Is your dealership paying for Internet leads it is not getting? It happens more often than people realize, says Lisa Keller, founder of eValuation Inc., an Internet consulting business that mystery shops dealerships’ Internet departments.

Usually it happens when a shopper sends an e-mail from the dealer’s web site but the e-mail disappears into cyber space and never makes it into the dealer’s Internet lead-management tool. More often than not, it is a technical snafu.

If a dealer is spending money on search-engine optimization or buying key words on the search engines and advertising to drive traffic to its web site, not getting those leads is wasted money.

“We call it lead evaporation,” Keller says. In February, 11 of her dealership clients experienced some sort of technical problem in which leads disappeared.

A couple of months ago one of her dealer’s web site provider’s server crashed. When it came back online a few hours later, it restored an old e-mail address that been used by the dealership’s lead-management software years ago.

The result? For several days, the dealership was not seeing any leads from its web site. They were all being dumped into a defunct e-mail address.

However, leads from third-party sites were going to the right address so nobody noticed the missing web site leads. And they still might be missing today if had Keller not been mystery shopping its Internet department.

Keller mystery shops her customers -- many of whom are on the Ward’s e-Dealer 100 ranking -- four times a month by sending e-mails lead through the dealership’s web site. At the end of the month, she sends a report to the dealer principal or general manager detailing response time and quality of the responses.

Keller discovered the lead evaporation problem by accident. One report she sent to a dealer last year graded the response time as a zero, meaning she received no response. After further investigation, the dealership realized it was not getting any leads from its web site and quickly fixed the problem.

The real value Keller’s firm provides may be in determining the effectiveness of a dealership’s Internet sales people. The measurement is simple and evaluates timeliness and quality of the response.

“Both are equally important,” Keller says. The longer it takes a dealership to respond to a lead the lower the score is. After six hours the score goes to zero.

“We see that top performers strive to respond within six minutes,” Keller says. “And auto responders do not count.”

The quality of the response is an area many dealerships fail at. According to Keller, strong e-mail responses should include the following six things:

Greeting: You want to thank the customer for the opportunity and introduce yourself and the store. Pretend the customer is in front of you.

Provide at least one alternative vehicle – two or three are better. Always include a certified pre-owned alternative. A pricing range also should be included. Studies show most customers have not decided on what they want when they contact the store. More information may help you set that appointment and close the sale.

Give the customer a reason to buy from you. Keller calls it a value proposition statement. According to a Cobalt Group study last year, more than 90% of online automotive shoppers buy from a dealership other than the first one they contacted.

Ask two qualifying questions and then provide reasons why you are asking the questions. For example, determine the trim level of the vehicle they are interested in. Why? Different trim levels can change a vehicle’s by as much as $10,000.

Perhaps most important, be direct and ask for the appointment. “We see many responses in which the salesperson says, ‘Let me know if there is anything else I can do,’ and leaves it that,” Keller says. “Seeing that is like nails on a chalkboard.”

Finally, the signature. Provide your name, e-mail address and phone number along with the web site address and physical address of the dealership.

Keller says the reports she provides dealers are simple and lets them see specific areas the Internet sales people need to improve. Besides, just the knowledge they are being mystery shopped and held accountable should be an incentive for most sales people to make sure they are doing it the right way every time.

cbanks@wardsauto.com