Dealerships are responding to shoppers' email inquiries faster than before, but there's room for improvement, says Chris Cawston, CEO of Strategic Connections, a communications and marketing firm.

When it comes to the speed and quality of responses to Internet leads and customers' questions, “some dealership people do it well, and a lot of people don't do it well,” he says.

Slow e-response times have been a long-standing industry issue. Some dealerships are plagued by sales staffers not only responding slowly, but sometimes not responding at all to online shoppers.

“If you respond within an hour, it doubles the sales conversion rate,” Cawston says at the 2010 Automotive Customer Centricity Summit in Los Angeles. “How many dealerships respond in an hour? Well, more than before. But there is still a long way to go.”

It's not just about quick replies. Also at issue is the quality of responses. A study indicates only 25% of shoppers have their questions answered in the first e-mail. There hasn't been much headway here. It has been the same for four years.

Less than 50% of responding dealerships address the shopper's inventory question, according to the Cobalt Group study. Only 13% of responses provide any information as to the value of the brand or product a customer asked about.

Why does it matter? Of auto consumers who switched brands, 23% did so because of poor online dealer interaction, Cawston says.

For dealers who want to fix a problem like that, he proposes using a standard business-management approach: Identify what's important; convey why it is important; implement a plan of action and then measure performance.

“What gets measured, gets done,” Cawston says, citing a dealership that nearly doubled its sales closing rate by taking such steps.

“Today, most auto shoppers start online,” he says. “If you are not managing that well, it's as bad as letting your dealership get rundown. It's worse, really.”

The good news is that developing a plan of action to improve the response time and quality of dealership Internet responses “is a lot cheaper than doing a dealership renovation,” Cawston says.