Based on the inactions of some dealerships, you wouldn’t know that. In the study, every 14th customer Internet inquiry, on average 7%, received no response at all, not even an automated email. 

On average, online customer inquiries received a dealership response within 30 minutes less than 50% of the time.

Brand-by-brand variations are evident. For example, Fiat, Land Rover, Lincoln and Ram dealerships responded within 30 minutes on average more than 60% of the time. But Cadillac, Chevrolet, Mini and Mitsubishi dealerships responded within 30 minutes less than 33% of the time. 

Most dealerships with effective Internet sales processes reply immediately by email, but also try to contact the customer by telephone. Three years ago, fewer than 50% did both of those things. Today, 64% do, according to the latest study.

Here is O’Hagan’s 3-step ladder to success:

  • Use a rich-content automated response that sells the dealership, rather than merely thanking someone for sending an email. “Think of it as a print ad saying: ‘This is a good place to buy a car, and here’s why.’”
  • Within minutes of that, a salesperson should send an email to the customer.
  • Then pick up the phone and call them. Ironically, making phone contact with customers is an essential part of Internet sales success.

“It’s very unusual to find a dealership that is good at the process if calling on the phone isn’t an integral step,” O’Hagan says. “If you can’t have them at the store, the next best thing is talking to them on the phone. It’s far better and much more personal than emailing back and forth.”

Some dealership salespeople hesitate to make that call, fearing the online customer will perceive it as a hard-sell tactic.

Nor should it be, O’Hagan says. “You shouldn’t get on the phone and immediately try to sell a car to this person who makes an inquiry through your website, any more than you would pounce on them and try to sell them a car as soon as they walk into the dealership. Your first step is building rapport.”

The study measured 37 combinations of dealership replies relying on automated and personal responses. The most common dealership reply includes an automated response, followed by a non-customized salesperson template email, in effect an e-form letter.

The latest Pied Piper Internet lead effectiveness study was conducted between September and March by submitting online inquiries to a sample of 14,656 dealerships nationwide representing all major brands.