Commentary

Some dealership Internet managers hated my story headlined, “Are Dealership Internet Departments Obsolete?”

“That’s the biggest crock I ever heard,” Gary Clark, Internet director for Heuberger Motors in Colorado Springs, CO, emailed me.

“I totally disagree with the people you interviewed,” wrote Guy Trentecosta, Internet sales manager at Hyundai of Metairie (LA) and New Orleans Audi.

I totally understand why he might dislike a story in which marketing specialists call for an end to Internet departments, once considered marks of modern auto retailing.

The marketing guys question the benefits of maintaining separate Internet departments, typically staffed by only a few employees, when nearly nine of 10 customers are online shopping for cars.

“You have 10% of your staff handling 90% of your customers,” says Jared Hamilton, president of DrivingSales.com.

Maybe the Amish aren’t powering up their computers and shopping for cars online, but just about everyone else is.

“Throw out the Internet department,” says Howard Polirer, AutoTrader.com’s director-industry relations. “Get the whole store involved with Internet customers.”

That really irked Trentecosta.

“We sell so many cars from AutoTrader.com strictly from my Internet department that it is unbelievable Howard Polirer would say we should be eliminated,” he tells me.

On Polirer’s side is Rafi Hamid, CEO of Automotive Consulting. “Forget about the Internet department. Make it the Internet store.”

That means dealerships should train all sales people to handle Internet customers. Otherwise, it’s like running two different dealerships.

Nuts, Clark says. “If you truly believe just any sales rep can handle an Internet customer, you have been away from sales too long.”

I called him after he emailed me. He tells me his dealership is the No.1 Subaru seller in the nation, in no small part due to the diligence of its Internet department.

Trentecosta insists Internet customers are distinctive consumers.

“They love the way they don’t have to be hassled by sales people and managers when they arrive,” he says. “My department gets people in the store it otherwise might not get.”

One reason for tearing down the walls of the Internet department is that online and offline sales activities differ little, says Todd Smith, a former dealer who now heads ActiveEngage, a firm providing online chat services to dealerships. “The online and brick-and-mortar processes are the same.”

But Trentecosta says otherwise: “Internet customers feel special. It takes a special skill and great email and phone tactics to get customers in during a very difficult and competitive time in the retail auto business.”

Alas, not all Internet staffers have such skills, as evidenced by an email I got from a consumer who related his experiences in shopping for a new car.

“After checking out several dealer websites to select a vehicle for purchase, I contacted several Ford dealerships via email,” he tells me. “I was appalled at the poor responses.”

Most replies came long after his initial contact, he says. “The most maddening thing to me, though, was that the responses typically did not answer any of my questions. I wrote clear and concise questions, and expected answers to each. The results were infuriating.”

He ended up buying a Ford Focus from a dealership that was 35 miles (56 km) from his home, the farthest of all the stores he contacted.

That dealership responded quickly and answered all his questions. But it did something “a little disconcerting,” he says.

He thought the woman that handled his email inquiries would be his salesperson. “When I arrived, they pulled a switch and assigned me to a real salesperson.”

Dealerships vary in how they set up to handle dealership customers. But there is no right way to do the wrong thing. Proper execution is vital regardless of the process.

Dealers who do a great job online sell more cars. And the top ones end up on our Ward’s e-Dealer 100, appearing every April. Entry forms for 2010 are available at www.wardsauto.com/rankings. Also there are forms for our Ward’s Dealer 500 and Ward’s MegaDealer 100 rankings.

sfinlay@wardsauto.com