The old-fashioned telephone — as well as modern computer equipment — are among the tools of the trade for dealership Internet sales staffers.

There's a point where the customer switches from online to the phone line for conversational interaction.

One school of thought is that a dealership Internet department staffer should make five phone calls in connection with each Internet lead.

That ratio is a bit ambitious, says Alexander Busschots, Internet manager for Ann Arbor (MI) Automotive, a multi-franchise dealership.

“If you're working 200 leads, that's 1,000 telephone calls,” he says. “That's a lot.”

Some follow-up phone calls, emanating from initial e-mails, turn out to be dead ends.

“A lot of people will say, ‘I never e-mailed you!’” says Busschots.

He particularly remembers one odd conversation that started like that and got worse.

He says, “I called the phone number that was included with the e-mail. A grumpy guy says, ‘I never contacted you.’ Then he figured out it was his wife who did. He started saying, ‘Who's she think she is? I'm paying all the bills! She thinks I'm going to buy her a car?!’”

Busschots says he started getting concerned for the well-being of the wife. He managed somewhat to calm down the irate spouse who ended the conversation by saying, “I'll sue you if you charge me for anything.”

Pitfalls aside, Busschots says the Internet is a great way to sell cars to people who are not enthralled with traditional car buying at the dealership.

“A lot of people had a prior bad experience at a dealership,” he says. “Unfortunately, they'll direct that feeling to another dealership that doesn't deserve it. But they see the Internet as a positive alternative. They feel more in charge.

“A lot of women use the Internet because a lot of dealerships don't treat them as they should be treated.”

Few people actually buy cars online. Most shop and research. “Some will research for weeks and they come into the dealership with overwhelming knowledge,” says Busschots.

But there is that occasional fast online buy, usually from a customer who is more interested in convenience than competitive pricing.

“I had an Internet customer — a busy doctor — buy a car in 15 minutes,” says Busschots. “I delivered the car to his office myself because I wanted to establish a good relationship.”

Why all the attention to the cyber customer? Because of their growing numbers, says Mark Hogan, president of General Motors Corp.'s e-GM initiative.

“In spite of the dot-com bust, the web still plays an important role in the automotive industry,” says Hogan.

He says 60% of prospective vehicle buyers use the web for research, a number that's expected to grow to 75% in two years, representing over 11 million new-vehicle sales.

“And these customers aren't just fooling around on the Internet,” says Hogan. “Our experience shows that, of those customers who use GMBuyPower and then contact a dealer, two-thirds of them actually purchase a vehicle within 14 days.”

The chances of closing the deal are better if the dealership responds to customer inquiries within 24 hours, Hogan notes.

“After that, the chances drop dramatically, he says.

Meanwhile, Cars.com, an online auto buying service, uses phones in conjunction with the Internet — and is enhancing that tag-team match, says the firm's president Mitch Golub.

Cars.com customers dial an 800 number that puts them through to dealership sales personnel. A new product, called “Call Whisper” informs the sales person, before connecting with the caller, that a Cars.com customer is on the line. The caller doesn't hear that.

It's intended to give the sales person a heads-up that an Internet customer — not just any caller — is on the line, says Golub.

He adds, “I think those calls should go to the best sales people at the dealership. Internet customers expect different treatment, and the best sales people are the ones who realize that.”