When Todd Smith owned a Chevrolet dealership, he focused on using technology to help his cause.

One of the things he discovered is that most customers prefer online chat to emails.

“We learned of a shift, of people going from email to chat,” says Smith, who now heads of ActiveEngage Inc., creator of an automotive live-chat system. “It's almost as if email weren't fast enough.”

As a communication channel, chat offers an easier back and forth between participants. That's important for customers seeking information from dealerships.

“The main reason people engage a dealership online is to learn about product availability as in, ‘Do you have this vehicle?’” Smith says. “Next, they are interested in pricing. Next is incentives and rebate information.

“Customers want to know about these things, which a lot of times are not available on dealer websites,” he says at a J.D. Power and Associates Internet conference in Las Vegas.

Chat — one of the earliest forms of Internet social networking — can provide answers and information in a conversational way that is conducive to the sales process.

The average dealership-shopper chat session is about eight minutes, Smith says. “When a customer comes online, we try to engage. Twenty percent go right into an appointment at the dealership.”

The online process of interacting with customers is much the same as what's done in person at the dealership, Smith says.

Regardless, some dealers struggle with chat, he says. “Others don't because they have put together a dynamic sales process and use it daily.”

A dealership must want to do it, says Clayton Stanfield, eBay Motors' senior manager-dealer training.

“One dealership guy told me he hated chat,” Stanfield recalls. “I asked why. He said, ‘Because people are always bugging me.’”

That type of person should probably keep clear of chat.