The Internet has transformed auto sales just as it has transformed many other retail sectors. So how can dealers compete in this new online world?

Gilchrist Chevrolet is an 86-year-old family-owned business in Tacoma, WA. Last November, we renewed our focus on Internet sales.

Within six months, they comprised more than a third of our overall business, and most of that is incremental. It has had a big impact on our dealership’s revenue. Here are four things we learned on our journey.

First, you need at least two salespeople dedicated to the Internet channel.

Though Gilchrist had an e-commerce presence for years, for most of that time we relied on the same round-robin lead-distribution system we used for showroom visitors.

On the surface, taking turns seems like the fairest way. But it didn’t work for a key reason: Internet leads demand fast responses. We’ve found the optimal time to be less than five minutes. That rarely happens if you use the round-robin system.

Yet it’s easily achievable if you always have at least one person on-site who’s dedicated to responding to Internet leads. You wouldn’t make a showroom visitor wait around for 24 hours before offering to help. Why do that with an Internet visitor?

People who take the time to visit your website and submit an online inquiry usually are going to purchase a car soon. Get back to them quickly.

Second, target your digital marketing campaigns. At first, we sent campaigns broadcast-style to everyone on our lists. We learned irrelevant emails are the best way to get customers and prospects to opt out of your marketing.  

Now, we have an Outsell marketing service that allows us to use analytics to generate targeted campaigns.  People who are a good fit for SUVs receive campaigns that feature SUVs. People who show an interest in pickup trucks receive campaigns featuring those. And so on. Relevancy matters.

We can even determine interest in a specific model, such as a Chevrolet Corvette, and target a campaign accordingly.  

By making our emails more relevant, we went from more than 100 opt-outs per campaign to just a few. Our Outsell platform automatically compiles the campaign content and determines the targeting.

Third, participate in discount programs, but selectively. We’ve worked with many discount programs, but have learned to spend most of our time on just a few.

We narrowed the list through trial-and-error, picking third-party websites with the greatest likelihood of lead conversions.

So instead of chasing leads from several programs we used to work with, we doubled down on the most productive. That has paid off.

Again, having dedicated Internet sales reps is incredibly helpful here, because fast response times are an important ingredient for success.

Fourth, implement a buy-online program that enables customers to do much of the paperwork online, before they come to the showroom.

No one likes paperwork. But it’s worse to make customers do it in the showroom and then wait for approvals.

As part of our renewed focus on Internet sales, we designed an online program that enables customers to fill out much of the required paperwork (such as credit applications and trade evaluations) ahead of time.

When they come to the showroom, often all they need to do is sign and get the keys to their new car.

It takes a lot of the friction out of the process and is especially useful in cases where we are selling specialty cars to customers who live far away. The point is to make it as easy as possible for someone to purchase a car from us.

Tamie Nuxoll is the Internet sales manager at Gilchrist Chevrolet in Tacoma, WA. She can be reached at tamien@gilchristauto.motosnap.com and 253-474-0645.