Dealer John Lancaster of Madison, WI, calls the Internet a "disruptive technology."
That's a fairly accurate description, considering its effect on a retail automotive industry that's stayed relatively unchanged for almost 100 years.
By all accounts this disruption is here, at least for some time. One way to make it work for you, rather than against you, is to embark on a training program that includes the dealer, top management and practically everyone else at the dealership.
The first two hurdles dealer principals have to overcome are fear and ego, says Carter Able, director of training for Cars.com.
"Dealers are afraid (of the Internet) and they're not as advanced as they think they are in many cases," says the former dealership general manager. "We're so bound in tradition that we're not willing to change, and flexibility is the name of the game. Training gives you that flexibility."
He adds that training, particularly information technology and Internet training, should be an ongoing process. "What works today won't be effective in three months," Mr. Able says, noting that the Cars.com training is into its third re-write in the last six months.
The first phase of training for a dealership entering e-commerce is recognizing that the dealer principal and general manager often lack critical knowledge.
"We have to make sure dealers and general managers are on board," says Mr. Abel. "We start with training for them. The biggest problem is they don't have a vision."
To do that, Mr. Able asks dealers and general managers to look closely at their current Internet operation. Is the staff right? Are their skills right? Does the entire dealership support that Internet department? What is the short- and long-term e-commerce strategy? Is there a system in place for dealing with customers from the Internet? What is the operational structure of the Internet department?
Once those key elements are addressed, the training focus goes on the Internet sales manager.
"He or she needs a mission," says Mr. Able. "That department can and should be a profit center. We help the manager develop an Internet sales process that meets and exceeds customer expectation while returning a premium profit."
He says most Internet sales processes are based on a dealership's current process.
"We need to be flexible with the process we already have," he says. "You can make money on Internet customers, but you have to treat them differently."
After the Internet sales process is defined, the rest of the dealership's employees need training.
Sales people need to learn how to properly e-mail Internet customers. Receptionists need to know that Internet customers are different than people who just walk in off the street. They also need to learn how to identify, by asking key questions, "stealth" Internet customers - those who have been on the Internet and walk in.