Make it an outstanding e-shopping experience How many products or services have you purchased on the Internet? Afterward, how many times did you say, "Wow, that was great! I can't wait to tell everyone about my incredible customer service experience!" My guess is you have seldom uttered those words.

On the Internet, your prospective customers can see probably no less than 10 of your competitors with a mere click of a mouse button. Have you made an investment to create a memorable experience for customers when they visit or purchase from your dealership's web site?

Prospective customers take only a few seconds to decide whether they want to do business with your dealership. The strategies you use to create a memorable impression with your web site customers will be critical to increasing sales and your word-of-mouth and repeat business.

Here are a few ideas on how to retain prospective e-customers:

Immediate Response - A Jupiter Communications' survey reveals that customers expect responses to e-mails within six hours. Yet only 20% of companies are meeting these expectations. Customers shop the Internet because it's fast and convenient.

Set up a system to monitor and immediately respond to e-mails. An instant reply to inquiries should be a top priority for your customer service, marketing and sales staff. Send test e-mails to continually check your dealership's response time.

Reward and recognize employees and departments for immediate response time.

Online Customer Service - What happens when a customer comes to your web site and has a question or concern about your product or service before they buy? Online customer service, a simple way for web site visitors to "chat" with someone from your company via computer while they are at your site, allows live interaction with prospective customers at the moment they may be ready to make a buying decision.

There are a number of companies that provide online customer service software. Human Click and Live Helper offer a free version.

According to a Forrester Research survey, when the purchase amount exceeds $100, nearly one in three customers say they want live customer assistance.

Personal Touch - This is the missing ingredient in most Internet transactions. Go one step better than autoresponders that spit out a message after a purchase. Have one of your employees or sales staff call and thank your customer for their order. Provide them with a number to call if there are any problems.

Know Your Customer's Needs - How many products or services have you bought where the company called, mailed or e-mailed you to ask:

* Did you like the product or service purchased?

* Would you rate your buying experience with us?

* What did you like about doing business with us?

* What can we do to improve our service or product?

Your customers are dying to tell you exactly what they think - give them the opportunity. Add a button to your site that gives your customers an easy way to share their feelings and opinions. But don't forget to provide an immediate response to their feedback.

Fraud and theft of credit card information are real fears to many Web visitors. Let your satisfied customers' personal experiences sell your product or services. Testimonials will help ease those first-time visitors' fears!

Build a Community - Become the company that is the resource for your customers. Provide your customers with tips, ideas, articles and other resources that help them with their needs.

If you provide a service, set up a discussion board or online chat where consumers can ask general questions and receive answers from a qualified professional. One auto parts supplier has a certified mechanic available online from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. to answer questions or problems a customer may have installing a part on a vehicle.

Test Everything - How many times have you gone to a site to find information or to order a product and there was a problem? The page was not available, it was impossible or too frustrating to place an order, the order form didn't work or, even worse, it didn't calculate correctly.

See how long it takes your site to load or how quickly you can place an order from a 28k modem. Graphics may be visually pleasing, but if it takes 20-30 seconds for a page to load, in all likelihood your visitor won't stay around to even place an order! If a prospective customer can't get to the order form in three clicks or less, chances are the next page they click on may be your competitor.

Track Results - After having spent thousands of dollars to build and market your web site, what steps have you taken to track the results of your investment? Purchase software or contract for service to track your web activity. This tracking allows you to know:

a. Where your visitors come from

b. How much time they spend at your site

c. If they come back

Compare the sales from your site to the number of visitors. Are you meeting your projected goals? If you can't measure it, you can't manage it.

Evaluate Your Internet Customer Service - Hire a mystery shopping company (a company that poses as a customer) to "shop" your web site.

With a click of the mouse, customers can be doing business with you or your competitor. What you do to grab their attention and to create an extraordinary customer service experience will determine if they buy from you or click over to your competition!