Toyota site has better closing rate than for walk-ins "The Internet a lemon?" "FounderingSales.com?"

That's what banner headlines in Fortune magazine and the Detroit Free Press proclaimed, citing direct-sales dot-coms' gloom and doom in sales results, dealer satisfaction and, perish the thought, common stock values.

But the publications should check out the latest report from Gulf States Toyota. Its newborn web site has produced a closing rate unexpectedly higher than that for walk-in customers.

The 135 participating Toyota dealers in the Houston-based GST distributor network chalked up a 19.7% transaction closing rate for the first four months of its new Trilogy software.

That compares, says GST President Toby Hynes, with closing rates ranging from 15% to 17% for walk-in customers who had never visited the site in a five-state territory including Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, Oklahoma and Mississippi.

Says Angie Sherrell, GST's director of interactive marketing, "Our site is unique in that it is keyed towards consumer interests at the time of the visit. It is distributorship-wide, so that all dealer inventories are covered, but the consumer can choose out of two or three dealers in his or her market.

"F&I is not shopped except at the dealership, but we are approaching a capability of putting trade-ins online if the consumer wishes.

"We post accurate MSRP data, moreover, which customers appreciate after finding that other so-called `information' sites mislead because they are not current with changes, incentives and new options."

Ms. Sherrell helped train the 135 participating dealers and the Internet managers in rolling out the site last August.

All but four GST dealers are involved in the online program, which Trilogy conceived as being easier to use for consumers than existing lead-generator and direct-sales portals.

As many as 20,000 inventoried vehicles are accessible, and if the desired choice isn't among them, the site triggers an instant search and keeps the consumer up-to-date on the progress of finding the desired unit and hustling it to the dealer of choice.

The distributor asks dealers to reply to every inquiry within four hours.

The hybrid-engine Toyota Prius has not been included as yet among available vehicles. Inventory scarcities early on included the new Sequoia SUV, Solara convertible and MR2. But otherwise, dealers are pleased with the site's results, says Ms. Sherrell.

From Trilogy's perspective, it plans to develop for GST dealers "a comprehensive customer profile of the customer and their needs to allow for a highly efficient buying experience," says Ajay Agarwal, executive vice-president of sales and marketing.

GST's dealer steering committee for the new software project includes:

Joey Dupuis, Fort Bend Toyota, Rosenberg, TX; Glen Bawcum, Toyota of Paris, TX; Kim Ledbetter, Price LeBlanc Toyota, Baton Rouge, LA; Todd Ledet, Sterling McCall Toyota, Houston; Brad DuPuis, Toyota of New Orleans, and Ben Kane, John Eagle Sport City Toyota, Dallas.

Meanwhile GST at two of its dealerships is piloting a service-and parts information link.

Dealership web sites should center on customers' concerns - not the dealer's, advises consultant Sylvia Zielke.

"A dealer doesn't want his or her web site to be `I-I' and `me-me,'" she says. "Promote yourself but don't overdo it. Focus more on customer interests."

Also keep it short and simple, recommends Ms. Zielke who designed web sites for the 24-franchise Spitzer Auto World dealership group in Ohio.

"The average Internet user does only five to nine seconds of viewing," she says.

Other 'net advice from Ms. Zielke: - Keep your web pricing on used vehicles "within the realistic world."

- Run photos of cars for sale but don't clutter the background with trees or buildings. Show a front and back angle of the vehicle, from one side to the other.

- Include a payment calculator for purchases and leases.

- Include maps, hours of operations, phone numbers and fax numbers.

- Offer coupons. "They work. A free car wash could lead to a sale."

- Provide background on the dealership and profiles of personnel on a separate page but do that "towards the back of the book."

- Have an interactive "talk-to-us" e-mail capability where customers or others can offer suggestions and, yes, complaints.

Ms. Zielke says it's important for the dealership Internet staff to be highly trained in product knowledge and consumer relations because they are dealing with smart customers on the web.

"Do not ever have a sales person give a quote and then say, `Let me go back to my manager,'" she says. "Say what you're going to do and do what you are going to say."