Earl Stewart’s namesake Toyota dealership’s website includes a photo of him holding his trademark red telephone to his ear. He invites customers to call the listed number, day or night.

“If I tell people I’m accessible, I want to be accessible,” says the owner of Earl Stewart Toyota in North Palm Beach, FL.  “And every time I talk to a customer, I learn something new.”

Such accessibility helps him build relationships and resolve complaints before they potentially get out of hand, he says.

It doesn’t stop with him. He invests more than $3,000 a month in his phone system, including the cost of 24/7 live operators and the purchase of cell phones for service advisors and salespeople.

Why?

“People don’t like to talk to machines. They want empathy, honesty and attention,” says Stewart, who has 10,000 Facebook friends, yet counts the phone as his best business ally.

In this age of texting and emailing, telephones still are the main gateway for dealership customers wanting to buy and service cars.

New systems run $500 to $700 per station. Dealerships average 110 to 150 stations. Cost of hardware is only one factor. If the technology is too much, it can baffle employees and vex customers; too low-tech, and it could drop calls and leave ringing phones unanswered.

How do dealers integrate the human factor with modern technology?
The answer could be as simple as hiring competent phone operators or receptionists who go the extra mile to make sure phones are answered promptly and calls are directed properly, using automated systems as a backup during peak periods.

And it could be as complex as the new wave of Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) systems, with phones specific to the software that conduct every service from monitoring and evaluating calls of new sales staffers to securing trunk lines for finance applications and employee records.

Dealerships comprise six businesses under one roof. Departments must interact seamlessly, relying on a phone system to help that cause.

Legions of vendors offer phone systems, from the big information-technology companies such as ADP and Reynolds and Reynolds to hardware and software providers such as Samsung, NEC, Mitel, Avaya and Cisco.

Consultants such as Philip A. Sherman specialize in helping dealers sort through the maze and identify what works best for them.

Just trying to get consistent bids is tough because vendors use different terminologies, says Todd Mesnik, the chief financial officer of the Santa Barbara Auto Group in Santa Barbara, CA. “They each have pluses and minuses.”

He weighed hundreds of options last year before calling Sherman to sort through it all and in language understood by both phone techies and dealership people.

“It was important that people taking calls knew enough about how the phone works to be polite, professional and knowledgeable,” Mesnik says.

The biggest challenge was addressing the call volume to service advisors, Sherman says. “We found a smartphone that could be programmed into the dealer’s phone network and allow advisors to answer on mobile, transfer the caller to a voice mail and leave a leave that party a text message.

Dealers live and breathe by their customer service index and the quality of their interactions, he says. “You can make use of high-speed technology to do more for the customer in the moment.”

Big-city dealership customers are comfortable with automated operators but Sun Belt, rural and upscale customers want to talk to a real person, Sherman says, citing studies he has conducted.

Even in market areas with high-tech familiarity, he suggests putting a zero-out button at the start rather than the end of the recorded voice-prompt instructions.

Technology is supposed to make our lives easier. Instead it can vex people, Sherman says. “The voice quality on some computerized systems is terrible. Few are installed correctly. Customers want a nice, friendly voice.”

Linked to dealership-management systems, some phone setups can retrieve a calling customer’s name and complete service and purchase record, displaying that information on a screen in front of a dealership staffer.

In seconds, a service advisor can receive a call, pull up the record and schedule an appointment. A confirmation notice is emailed automatically to the customer.

Every time a call is transferred, the employee can view the sales and service record on a computer screen and respond with knowledgably, says Matt Parsons, an ADP vice president.

“Our clients find that the phone has moved from a static and mundane business tool to a technology platform that allows them to serve their clients and prospects in a way that they have never experienced before,” he says.

For instance, a receptionist can instant-message anyone in the dealership to see who is available for calls, who is off and who is due back. If a line is busy during a transferred call, the receptionist sees a color-coded display noting one or two calls ahead and link to another person in that particular department.

“Some dealers program their phone lines to link with advertising in Auto Trader or Cars.com websites that allow them to monitor the best outreach,” says Jenny Avery, a Reynolds product manager.

For example, if a car shopper calls a number accompanying a Cars.com listing, the dealership person answering the phone is automatically notified the call is coming from a visitor to that website.

“No customer is ever a stranger,” Avery says.

Most dealers want a hybrid voice-mail system, she says. They were mostly OK with an automated voice prompt and extensions for sales, service and other departments. They were averse to incessantly ringing phones and intrusive dealership-wide paging systems.

Dennis Hudson, a manager with O’Regan’s Automotive Group in Halifax, NS, Canada, coordinated an ADP phone system for 14 stores after two years of research.

“We like having one phone system for the entire company,” he says. “Everyone is operating on the same page, not pager.”

Opportunity struck when lightning knocked out the old phone system at Richmond Ford Lincoln Mercury in Richmond, VA.

Controller Betty Stanley worked with NTouchTel.com to install a Samsung system that included 125 digital phones, 30 fax machines, a contact-management system that synchronizes with Microsoft Outlook, call recording and an email gateway.

The dealership reduced the number of phone operators yet increased its phone-use efficiency. “The system has given us way more than we could have possibly expected,” Stanley says.

Out went the out-of-date paging system. The new digital phones synchronize with cell phones so employees can walk about, evaluating cars on the lot, coordinating rentals and updating service schedules.  No one is tethered to a telephone.

Faxed parts orders are delivered to email inboxes automatically, and management gains access to call monitoring, a feature that allows them to listen to new staff members’ calls and take over as needed.

Amid all this, Ruth Sherman, a customer-relations consultant, says the technology can’t trump the human touch.

“Let them ‘hear’ you smile,” she says. “Phone reps should speak in a voice that sounds warm, caring and conversational vs. the corporate monotone.”

For an automated greeting, she recommends using an employee with a good speaking voice who delivers a relaxed, upbeat message such as, “Hi, this is Ellen at XYZ Chevrolet. We’re so glad you called. We're getting you a live person, so please hang on.”