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It's back to the future for car shoppers, who now much prefer to contact dealerships with an old-fashioned phone call rather than via the Internet.
Two years ago, Internet sales leads were gaining on phone leads, dealers and digital marketing vendors say. But ubiquitous smartphones changed all that.
"Our phone calls are going through the roof," said Mark Holian, general manager of Gulf Coast Auto Park's Ford, Nissan and Toyota stores 40 minutes from Houston.
Today, most car buyers carry smartphones. And it's easier to use a click-to-call phone link in a dealership ad than fill out a Web site information form or send an e-mail, said Holian, whose stores sold 304 new and used vehicles in May.
Holian is among many dealership managers who have beefed up phone sales training and call monitoring.
Phone leads are up 46 percent vs. Internet leads over the past two years, according to data compiled this month for Automotive News by ADP Digital Marketing, a unit of ADP Dealer Services.
Holian: Phone links earlier
This spring, phone calls outpaced e-mail or form leads by a 4-1 ratio vs. 2-1 in January 2013, said Max Steckler, vice president for advertising and business intelligence at ADP Digital Marketing. Phone calls have skyrocketed while form leads have been relatively flat over that period.
ADP Digital Marketing provides Web sites and digital marketing services to about 10,000 U.S. dealerships, Steckler said. The unit also is widely known as Cobalt, the company's name before it was bought in 2010 by ADP. Leads are phone calls or e-mail requests for more information.
Steckler said e-mail leads were relatively more popular two years ago because senders felt they could control the interaction with salespeople and use the relative anonymity of the conversation to resist being rushed to buy.
But the click-to-call choices on mobile Web sites are making phone calls easier for consumers. And that's good for salespeople, who prefer phone calls to e-mails.
"Phone calls are better," Steckler said. "They make it quicker to ascertain what a consumer really wants."
According to Google, 35 percent of car buyers in 2013 used a smartphone or other mobile device to find information about vehicles vs. 26 percent in 2012 and just 6 percent in 2011.
Google, the world's dominant search engine, offers an option to dealerships and other businesses that allows shoppers to simply click on a phone link in a Google ad to call a store, said Lindsay Schultz, Google's head of industry, auto dealerships.
The feature, which doesn't cost extra, is popular with mobile shoppers, Schultz said. Seventy percent of people who use Google to shop or search for businesses with mobile devices use the click-to-call function, she said.
Schultz said some people use the click-to-call function while shopping on dealer lots. Click-to-callers "need an accelerated path to connect with the dealer," she said.
Holian said the growth in phone leads is roughly tracking the surge in car shoppers using smartphones.
In May, his three stores had 150 leads from phone calls vs. 116 from e-mails, he said. Two years ago in the same month, e-mail leads outnumbered phone leads 147 to 59, he said.
Holian said the stores' digital marketing vendor has used Google's click-to-call feature to drive much of that phone traffic.
Those phone calls are contributing to higher vehicle sales, he said. The 304 vehicles sold in May were up from 232 sold the previous May and 212 units in May 2012.
But the handling of the calls has required some back-to-basics sales training, Holian said.
As phone calls mounted, Gulf Coast Auto Park hired vendor to monitor calls and flag management when they were mishandled, Holian said. A mishandled call means customer information wasn't gathered or the salesperson failed to ask for an appointment, he said.
In one incident, a salesperson quoted a caller a retail price on a car that should have been quoted at an Internet price $2,500 lower, Holian said.
After being notified, Holian said, he called the customer, offered the right price and found a different salesperson to take the customer through the purchase.
Holian said salespeople taking phone calls need to study store inventory so they are prepared to talk on the fly about the products and alternatives to a customer's initial preference.
At Paragon Honda in New York City, the 30 people in the business development center are scheduling in-store appointments on 70 percent of the phone calls they receive, said General Manager Brian Benstock. In May, the store sold 623 new vehicles and 346 used.
Benstock said Paragon Honda receives three phone calls for every Internet lead as smartphone use explodes. He said consumers want information instantly, and calling is the quickest way to get it.
He likened the change in auto leads to what happened to Kodak, whose film business was decimated by digital photography. With digital cameras, shooters get images instantly without the delay of film development.
He said the prevailing attitude is "let's get there as quick as possible."
The convenience of smartphones is just part of the reason auto shoppers are increasingly abandoning e-mail, said Joe Webb an Internet sales training consultant.
Webb said dealerships still take an average of four hours to respond to Internet leads with a custom response vs. the ideal response time of 20 minutes or less. Consequently, shoppers have been conditioned to bypass Internet or e-mail leads and just call directly, he said.
If dealerships drop the ball on phone leads as they generally have on Internet leads, he said, they'll see shoppers give up on phones, too, and just walk in without giving salespeople any time to prepare for them.
Webb said, "As dealerships, we just have not done a good enough job of expediting the processing of leads."
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