“Most car dealers don’t have a full-time online staffer,” says Mark Garms, Sr. VP Dealer Operations and Strategy, Autobytel Inc. “The problem was on one side, dealers were saying, ‘Hey, these leads are not closing as much as we would like.’ And on the other side, the consumer was saying, ‘Hey, the dealer is not getting back to me as quickly as I would like.’ ”
Certainly, car dealers can’t always be on standby to immediately follow up on Web-generated leads, as they are often working the sales lot, doing test drives or talking to customers on the telephone. But, as Garms explains, time is of the essence -- especially for Autobytel, where keeping consumers wowed by the online experience when compared to offline car shopping is the lifeblood of their business.
After all, they get paid per lead in some states and a flat fee in others, depending on state regulations. And while their bucket was already pretty full with leads, a hole needed to be plugged in order to build a bigger brand with consumers and keep the faith among their dealer partners.
Garms wanted a way to help dealerships follow up leads on a same-day basis. Ultimately, they needed an Internet sales manager -- who could also work the sales lots and other prospect channels -- in each of their dealer’s offices. CAMPAIGN
Garms and his team were familiar with click-to-call technology, which many retailers were using to automate immediate calls to consumers. They embarked on a mission to retool the system to fit their needs. In their program, a call was triggered to a salesperson located at one of their partner dealerships once consumers filled out a Web form.
This way, whether the salesperson was stuck in a meeting or away on a lunch appointment, they were immediately alerted of the lead so they deal with it in a timely fashion.
Here are the eight steps that got them there:
-> Step #1. Enlist dealers
To create awareness among dealers, Garms’ team used a variety of marketing efforts, including calls to those who had already signed up for the car listings service, PR-driven media stories, direct mail and trade magazine advertising. They hoped that word of mouth among dealers would also push the initiative.
“Whenever we spoke to dealers over the phone, we told them that they were probably only contacting 20% of their Autobytel prospects within the first few hours of filling out a form,” says Casey McCaffrey, Director Strategic Initiatives. “Most did not argue with that idea.”
-> Step #2. Survey past site users
To optimize the timing between when a form gets submitted and the follow-up communication, Garms had his team perform a year’s worth of surveys to identify how quickly their audience wanted to be contacted. Consumers were asked not only about when but also how they wanted to be communicated with.
In order to accurately determine what actually worked (and didn’t) in the past, repeat site users were queried on:
o How soon they were contacted
o Whether they purchased a car from that dealer
o Reason why they did (or didn't) purchase a car
It was important to know what time window to suggest to their dealer partners in terms of following up on leads.
-> Step #3. Web form menu
Users who clicked on “Free Price Quote” at the top of the homepage then saw separate drill-down menus for car make and model, as well as a place to enter their ZIP Code. The following page allowed them to enter what they were interested in, including:
o Automatic transmission or stick shift
o Roof rack
o Alloy wheels
Another drop-down menu let them select how soon they wanted to be contacted:
o 48 hours
o Two weeks
o One month
Plus, time of day:
o Late afternoon
The process then used fields for each basic element of offline/online contact information, while a comment box allowed users to type in exactly what kind of car they were looking for. “To arm our Internet sales managers with relevancy, we wanted the consumers to be able to put in specific information -- like if they wanted a red car or a convertible or wanted to talk about their trade-in,” Garms says.
-> Step #4. Weed out false entries
Next, each form that got filled out was put through a scrubbing system for made-up names (“Mickey Mouse”) and to purge duplicate requests, while also match area codes to prefix. The system also included an email verification process.
-> Step #5. Automated message to dealer
The system then sent an automated voice message (called a “whisper message”) to the dealer, describing what the consumer wanted in terms of new, used, trade, car make, model, etc. When joining the program, the dealer designated three phone numbers for the system to dial -- cell phone, desk phone or a third option -- as well as the order in which they wanted to be called.
-> Step #6. Time restrictions
The team also put mechanisms into place that stopped leads from being passed along via phone when they were generated before 9 a.m. or after 9 p.m. in the dealer’s time zone. These leads were redirected by email into the dealer’s sales management system for the purpose of follow-up, but no call to the Internet sales manager was attempted.
-> Step #7. Generate report on leads
Garms wanted dealers to be able to regularly view the number of leads they were receiving and how many were actually contacted on the same day. So, they set up the system to automatically email a monthly report with how many calls the dealers received and how many they reacted to.
-> Step #8. Notify prospects by email
With minutes of submitting their information, prospects were sent two emails:
- The first introduced them to their Internet sales manager at the dealership.
- The second gave them information on a car in the lot that fit their request.
Well, the multichannel advertising strategy, which was designed to get the initiative off the ground, is running at full gear. In just one year, 956 dealers have signed on to use the program. Most importantly, all of the system’s mechanisms -- such as the Web form, verification process, whisper message and automated email -- are bringing car shoppers and local dealers together in a timely and powerful fashion.
Dealers report a 52% overall increase in the number of leads they were contacting and doubled their closing rates. Some dealers’ closing rates on Autobytel-generated leads have jumped 300%, while one particular dealer doubled their Internet-generated sales in the first month.
Because Garms discovered that 31% of the respondents to their survey said they were more likely to buy if they received a response from the dealer that same day rather than two business days, they instructed their Internet sales managers to call within four hours of the lead being generated.
“Through the testing, we found out that the element of ‘wow’ was taken away if the prospects were still not sitting in front of their computers,” McCaffrey says. “So, we knew that sooner was always better.”
In addition, dealers have given only positive feedback to the performance of the local time restrictions aspect of the program, as well as the monthly reports they’re getting. Useful links related to this article
Creative samples from Autobytel's lead generation system:
eStara Inc. - service provider that created Autobytel’s automated calls/email system:
R.L. Polk & Co. - helped with market research:
Survey.com - performed consumer testing before the system launch:
Ruder Finn Public Relations - helped managed PR for media mentions to increase dealer awareness:
RBI Communications Inc. - helped managed PR for media mentions to increase dealer awareness: