LAS VEGAS – Pete Dalamaggas treats dealership customers like good neighbors, not best friends.

That means they get a fair deal, not a steal. “We’re here to make money, not give cars away,” says Dalamaggas, Internet sales director at Toyota of Des Moines.

Most of his customers get it. “If I say, ‘I just can’t do that,’ a lot of times they’ll appreciate your honesty and end up buying a car from you,” he says.

Auto retailing’s Internet efforts differ from many other businesses because car shoppers ultimately go offline and into the dealership, rather than stay online from the beginning to the end of the sale.

That was the topic of discussion here at a J.D. Power and Associates Automotive Internet Roundtable session entitled “Moving Online Leads to Offline Sales.”

Give customers a reason to see you, and you can make that move smoothly, Dalamaggas says.

He describes how his Iowa dealership handles a typical online lead. “You want to give and get information in a timely manner and make it relevant, not just say, ‘When can you come in?’

“But you don’t want to give everything online. You can’t sell cars sight unseen. It’s a lot easier when you get them into the store.”

Dalamaggas also tells prospects something about the dealership and himself. “They are buying from you, not a computer. Whatever you do, make sure they like the message they hear.”

A pitch he uses with time-pressed customers is, “You’re busy, how about me selling you in an easy way at a decent price?”

But some customers strictly shop price, don’t want to know about the dealership and its fine staff and play stores off one other.

That’s apparent when customers email a request for a price quote, “so they can print it out and show it to another dealer they intend to buy from,” Dalamaggas says.

Typical Internet car customers research and shop online but buy offline, says Jim Flint of John Eagle Dealerships. “That’s our reality.”

The 14-store Texas-based dealership group intensively tracks leads and prospects, says Flint, its corporate director of interactive sales and marketing. “We’re looking for results that go from a connection to a conversation to a conversion.”

A customer-relationship management software system is used to keep active customer information, even on people who end up buying elsewhere.

It helps to maintain an ongoing relationship with such consumers because doing so may get them to “buy from us the next time,” Flint says, describing himself as a car guy who follows two things: “the people and the money.”

Tracking online car shopping behavior is Clayton Stanfield, senior manager-dealership training for eBay Motors.

He reports that typical buyers start online shopping 90 days before purchase, begin looking at models in a particular segment within 56-74 days of purchase and zero in on particular models about 30 days out.

Dealerships need a process to manage leads coming in at those different points in the shopping cycle. All leads deserve attention, although early shoppers should be treated differently than those nearing a purchase. Sometimes dealership staffers fixate on the latter and ignore the former.

“Dealers are good at the lower end of the ‘funnel,’ but not that great in the upper end,” says Angie Sherrell, referring to how leads gradually narrow down into sales.

Modern dealers embrace technology, such as websites and CRM systems, and use them to their advantage.

But they should keep it in perspective, says Sherrell, vice president and general manager of GS Marketing Group Inc., a firm that helps dealerships maintain active websites.

“All the things we’re doing we’ve always done,” she says, referring to sales fundamentals. “We’re just doing it faster.”

sfinlay@wardsauto.com