The telephone dates to 1876, back when Ulysess S. Grant was president. So why is it so hard for so many people to master the art of the phone call?

On a personal level, that lacking can irk or hurt the person on the other end. But on a professional level, it can damage business, repel customers and gouge into potential profits.

That is particularly true for car dealerships, where the telephone is a vital, but often misused tool.

“Handling phone calls has always been a challenge for dealerships,” says Ralph Ebersole, a dealership veteran and consultant for Cars.com., an online marketplace.

As a communications tool for cultivating customers, the phone ranks right up there with the Internet and customer-relationship management software.

Ironically, the telephone is crucial to dealership online sales efforts. That's because the goal at most dealerships is to get customers off line and on the telephone at some point in the process.

Dealership misuse of the phone ranges from not answering it promptly, to putting callers on hold too long, to misdirecting calls, to lousy conversational skills.

Michael Tyman, a former dealership manager and now CEO of Professional Success, a training firm, regularly listens to outbound and inbound dealership phone calls.

His conclusion: “We're not doing a good job of training people to listen.”

Customers convey how they want to be sold, but to grasp that “you need to listen,” he says. “If you are answering their questions and paying attention, it enhances the sales prospects.”

He says it is imperative to route calls to the proper location, and quickly, “so the customer is not lingering on hold.”

The Internet is important, but so is the phone, says Joe Webb, a former dealership manager who runs DealerKnows Consulting.

The earlier a dealership can get a prospect off line and on the phone “the more we can lead them down the path towards buying a car,” he says.

Proper phone procedures and skills are vital, especially considering that most people prefer to use the telephone over emails, says Mitch Golub, head of Cars.com.

“We're seeing phone calls as predominant,” he says. “It's the preferred way to contact a dealership.”

On its website, Cars.com has toll-free telephone numbers, unique to each participating dealership, so Internet users can call about vehicles that interest them.

The system signals a dealership staffer answering the call that a Cars.com customer is on the line. Accordingly, they are considered hot leads. Yet, some of those calls get misdirected or enter phone limbo.

“Here you have a customer on the phone, someone who has picked out a vehicle and is as qualified a lead as you can get, and the phone is not being answered at the dealership or the call is going to voicemail or going to the service department,” Golub says.

In such cases, “you have qualified customers, but not a process to deal with them,” he says. “No matter how much you promote your website, so much of success comes down to the process in the dealership.”

Cars.com's toll-free phone system allows dealers to access recordings of conversations.

The system also times the calls. “That's important, because if the calls are under 30 seconds essentially they go unanswered,” Golub says. “If a dealer is getting 50 calls under 30 seconds, we can work with them to solve that problem.”

He recalls a vexed dealer approaching him at a National Automobile Dealers Assn. convention. The dealer beefed that Cars.com phone leads were ineffective.

“We looked at the call information and determined the calls were going to an inactive voice-mail box,” Golub recalls. “When the dealer saw that, he said, ‘I've got to go back to my dealership and talk to some people.’”

Chip Perry, CEO of AutoTrader.com, says a recent customer survey indicates 80% of people who visit a dealership show up without contacting the dealership beforehand.

“Of those that do establish prior contact, 80% do so by phone, yet we're so focused on Internet leads and clicks,” he says.

On the other hand, the vast majority of car shoppers — more than 90% by some estimates — shop and research for cars online before heading to the dealership. “They are influenced by the information they found on line,” Perry says.

He says dealers report on average that it takes 13.5 email leads to generate one car sale, compared with 8.5 phone leads and 6.5 customer walk-ins.

Considering that data, he wonders why some dealerships and industry experts place such an emphasis on emails. “There is this sense that the Internet changes everything, but does it?” he says. “Dealers say, ‘What can we do to get more emails?’ I say, ‘Why do that?’”

When customers get close to buying, “most of them pick up the phone and call the dealership,” says Shawn Veronese, Internet sales director at Crevier BMW in Orange County, CA.

Most customer phone inquiries center on vehicle selection, loan interest rate and “whether they can get approved,” she says at a recent National Remarketing Conference.

Terry Hoisington, general manager of Henderson Chevrolet in Henderson, NV, says his dealership has established a hot-line number for customer phone calls. “When it rings, our people know it's an important call.”

The dealership realizes the “extreme importance” of phone calls, he says. “We have our ‘A’ players handling that piece of the business.”

“The biggest problem can be answering the phone,” says Tony Giorgione, digital director at United Family Dealerships in Las Vegas. But some calls that get answered don't go well.

Unfortunately, he says, “calls normally come in at the busy time of day when our best sales people are out in the showroom with customers.”

Forty percent of the time a properly handled phone call will result in a customer appointment at the store, Giorgione says. “We don't want to pre-qualify them too much over the phone. But we to want to collect (contact) information during the call so we can follow up with them.”

Paul Johnson, president and CEO of Kelley Blue Book, a vehicle-value guide, has winced while listening in on some customer-dealership phone conversations.

He recalls one in which the caller was transferred five times before getting “a salesperson who didn't speak English well, didn't acknowledge the dealership had a particular vehicle on the lot and then said they didn't have the vehicle.”

That's not all. “The salesperson was rude in the process,” Johnson says. “Think about the damage done. All the brand-building by that dealership goes down the tubes.”

Of course, today's phones aren't just phones. They are multi-functional devices for different forms of communication and information gathering. Girorgione says he sees shoppers at his dealership “using their smart phones to price out vehicles.”

Dealer David Pilcher of National Car Sales in Indianapolis, IN, says his store receives more phone calls than emails from customers seeking vehicle information.

Many dealers struggle in dealing with the problem of improperly handled phone calls, he says. “It's a dealer issue, frankly.”

And it's a serious one, according to studies, such as one cited by Anna Zornosa, general manager of the Cobalt Group's Dealix.com, a sales-lead provider.

“Of 3,000 phone calls to dealerships, 24% went to voicemails that were not fully working or not working at all,” she says. “It can be really bad.”

It also can be costly in terms of lost revenue, notes Jonathan Ord, CEO and chairman of DealerSocket, a dealership CRM provider.

He cites a study in which 30% of calls to dealership service departments either go unanswered or go to the wrong person. “That's hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in lost business,” he says.

His firm offers a call-center service that fields those phone calls for the dealership and sets up appointments.

Employing an able switchboard operator goes a long way for a dealership concerned with its communication skills, says consultant Skip Thompson, whose late father, Joe, was a 45-year Chrysler dealer in metro Detroit.

He recalls his dad telling staffers, “Don't you guys get it? The switchboard job is not an entry-level position.”

AutoNation Inc., the country's largest dealership chain, has established a process on how to handle a phone call. Some of it is common sense, a human quality that is sometimes uncommon.

Here's what AutoNation came up with:

  • Answer quickly.
  • Be nice and knowledgeable.
  • Answer questions willingly.
  • Get contact information.
  • Cue the next action, usually setting up a dealership appointment.