Automotive dealerships must significantly improve their online customer service, according to results of a study by Metricals, a New York-based research firm.

The study evaluated dealership responsiveness based on 16,826 anonymous online tests to 3,387 randomly selected dealerships nationwide. The study measured three facets of dealership online responses – response rates, response times and response effectiveness.

Metricals CEO Greg Narain says the study measured actual trends in dealer online practices.

“Many different factors determine the effectiveness and quality of an online response. As such, this study is a general indicator of the strengths and weaknesses in dealership online strategies," he says.

The study reveals some weaknesses in dealership online practices. For example, 42% of the test requests never received either a personal response or an automatic responder message. That indicates a huge number of potential leads are ignored or lost in the shuffle. This in spite of the fact that 65% of all car buyers today use the Internet in some way for their car purchase, according to J.D. Powers.

Says Mr. Narain , “In general, dealers need to be better equipped to handle online requests with better administration of incoming inquiries.”

One way to improve response times is to add an Internet manager or have a dedicated salesperson to make sure all requests receive a response.

Cadillac dealerships had the best response rate, with Honda and Mazda dealerships rounding out the top three.

Average response time for those dealerships responding was a full 13 hours. Paul Rogers, senior training manager for Cobalt’s eDealer Academy says that response times need to be under one hour. “All the studies show that response times drive closing ratios.”

“While providing an actual response to the customer is important, dealers need to capitalize on the use of automatic responders to help manage customer expectations,” advises Mr. Narain.

Kia dealers had the fastest average response time – 10.5 hours. Honda dealers were second with an average response time of 11 hours, and Infiniti dealers were a close third averaging 11.1 hours response time.

Effective responses were also a problem, the study shows. Only 30% of the responses had complete answers. As requests became more complex, the dealer’s ability to provide a complete response decreased significantly. Often, the salesperson would advise the customer to call the dealership, rather than provide the information requested online.

Lexus, Honda and Subaru dealers provided the most complete responses. Honda dealers proved to be the most consistent, finishing in second in each of the three categories measured.

Mr. Narain says “Dealers need to be better equipped with the resources to thoroughly address anticipated online inquiries. Dealers can do this by leveraging information, content, and third party resources to be included in their responses to online customers.”