In my interactions with dealers and their staffs here in the United States and abroad, I have found that they track and measure dozens of items such as cash, expenditures, inventories, technician productivity, F&I penetration, A/R days outstanding and the list goes on and on. Yet, when it comes to responding to inquiries and e-mails from Internet-savvy prospects and clients, this disciplined approach of accurate and detailed measurement is not the norm.

My observation was confirmed by a study EDS commissioned this year. The research examined the prevailing attitudes and perceptions of dealers regarding the role and use of information technology and the Internet in relation to the automotive retail industry. One of the questions posed to the dealers surveyed was: “How long does it take your facility to respond to an Internet inquiry?”

Sixty-eight percent of the dealers surveyed indicated that a response is delivered in four hours or less. Only 1% of dealer respondents stated it takes them 48 hours or longer to respond to a consumer email.

Following the interviews, we tested the dealerships in order to measure how they performed in the real world. Each dealer surveyed was sent one or two disguised e-mail inquiries that appeared to be from a consumer in the market who had looked at their web site and vehicle inventory and wanted information on a specific unit.

In comparing the actual response rates to information to the interviews, we noted that 13% of the dealers surveyed didn't respond to our inquiry at all. We sent the same group of dealers a second inquiry several days later and experienced the same lack of responsiveness.

For several years, it has been our belief that there are some clear rules to engage prospects/customers via the Internet. The prime rule of engagement involves the timeliness of the response to Internet leads.

The majority of e-savvy customers have chosen to communicate via the web due to the efficiencies they gain by shopping and comparing in the comfort of their homes or offices. Failure to respond to an e-mail inquiry in a reasonable period of time will invariably eliminate a dealership from consideration.

With all of the tracking and measuring that dealerships perform, we highly recommend that this one element be added to your list of critical business metrics.

If you are unsure how to measure your responses to Internet inquiries, use a tried-and-true methodology: the blind shopper approach. Ask a family member or friend to periodically send an Internet inquiry to your store seeking vehicle/pricing information and track how quickly your staff responds, in addition to the content of the response. Also, have them e-mail a second cloaked message indicating an increased urgency on the part of the consumer, such as having an immediate need for a new or used vehicle.

Internet shopping and buying is just another channel through which consumers can work with you and your staff, but its importance continues to grow. Numerous studies tell us that response times over an hour or two will result in a lost prospect. If you aren't measuring the effectiveness of your approach/responsiveness to this channel, how do you really know if you are meeting each consumer's expectations?

Matt Parsons is the vice president of Marketing and New Business Development for EDS' Automotive Retail Group.