DETROIT – Car dealerships are doing a better job of replying quickly to customer Internet leads. Now they are focusing on the quality of those responses.

So says Jody Stidham, director-global practice, at the automotive consulting firm Urban Science.

“When communicating with customers online, last year the theme was quick responses,” she says. “This year, the theme is quality responses.”

Best practices include quoting a price, offering information on comparably priced alternative vehicles and confirming the availability of a vehicle in which a customer expresses interest.

The higher the quality of the response, the greater the chances a lead will result in a vehicle sale, Stidham says.

Dealership personnel handling e-leads also should cue the next steps, such as trying to schedule the customer to visit the dealership to take a test drive, she says.

Quoting prices is a sticking point for some dealers. In an Urban Science survey, 30% of dealers say they won’t give pricing information to online customers.

Those dealers may think there are valid reasons for withholding such information, such as a price-shopping customer taking advantage of them. But it is counterproductive to guard the price, Stidham says.

“A dealer who wants to be in the game should give pricing when responding to an email lead inquiry,” she tells WardsAuto. “If a dealer is worried about getting locked into a quote, at least give a price range.”

Research indicates consumers typically send leads to more than one dealer in the same market.

“If one is giving a price and the other is refusing to, which dealer do you think the customer will end up buying from?” Stidham says.

Urban Science expects a predicted 8% to 9% increase in light-vehicle sales this year will drive more online traffic to dealerships.

Lead volume could increase as much as 15% to 20%, with the average dealer handling 85 leads per brand monthly, up from 75 last year.

“Dealers need to continue to focus on the online lead channel as an important source of sales, because this growing space is here for the long term,” Stidham says.

sfinlay@wardsauto.com