Imagine walking up to a Barnes & Noble book-store, and after paying a nominal "cover charge" at the door, getting virtually any and every book to take home. And then imagine that, for a small additional fee, having every author, including Tom Wolfe, Ernest Hemingway and W. Edwards Deming, available to answer any questions you might have.

That is the premise behind many new web-based automobile dealership operations and training resources.

Dealer owners are finding an increasingly sophisticated car shopper walking into their showrooms today. Armed with an incredible array of web-based product and price resources, customers often know more about the vehicles in the showroom and how they're priced than the sales manager.

Even the playing field on which the sport of negotiation is played has leveled with many potential customers holding the ball and running away with it.

About 83% of Internet users in the United States likely will purchase a car in the next year. Additionally, a recent study showed that 40% of car shoppers today are Internet users.

While most if not all of those will use the Internet to gather information prior to a new car purchase, 92% say it's still important to maintain a quality relationship with the local dealership for information and service, even when the purchase itself was on-line.

Maintaining that quality relationship is as vital today as it ever was. And the dealer managers who master and understand this Internet technology have a golden opportunity to connect with these customers.

Under this premise Autolink.com was developed with Ernst & Young LLP and Data National Corporation.

Autolink.com was designed as a one-stop offering of on-line services to help auto dealers improve their competitive performance and business operations.

A flat monthly fee of $189 provides car dealers and their staff access to basic services and resources that will help them connect to the customer. The key functions include a Customer Relationship Management (CRM) service, a Learning Center for employee training, and Dealership Operations Improvement, which provides the power of artificial intelligence and decision support software.

Included in the base-price offering is access to thousands of PAQs, or previously asked questions, through Ernie(R), Ernst & Young's innovative on-line business consulting service.

An interactive, "ask-the-expert" service is also available on a pay-as-you-go basis. Subscribers can submit specific questions on-line to leading dealer training and operations professionals and expect responses usually within two business days.

Dealer-help websites have taken a big step in providing dealer managers a veritable smorgasbord of customer-relationship products and services, designed to give them all the tools and advice necessary to run a successful, profitable store.

The new sites are more focused on the customer and less on the product - a "customer-centric" approach as opposed to the more traditional "vehicle-centric" sales and management approach.

These sites will enable dealers to make a smooth and quick transition to this next level of competitive advantage: cost-efficient, one-to-one customer-focused strategy, enabled by the Internet.

Training and training management are two of the most critical challenges facing dealers today. Adding to these struggles is a shortage of talented employees, especially those outside the traditional model who could excel in a sales career but have limited automotive retail experience.

Dealers also face one of the highest turnover rates of any industry, making employee training - and tracking the training - a nightmare.

To address these challenges today, dealers have myriad training options available to them - from satellite to video and video-conferencing, to in-person seminars and training sessions.

Autolink.com incorporates 24 university-level business-training programs. It was designed to encourage the professional growth and long-term commitments that dealers need from their employees.

Each lesson and course concludes with a review and a test after which the student is given a grade.

Managers with Internet access can monitor and track the progress of each employee.

The Internet revolution literally has put access to a world of information at our fingertips. It has driven the "power to the people." And that is where it should be.

The "people" include all of us - from the consumer to the salesman to the service technician to the dealer owner. The tools of this revolution are before us and we must grasp and hold on for the ride. Those who fall off will ultimately be driven elsewhere - more than likely, out of business.

Lee A. Sage, Ernst & Young's Global Leader of Automotive Industry Services, in his book, The Concept Automotive Industry Project, says, "The Internet will emerge as a major automotive sales channel rather than merely an information source or image builder.

"The future of our industry will not be about bricks and mortar, but about connectivity, the blurring of the lines that now separate the OEMs, the suppliers, dealers and consumers."

Harnessing this power is already benefiting the consumer. The OEMs and suppliers are going online in a big way. Our job as automotive retailers is to make sure we leverage that same technology not only to sell the cars, but to streamline our operations and enhance employee training to better serve the consumer.

Steve Nickelsen is an advisor to numerous auto industry CEOs and retail dealer leaders. Between 1992-98 he hosted a monthly ASTN program, Power in Partnership, for Chevrolet and other GM Divisions. He has conducted dealer training sessions since 1987.