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An estimated 90% of new-car dealerships maintain Web sites, but that still leaves 10% not reaching that Internet customer.

For those one out of 10 Web-less dealers, consider that in 2001, 62% of all customers used the Web in some way during their car buying experience. That number is expected to hit 75%-80% in two years.

Dealers currently considering getting involved with the Internet should plan their work and work their plan.

The first step in establishing an Internet department is to develop a strategy and vision.

It shouldn't be a makeshift affair.

"A dealership's Internet presence needs to be determined by the dealer - not an individual at the dealership who likes dabbling in that space," cautions Matt Parsons, vice president for EDS' Automotive Retail Group.

Part of the process is measuring and tracking leads and closing ratios. Otherwise it's hard to know if the endeavor is succeeding or failing, notes Paul Rogers, senior training manager for Cobalt's e-Dealer Academy.

He says the dealer should insist that dealership personnel follow the tracking process, and are held accountable.

The process should include quick response time to e-mails. All of the research shows that timely responses drive closing ratios. Incorporate the use of auto responders for the initial e-mail response to the lead. "But make those responses answer the question being asked," says Rogers.

Systemized follow-up is important. "It takes longer to complete a sale with an Internet customer," explains Rogers. "Often, as many as seven to ten e-mails will be exchanged before a sale is made." There are plenty of lead management systems that help dealers manage the follow-up process.

Training is part of the equation. Make sure the employees understand the process and how to use information technology tools the dealership invests in - such as lead management systems.

The Jim Koons Automotive Group, based in Washington D.C., conducts semi-monthly training for new employees on the Internet sales process and use of its lead management tool, WebControl.

"It's a big part of our success," says Mirza Thomas, the group's Internet director.

A dealership department can be set up any number of ways. One way is a completely separate Internet department that can handle the entire process from receiving the lead to selling the car.

But, in most cases, much of the process is completed on the phone and in the dealership. Some states require the customer to come into the dealership to sign the paperwork.

However, there are dealerships that have set up their Internet departments so the entire process can be handled online. Their Web sites have all of the necessary interactive features that allow a customer to buy a car without entering the store.

Rogers suggests giving an Internet sales representatives no more than 80 leads a month. Beyond that, it becomes increasingly harder to give each lead the attention it deserves.

Another way of setting up an Internet presence is not maintaining a separate Internet department but instead, have the leads handled initially by a Business Development Center (BDC) that distributes the leads to the showroom sales force.

Generally, stores that use this method have been online for a few years, and have clearly defined the best process to handling the Internet customer.

Capital Ford in Raleigh, NC, is in the process of moving away from the separate Internet department and to a true BDC, says Internet manager Paul Miller.

"We're taking those processes of handling the Internet customer and incorporating them throughout the entire store," says Miller.

David Martin, Internet manager for Bill Collins Ford in KY, believes that's the way of the future.

He says, "Most customers coming into the store are what we call 'stealth customers.' They're really Internet customers - they may not have sent the lead online but they have done all of their research there, and often know more than the salesperson."

For dealerships that use the BDC method, it's important to make sure the process is consistent throughout the store, says Rogers. "Customers who receive inconsistent service get turned off."

Still other stores use a hybrid approach.

Dave Smith Auto Sales in Kellogg, ID, has a separate Internet department of 20 sales representatives. But all of the overflow leads get distributed among the store's top salespeople. That seems to be the trend today among several of the top e-Dealers.