Idle chat won’t win sales, but dealerships are ahead of the game if they effectively use Internet chat functions to communicate with prospective buyers, dealer consultant Mike Tyman says.

Chat is becoming a preferred form of contact for dealership customers, because it offers more interactivity and immediacy than do emails, Cars.com President Mitch Golub tells Ward’s. “Emails also run the risk of being blocked by spam filters.”

“Chat is significant,” Tyman, CEO of Professional Success, says at a Cars.com DealerADvantage webinar. “It is critical and becoming an expectation of many car shoppers.”

But dealerships must do chat right – and not half-heartedly. If dealerships can’t handle it themselves, they should hire an outside firm to take over chat responsibilities, Tyman says.

Chat skills he cites include responding quickly in your own words, building excitement, answering questions, getting contact information, qualifying customers and “taking the conversation off line to win the deal.”

Chat customers are different, says Ralph Ebersole, a Cars.com consultant. “They tend to be customers who wouldn’t email or phone the dealership. So you are not stealing customers from those forms of communication.”

As with dealership customers who use chat, the ones that prefer email expect a prompt reply, Tyman says. “A response within 30 minutes enhances the prospects of a sale. Closing ratios are cut in half if you are not responding within 30 minutes.”

He says a valuable dealership email reply includes answers to questions, video links, information on vehicles similar to ones in which a customer shows an interest, links to inventory and branding the store.

sfinlay@wardsauto.com