If your Internet sales people are sitting behind a computer slamming out e-mail responses to purchase requests, it might be time for another strategy, says Shaun Kniffin, director-Internet sales for the Germain Motor Co. in Columbus, OH.

Several years ago, conventional wisdom said people shopping for vehicles online were doing so in order to avoid the dealership. If a shopper contacts the dealership using e-mail, then the dealership should respond with e-mail, until the shopper moves the conversation to the phone.

Some experts, such as Dennis Galbraith, executive director-digital marketing solutions for J.D. Power and Associates, still believe Internet managers should follow that policy.

Galbraith says dealerships should let the customer determine how long to continue with e-mail. Letting them maintain control often is seen as a customer satisfaction issue.

But is it the Internet salesperson’s job to make customers feel warm and fuzzy, or is it to sell cars? And is e-mail vs. the phone even an issue with shoppers?

Today, more than 70% of car buyers conduct part of the shopping process online and likely want information right away. Studies consistently show closing ratios on Internet leads increase significantly when responded to in the first hour, whether by phone or e-mail.

Other studies also show the faster dealerships get shoppers on the phone, the faster they turn into appointments, which leads to a greater chance for a sale. The idea is to use the Internet to get shoppers to raise their hands and provide a phone number, then use the phone to get them into the store.

For dealers, there is value in making it a quick event.

“If the shopper provides a phone number, they’re going to get a phone call,” Kniffin says. “Responding by e-mail just prolongs the process. I don’t want my dedicated Internet managers sitting at a keyboard all day. I want to see them on the phone.”

He believes an Internet salesperson with strong phone skills likely will be able to overcome any objections from customers who prefer e-mail.

Successful Internet managers say it is not an either-or situation. Several dealerships respond to an initial e-mail request with what is called an immediate auto responder e-mail that provides information the customer is asking for.

Additionally, many Internet managers like to say in the e-mail they will call the customer in a few minutes.

Although Kniffin argues the phone is the primary tool with Internet sales, he also sees the value in e-mail marketing.

“It’s not uncommon for us to send 11,000 e-mails in the space of two hours,” he says. “I don’t think 11,000 people will pick up a newspaper in two hours.”

Germain often mines its customer database to help determine which customers to target with specific promotions. For example, Germain may segment its service customers to identify potential certified-pre-owned vehicles.

“If that vehicle has less than 60,000 miles (96,558 km), we want it,” Kniffin says.

cbanks@wardsauto.com