More than 90% of dealerships currently have websites. But simply maintaining a website does not mean your dealership is performing e-commerce.

Many dealers are delivering more than 1,000 vehicles a year through Internet efforts. Most are barely scratching the surface.

The Internet is not a passing fad. Each year, the number of customers who go online before purchasing their vehicle continues to rise. It's a trend with no end in sight. With the skyrocketing costs of print advertising, dealers need to realize that the Internet allows them to reach potential customers at a fraction of the previous cost.

Most dealers will agree with those facts. They would love to have a successful Internet department, but simply do not know how. Here is some advice that I recently shared with a group of general managers at AutoNation:

  • One of the first things a customer sees is your website. What kind of image does it present? It must be attractive, professional, functional and easy to navigate. If your website is a turn-off, you might just lose that customer. Items such as aged inventory, leftover units as well as parts and service specials need to be marketed through your website. A successful website will not only sell more cars but advertise every area of your dealership for a fraction of what you would normally spend on marketing.
  • The success of your Internet department will be affected greatly by who manages and staffs it. A salesperson who succeeds on the show room floor will not always duplicate that success in the Internet office. Conversely, it takes more than computer skills. Do not be afraid to put your best people there. Have a compensation plan that encourages top performers to want to work in the Internet department. The average Internet sales guide should handle no more than 75 leads per month. Anything more than that will minimize effectiveness.
  • Most dealers fail to maximize the opportunity a lead presents, either by not responding in a timely fashion or by simply mishandling the lead. Since the buying cycle can be up to eight weeks, it is critical that your leads are properly managed. Internet leads are no different than any other type of lead. If you don't properly follow them up, they will go elsewhere. If your salespeople are only sending customers prices, you are leaving money on the table. Top Internet departments routinely have a higher PVR (per vehicle retailed) than that of walk-in sales.
  • Salespeople in the Internet need to have the best phone skills. Teaching your Internet sales team how to handle the phones is critical. One reason many Internet departments never reach their full potential is that salespeople are not properly trained in working the phones, which constitutes a large majority of their job. Make sure they get the training they need.
  • Accountability is critical. General managers should receive a report on a daily basis that breaks down lead counts, appointments, shows, sales by model, PVR and the like. Keeping that information in the front of everyone's mind daily will help you identify strengths and weaknesses. Reinforce teamwork between the desk and the Internet department. And remember dealership principals, it starts at the top!

The business is out there. The question is: Are you going to take it?

I'll bet you are.

Ross Rossano is the president and founder of The Rossano Institute and also an AutoNation Inc. trainer. He's at rossrossano@therossanoinstitute.com.