Dealerships will not survive the next five years without a Web-focused mindset

A constant message I hear from dealers is the complete shutdown of traffic into the showroom. The uncertainty being played out on the airwaves is creating a paralysis among consumers and yes, even dealerships.

No traffic coming means employees are sitting around talking about how difficult it is.

And for smart dealers, the number one focus is surviving the next several months. For some, that means restructuring the capitalization of the business, or finding new floor plan lenders and cutting expenses.

Few dealers are taking advantage of the downtime to refocus and get into position for when the market returns – and it will. It might be a while, but people are going to have to buy cars. The question is, are you going to be the one selling to them?

Ways to leverage or improve Internet operations likely is not high on the priority list. But this might be the perfect time to start moving the dealership into the 21st century. Dealers that do will be the ones who reap the benefits when people start buying cars again.

Even people in their 40’s and 50’s are on Facebook and LinkedIn. I’m even playing a 70 year old woman in Scrabble on Facebook right now. And she’s using the chat tool – even crazier, she’s chatting in shorthand used by teenagers.

The point is, the Web is where your customers are watching TV and movies, getting their music, communicating with friends, shopping for Christmas and birthday gifts, doing their banking, planning vacations – it is where they are living their lives.

So you’d better be ready when they start buying cars again because the Web is going to be where they go, not just to research, but to communicate and even buy.

Step one is to get the right person – assuming you have the right mindset.

Simply having a web site and an Internet director or manager is not going to cut it in the new world. The fact is, most of your traffic the next few years will be generated by the Web in some fashion.

Dealerships will not survive the next five years without a Web-focused mindset.

The Web has to be central to the entire dealership operation. So, instead of an Internet sales manager stuck in the corner armed with a miniscule budget used to buy leads cheaply and build a web site on a string, dealers should find the best e-Commerce director possible.

Task that person with the job of creating a Web-central store. Include all operations – service, parts, body shop, new and used vehicles and finance and insurance. And give that person the budget to make it happen.

Of course, you’d better be involved and engaged to provide guidance and support. It is your business, after all.

Second, begin integrating your advertising and marketing. Use print, radio and TV to send people to your web site. Tout the benefits of your web site. That is where you’re going to get people excited about buying your vehicles from you.

Third, make sure you take care of the basics on the web site. If you have specials, update them all of the time. Make sure the links work and that navigation makes sense.

Fourth, make sure your web site stands out. Build your brand and reputation. Talk about how long you’ve been in the community, what organizations your dealership partners. Use video to this. Seeing you talk about trust and community goes a long way the building the comfort and excitement level for your customers to buy from you.

Fifth, our web site is the place to build excitement about the product. Include your entire inventory. The argument that putting your inventory on display means customers will leave if they don’t see what they’re looking for doesn’t ring true today.

The Internet has created a transparent world – if you’re not transparent, they’re going to leave. The only way you can control it is to give up control and give customers what they’re looking for.

You can always drive the message home that if they don’t find what they’re looking for, you can get if for them.

Include pricing. If you don’t, customers will buy from dealers whose web sites have pricing.

And merchandise the inventory. We’re not talking about putting the generic OEM-provided commercial video on the web site. Instead, tell a story about the vehicle. Use pictures, payment options, or a personal walk around video of the newest model.

Upload it to YouTube and include the link in your email marketing.

Check out the web sites for Sonic Automotive, Hendrick Automotive and Herb Chambers for ideas of marketing the inventory.

Sixth, incorporate other departments. Trade appraisals, finance options and applications, online service scheduling and payments, accessories are areas where you can build excitement about the product and the dealership.

It’s what Dennis Galbraith, of Cars.com calls getting the customer into the store with a “ready-to-buy” mindset. Be ready to engage customers anyway they want – with whatever information they want.

Finally, begin training your entire staff to think Web. Your salespeople need to know what specials are on the web site and be fluent in the online tools on the site.

Service advisors need to know and understand the online scheduling tool. Common sense right? I called a dealership recently to let them know their tool was not functioning. The service advisor I talked to didn’t even realize customers could schedule service online.

We’ve got to do better than this.

This is just a brief survey of the things any dealership can do to get their unfair share of the market. Other applications successful dealerships of the future – months, not years – will use are live chat, mobile marketing, text messaging and other social media such as Facebook and MySpace.

The information and resources are available to begin making it happen now. Your customers already are there. It’s time you get serious about it.

cbanks@wardsauto.com