Last week, Digital Air Strike released the results of a mystery-shopping study involving more than 1,500 U.S. dealerships to which the company’s analysts submitted leads online and via Facebook Messenger. Each “lead” included at least one question requiring a specific answer.
The results were, to put it gently, not encouraging. The majority (84%) of dealerships failed to respond to internet leads within 15 minutes, and some (18%) never did. They fared even worse on leads submitted through Facebook Messenger, for which 64% of tested dealers offered no reply.
Large numbers of the dealership personnel who did reply to the mystery-shopper leads ignored the sender’s specific questions, failed to offer information about other new and used vehicles, failed to include photos, and failed to mention lease and rebate information.
If every sale counts, and quality leads are expensive, why are so many dealers failing to capture the customers who come to them? In an exclusive interview with Auto Dealer Today, Digital Air Strike’s co-founder and CEO, Alexi Venneri, shed light on the study and its findings and offered advice for dealers who want to set more appointments and close more sales.
ADT: Alexi, was this your first large-scale mystery-shopping study?
Venneri: No, we do it about once every five years. We could do it more frequently, but the results don’t seem to get much better.
ADT: How many people and working hours did it take to complete?
Venneri: Twenty-five people working about 500 hours. It was a big one, and it might be the first in our industry to include Facebook Messenger.
ADT: Were you surprised by the results?
Venneri: Not really. Having worked in automotive for 17 years, I think you have to give dealers and their teams tools to change behavior. I also think that, over the years, manufacturers thought investing in training would be enough. But expectations around response times have gone up. Consumers don’t have as much patience anymore.
It’s a little like a perfect storm. Dealers need to find new ways to automate. Training alone, without the tools, is not moving anyone. And I’m not blaming dealers. Consumers are armed with so much information, it puts them at a disadvantage. But they have got to get better at this.
ADT: You ranked OEMs by percentage of dealerships that responded within 15 minutes. Fiat Chrysler was pretty much alone at the top and Honda brought up the rear. Do you have any idea why that might be?
Venneri: I should note that some manufacturers were not mentioned because their sample size was not large enough. But certainly, among those we did include, you can draw some conclusions.
Toward the lower end of the scale, you will also find General Motors. They tend to get a huge volume of leads and sales. We’re partners with GM. They’ve done probably the best job at training the dealers. So it’s counterintuitive. Why are they not that great at it?
I think that, for the volume they get, GM — or Ford, or any of them, really — responding within 15 minutes 30% of the time is not great. Dealers get it. They know that because customers do a tremendous amount of research online, by the time they inquire, it’s with a sophisticated question. The dealer needs to do research to give them a good answer.
And when we looked at the responses we did get, there was a lot of crazy stuff in there. First, there were a lot of typos. You might guess that experienced salespeople are very busy and maybe millennials are used to texting, so they don’t write in full sentences. But we also saw some answering with misinformation around some vehicles. They could be multitasking, or maybe they’re copying and pasting from templates.
For all of those reasons, as you can imagine, we need to give dealers better tools. Because those responders may be great in person. They’re people persons. They didn’t get into the business to be typists.
ADT: Did you receive many responses urging your mystery shoppers to come into the store rather than continue the conversation online?
Venneri: Yes. We know customers are happy when they get their information faster, but most dealers don’t make that easy.
I worked for a major dealer group, on the in-house agency side. When we analyzed searches of our inventories, we learned that most of them were performed by our own dealership staff. It was easier for them to go to the website than to go on the lot. They didn’t know what was available or had come in. That takes a lot of time. And as for all the incentives going on, they never knew.
That was the genesis for some of the tools that are being built. An inquiry can now generate an automated response, for example. But it doesn’t have to go directly to the consumer. The response can go to a dealership staff member, who can edit and adjust it to create a response for the consumer. It’s easy.
ADT: Did you consider fully automated responses as genuine for the purposes of your study?
Venneri: We didn’t count a generic, automated response without any personalization as a response.
ADT: What is one thing every dealer can do today to improve their response time?
Venneri: We actually offer free mystery-shopper studies to any dealer who asks. But they should already be asking those questions internally. You should map all your leads, set standards for response times, and inspect what you expect. Are your BDC reps just demo-setters for the sales staff or can they close a prospect themselves? Anyone who is working with customers needs to be trained. They must understand how to encourage customers to calculate their own deal. Give them the numbers they want.
ADT: Did you get any truly awful responses?
Venneri: The one that really made me groan was from a real person. Our mystery shopper submitted the lead on a Monday. The salesperson wrote, “I want you to come down, but I’m off the next two days. Can you come in Wednesday?”
At this point, the customer is thinking, “You’re trying to keep me to yourself?” That isn’t right. I know why they do it, but the tools and training can address that. If you’re tracking your leads, and your salesperson responds appropriately on Monday, they can split the commission on Wednesday.
ADT: How about some good examples?
Venneri: The best responders were those who answered the question and asked more. “How do you want to be communicated with?” “Is mileage important, or do you need room for seven?” “I know you asked about the new model, but we also have used vehicles that would make sense for you.”
Give them as much accurate information as possible. Don’t try to trap the customer to get them into the store. That’s old-school thinking that doesn’t work anymore. And hope is not a strategy. “I hope my people know how to use Facebook Messenger.” That won’t work either.
ADT: Can we assume the next generation of dealers and dealership personnel will understand the value of Messenger and manage it appropriately?
Venneri: I don’t think you can. There are still certain things they’ll need to know how to do. The next generation might not understand the work that goes into a formal email. They may be more used to using tools, but maybe not in a way that’s appropriate.
And if the customer is well-versed in financing, maybe even pre-approved, you can’t expect a dealership employee working their first job — who has never bought a car or financed anything — to answer financing questions. As sources of information and options grow, to expect anyone to have all the answers is a mistake.