They’re anonymous until they’re not.

That describes typical online car shoppers who early on withhold their names and contact information from dealerships.

But when they do give it up, they are ready to buy. They go offline and into the dealership to cap the purchase. That’s a full pivot from pre-Internet times when car shopping began at the store.

Autotrader and Kelley Blue Book are part of that so-called automotive digital revolution. Part of the Cox Automotive Media Solutions Group, the two brands have been headed since August by Brian Geitner.

He joined Cox five years ago when its Manheim brand acquired his company, Dealer Services Corp., an inventory financing company for used-car dealers.

“I’ve learned a ton, and I’m still learning,” he says of his job as the group’s president.

A study by data-analytics firm Transparency says 60% of the average dealer’s sales are directly influenced by Autotrader or Kelley. Accordingly, Geitner touts a new service that gives dealers an individualized analysis of their buyer databases to show how much the two brands affect their sales.

He talks with WardsAuto about customer expectations, the new definition of a sales lead and today’s “car-shopping journey,” a term that’s relatively new to the vernacular. Here’s an edited version of the Q&A.

WardsAuto: What is the typical so-called car-shopping journey like these days?

Geitner: Many consumers enjoy the trusted environment of the iPad on their couch as they’re doing their research, selecting a vehicle and then a dealership. What we call the full-retail cycle can take three months for some people. “Here’s my phone number” is a big next step for consumers.

Because of the Internet, consumer product knowledge and expectations have dramatically increased. They don’t need their hand held from square one. They’re coming in with all that research under their belts. Their expectations are high.

WardsAuto: Say you provide a good lead and then something happens at the dealership that kills the deal. Isn’t that the dealership’s fault if you’ve done your part?

Geitner: We’re never going to know if customers were put off by the salesperson or if the car they were looking at was sold beforehand.

What you are sharing is clear. But those missed chances are few in numbers. Most of our dealers know the consumer experience is vital. When we get consumers on the lot, dealerships do a great job at treating them like kings and queens.

WardsAuto: Some industry people say car salespeople should skip some steps in the traditional step-selling process if customers have already covered that ground on their own online. It could be frustrating to them if they are at step 4 and the salesperson is trying to do step 2 and 3.

Geitner: I had a great experience yesterday buying a TV. I had spent a lot of time researching and went to the store. A salesman proceeded to start the sales process by asking qualifying questions. I was very transparent, and told him the research I’d done. I said, “I don’t want you to coach me through this, here’s what I need.” He said, “I got you.” He didn’t skip a beat. He was great.

WardsAuto: I thought you were going the other way and were going to say he insisted on trying to do the whole spiel.

Geitner: No, he kept pace with me. He had a great sale that day.

WardsAuto: People don’t formally submit leads as much as they do today. They definitely engage with dealerships online chat and email and the phone, but that whole process of filling out the form and submitting the lead has been sort of abandoned.

Geitner: The definition of leads has changed. When someone engages in a chat, it says you have permission to talk to me. Same with email and phone calls. They are crossing that line. Those are the big stepping stones. These people are strong intenders.

WardsAuto: Most car shoppers want anonymity until a certain point. What is that point and why do they want to stay unknown until them?

Geitner: Today’s online shoppers are thorough and efficient. They are going to go through their level of process. It’s a matter of how they want to manage the process.

One of our passions at Cox Automotive is embracing the retail journey. It’s creating that trusted environment where they invite you in. They don’t want to be flung around as a lead to 12 different dealerships. So when they give you their email, chat address or phone number, that’s an invite to engage.

WardsAuto: The Transparency study indicates AutoTrader or Kelley directly influence 60% of the average dealer’s sales. That’s impressive, but are dealers bothered by the fact that the majority of their online business comes from third-party sources, or is that just the way things are today?

Geitner: The reality is that we have strong brands out there. A lot of people go to that objective third party first in their car-buying journey. It is natural they do their research on KBB and go through all that inventory across dealerships on AutoTrader before diving to a dealership’s website. It’s a natural thing and more prevalent with youngers car shoppers coming up. They want to go to that third-party first.

Many people work to help dealers sell more cars. That’s what it’s all about.      

sfinlay@wardsauto.com