I went shopping for a new pre-owned car the other week.

Was I ever dismayed at the lack of follow-up from the dealerships to which third-party sites had sent my Internet inquiries.

Perhaps I’m biased. Having written about dealership best practices for a number of years now, I guess I’ve fallen under my own spell. But I didn’t see much in the way of best Internet practices at the dealerships I visited.

I will leave names out to protect the guilty, as they say.

I began shopping for a nice sedan and settled on a fully-optioned Cadillac CTS.

I spent several hours looking at the CTS, both on the“build your own” version on the Cadillac website and new and pre-owned CTSs online sites, such as Cars.com, AutoTrader.com, Vehix.com and DriveChicago.com.

I was getting close to the deal.

I popped into a neighborhood dealer. An online listing told me the dealership had a black- on-black CTS, in my price range. The sales manager told me this unit had been sold, but another had been taken in trade the night before. I couldn’t take this unit for a drive, the salesman said; the car had a shimmy.

I noticed a nail in a rear tire. The salesman said the car would have to go through the shop before he could demo it. “Fine,” I said, “call me when it’s ready.” It’s been two weeks now, as I write this. No call.

So I revisited vehicles advertised online. I again looked at all their photos (was dismayed to find many pre-owned units’ displays were loaded with “factory photos” rather than real images of the real car) and then settled on four units within a short drive.

I sent e-mail inquiries to these dealerships from their third-party provider sites and, in one case, the dealer’s own site. The results?

  • Two dealerships never responded to my inquiries.
  • One replied two days later.
  • One replied right away

One of the unanswered inquiries was sent to a dealership where, the day before, I had noticed the CTS in the color and options I liked.

At the store that had responded right away, the Internet manager e-mailed a personalized response. I called to set up a test drive. The vehicle wasn’t the color I wanted nor did it have the options I wanted, but the price was very right.

In the meantime, I telephone the dealership that had the car in the color and options I wanted. A sales manager answered the phone. The conversation went like this:

“I’m inquiring about the Pearl White CTS on the used lot. I noticed it on the Internet. What are you asking for the car?”

“What did the Internet say?”

“It didn’t have a price on it. I e-mailed you last night asking that question and trying to confirm the mileage.”

“I didn’t get it.” An apology and a rustling of papers. “The Internet price is such and such.”

“Hmmm. That’s a little more than I was hoping. I might go such and such.”

“Nope, we couldn’t do that.”

uncomfortable pause.

“Uhhhh. OK, bye then, I guess.” Click.

I drove to my test-drive appointment. All cars I wanted to look at were close to my home, so I could visit several rather quickly.

The test-drive Internet manager was glad to see me and did a professional and courteous job trying to earn my business. He knew his privacy and compliance laws (one dealership visited had deal jackets lying around in public view), and his finance and insurance manager tried to work an even better deal for me on the car. It was 90 days out and getting older, and the deal thrown at me made that clear.

Still, I couldn’t get really excited about the Cadillac. The CarFax report told me it was a fleet vehicle. In the end, I declined the deal and drove to another dealership. Later that evening, a follow-up e-mail from this Internet manager was waiting for me.

The Internet manager and F&I manager there had worked so hard for my business that I felt bad walking, but like my old Ford sales manage told me, “No matter what the price you won’t sell the car if it’s not the right car for the buyer.”

On to another dealership, one of which hadn’t responded (my inquiry was now about six to seven hours old). While I sat in the vehicle and turned on the engine, the salesman never suggested I take it for test drive; never attempted to engage me in a walkaround; and never asked much else. OK, it was drizzling, so I’ll give him a break. I walked.

Here’s something we all need to remember when selling: Prospects lie. “Just looking” usually doesn’t mean that at all.

Then I drove to the dealership that had the car in the color and options I liked, but whose manager gave my morning’s phone inquiry a brush off.

Perhaps I shouldn’t have circled back to this dealership. Its people had dropped the lead follow-up ball.

But the car...oh, the car! Its Pearl White exterior, tan leather interior, moonroof, crisp, sharp CTS lines...wood accents...heated seats and all the other bells and whistles (did I mention the low, low miles and one-owner, verified by CarFax?). It had to be mine.

I mentioned to the desk I wanted to talk about the car. I was referred to a salesman, who asked the right questions and said the right things to sell me.

I didn’t pay the Internet price, but I think we both did OK on the deal. I was happy – no, tickled. I had the CTS in the color, richness and with all the do-dads I wanted. Whatever the price (within reason of course; I’m not a complete fool), I would pay it because in all my months of thinking about myself in my CTS, this car’s image fit my mental persona like a glove.

My point: Let’s tighten up folks.

  • Make the Internet department something that matters; don’t run it as a stepchild.
  • Don’t use paperclips to fasten inquiry printouts to your notes to remember to “call the guy later.” Use a contact management system.
  • Get rid of your first-in, last-out paper shuffling system. Automate your lead management system.
  • Respond to inquiries right away, even if by auto responder.
  • Sell the customer. Invite them in for a test drive and point out the features.
  • ·Ask the questions you’ve been taught to ask to find out if the car you have is really the car the customer can see him or herself driving and whether they are capable of paying for.
  • Create a pay package for your Internet sales people that gives them the incentive to bust their butt for your Internet customers.

The Internet is where most of your customers are going to be coming from in the future. Set up your Internet shop the way this best-practices magazine and others have been suggesting you do it for some time now.

Think it’s not critical yet? J.D. Power and Associates recently reported the Internet now generates twice the car sales as traditional newspaper advertising. More than 70% of buyers start their car-buying venture online, just as I did.

You might say, “What’s the difference? You bought the car from the dealer with the poor first Internet exchange anyway.”

OK, I’ll cede that point. But I think that’s a foolish argument for not enforcing better follow-through attitudes and behaviors in your dealership, especially throughout your Internet sales processes.