost-per-lead that was about one tenth of what it cost to get a customer on to the retail floor. Almost to a person, our customers would tell us “THIS is the way I want to buy a vehicle, and how business should be done.” Why? Because in a business that had forever been looked at as distrustful, one-sided, even sleazy, we had provided the consumer with the feeling like THEY could finally control the sales process, in a way that THEY were comfortable.

Much has obviously changed since back then. The Internet is now widely accepted and embraced by almost every business today, most certainly in marine and auto. Dealers all know they need to have a Web site. Unfortunately, some of them stop right there. They do not instill a formal process for replying to, communicating with, and more importantly, for following up on leads that are generated from the Web. For many dealers, this is still somewhat uncharted territory in that prospects coming in through the Web do not (yet) have a voice or a face, two elements that most salespeople rely heavily on in their sales process loop. Try to keep in mind that the Web is simply just another communication tool that the consumer has chosen as the way he wants to communicate with your business.

To make the most of electronic communication (e-mail, text, chat), the goal should always be to try to drive the consumer to the next step – either to the phone or the showroom. It’s difficult to qualify someone and kindle rapport over the keyboard, so make sure that you leverage that communication by giving that consumer some valid reasons why you need to speak on the phone. “Have you seen the new colors in person? Do you have a trade-in we could look at? Wait until you see how much storage there is on this …” Whether he calls you, or you call him, step two accomplished!


  1. Jeff, Great article! We sometimes forget where we were. You are right when you say that many dealerships stop at their website. A website is only the beginning. With social media today, customers want instant feedback. Furthermore, to your point, when a customer takes the time to fill out the contact me section and a dealership does not follow up with them or have a proper system in place to track leads, they are opening their front door and throwing dollars into the wind.

    A potential customer who takes the time to fill out a form or provide their information wants to be contacted. they have initiated the communication. Don’t let go of them!

    Furthermore, you could not be more right. It is great to get them to fill out the form, then reply, but we need to get them either in the dealership or speaking with them on the phone to ask questions that they may not have provided information for or answer questions that may need a little explanation.

    In the end, technology is great, but customer service comes from someone who cares and excellent customer service comes from a company who is committed to their customers, engaging their customers and insuring that they walk out their door happy.

  2. Jeff you are right with the comment, “Dealers all know they need to have a Web site. Unfortunately, some of them stop right there. They do not instill a formal process for replying to, communicating with, and more importantly, for following up on leads that are generated from the Web.” Dealers believe that all they have to do is put photos on their site, and that’s what the Internet is about. I did a presentation for a group of dealers last night about my service. I ended up telling them, “With very little knowledge about boats, and at a start up boat dealership. During the first three months of the selling season, I sold over thirty units representing almost $700k in inventory. All my sales where done using only two things, the phone and a computer. If you think it’s just putting photos, or having a website. You’re wrong, it’s a whole process that’s involved.” I came from a large RV dealership where we did almost $11 million in Internet sales, and that was back in 2004. Individuals like myself have mastered, and perfected a entire system that revolves around dealer internet operations.
    The difficulty is getting them to realize the importance, and benefit to it. IMO, once Marine Max really starts leveraging the Internet. Dealers will have to change or die.

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