A hot auto-retailing debate centers on whether it is wise for dealerships to maintain designated Internet departments or have the entire sales staff take e-leads.

Proponents of the separate department say Internet customers are different and should be treated accordingly.

Supporters of the so-called “Internet store” – in which every sales staffer is trained in how to handle Internet customers and leads – say most car consumers use the Internet, so why have a minority of the staff handling a majority of the customers?

John Holt, CEO of Cobalt Group Inc., an automotive digital marketing firm, foresees a day when designated dealership Internet departments will “outlive their usefulness, but we are not at that stage yet.”

Why? Because a lot of dealers still are mastering the fundamentals, he says. “You need to get those down before you teach everyone in the dealership. Internet customers are special, but we are darn near at the point where everyone is an Internet customer.”

A dealership with seven years of expertise in running an effective Internet department may be ready to take the next step of becoming a full-fledged Internet store, Holt says.

Dean Evans, chief marketing officer for Dealer.com that offers digital services to dealers, foresees the day when all dealership sales people, not just members of a designated department, will handle Internet leads.

“But you will always need a person responsible for acquiring leads and overseeing the conversion of those leads into sales,” he says. “That component needs to be there. You can’t just disperse leads throughout the store and hope for the best.”

As far as the great debate over whether Internet departments have outlived their usefulness, Mark Garms, chief operating officer of Autobytel, a third-party lead provider, says he has seen different models that work equally effectively.

“It’s not one size fits all,” he says. “I saw one dealership in Queens, NY, that had regular sales people on the floor and seven Internet people upstairs. It really worked for them.

“If you are a large dealership, you can afford that team. If you are smaller, the efficiencies might not be there.”

Despite those differences, the Internet-selling process remains constant, Garms says.

“It’s all about getting back to customers soon. Answering questions. Selling the appointment, not the car. And following up , following up, following up, because not every Internet customer is ready to buy today.

“If you do all those things, you’ll do well.”

Mitch Golub, head of Cars.com, an online automotive marketplace, is seeing more dealerships train the entire sales force in Internet sales. “Those dealerships won’t hire sales people unless they can handle an Internet leads properly.

Dealerships need a process to handle the Internet leads and customers, he says. “But a lot of it comes down to whether you are a good salesperson who provides information that is needed. The difference is that you usually need to provide the Internet customer with more information.”

It is advisable for dealerships to maintain designated Internet operations, says Kevin Westfall, a senior vice president at AutoNation Inc., the country’s largest dealership chain.

“There has to be a dedicated process to handle it,” he says. “It can be a long process.”

sfinlay@wardsauto.com