LAS VEGAS – Car dealers increasingly are “going back to the good old days of using the telephone” when replying to Internet leads, says Jody Stidham, director-global practice at Urban Science, an automotive consultancy.

“The phone is becoming popular again” as dealers understand the need for speed and quality of their responses to Internet leads, she says at the 2011 J.D. Power and Associates Automotive Internet Roundtable here. “A quick response increases the chances of closing a sale.”

But the quality of the response is important, too. An auto-response is fast but lacks personalization. Some dealerships find what works best is replying to e-leads by getting on the phone and calling customers who provide contact information.

“Dealers are doing a much better job in responding to leads this year compared with last year,” Stidham says, citing a 20% improvement and a 2-hour average response time.

In an Urban Science study of six auto brands, the average overall dealership e-lead close rate was 11.8%, she says, declining to identify participants. The top-performing make had an average close rate of 16.9%, compared with 6% for the lowest performer.

Dealers could better their response time and closing rates, but some lead providers could improve the quality of their leads, too, Stidham says. “Not all dealers receive the same volume and quality of leads.”

Dealers using telephones to call e-lead submitters is more than just a case of “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” That’s because today’s advanced-technology smartphones are much more than just conversation pieces.

About half of new-car buyers own the likes of iPhones and Androids, and 78% of them will use those devices for their vehicle purchases, says Dane Holewinski, director-marketing for Greystripe, a digital marketer.

“They use their smartphones extensively through the process, from product research to price comparisons on the lot to finding a dealer location to contacting the dealer,” he says.

His firm worked on a Buick LaCrosse marketing campaign that featured an ad appearing with mobile-app games such as Angry Birds.

The ad led to a 4% click-through rate to the Buick website and a 21% lift in brand awareness, Greystripe contends.

sfinlay@wardsauto.com