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Phone Power!

Updated: Mar 22

There is a resurgence in the use of the telephone by customers seeking information on availability and pricing.  While many thought the use of email, texting and website inquiries would replace the phone altogether, many dealers are reporting increased phone activity in the past year.  Recently I read where the president of a large west coast dealer group said his dealerships have seen a 10-15% shift in total internet leads coming from the phone.

Apparently, people are landing on one of the dealership websites, but rather than waiting for even a five or ten-minute email response, they pick up the phone to get questions answered right away, also getting conversational clarity on issues without the back and forth time of email.  Of course, hands-free talk is much easier than email and texting in the car, and texting and email while driving are illegal while driving in most states.

Thirty-five years ago, when I started my career in automotive retail marketing, the telephone was a powerful tool in our recommended arsenal.  Our agency encouraged dealers to get a regional or national toll-free telephone number to broaden the territory customers could call from without toll charges.  800 numbers were also easier to dial from the phone systems of some companies and ‘pay telephones’.  We encouraged dealers to get easy-to-remember numbers such as 1-800-Hi Jolly or 1-800-Go Galpin so listeners could easily remember phone numbers in radio ads.  As websites on the Internet cranked up, web addresses took precedent of phone number mentions and prominence in advertising.

Another powerful alteration in the ‘phone-up’ business was the introduction of a process where every advertising medium has its own distinctive telephone number in an effort to track effectiveness.  While that theory may sound like an effective tracking mechanism, in my opinion, it dilutes the branding effort of a major customer portal.  Even though all numbers may end up being answered in the same incoming line, advertising 15 different phone numbers eliminate any possibility of ‘share of mind’ retention.  And by the way, which number gets stored in a customer’s phone contact list?   That is the phone number that will always be tracked by the dealership regardless of a different attribution source in the future.  Using different numbers also adds another potential layer of confusion when different offers are tested.  The person handling the incoming call must interrogate the caller on the nature of the offer and is often unaware of details of specific offers on multiple advertised channels.

I really like a quote attributed to Jeff Jackson who is President of the GEE Auto Group in Washington State.  “The customer wants three things: Trust, Transparency and Timeliness”.  I agree with Jeff.  Every one of those three things comes into play.  Trust in the dealerships brand reputation, transparency in the offer being made, and timeliness in how quickly the customer can get the information they are seeking whether it be specs and details on a vehicle, pricing information, and availability.  In phone conversations, there is one more important factor in the equation: rapport.  The person answering the phone has to have that same ‘friendly handshake, greeting and smile’ in their voice that an effective greeter on the salesroom floor has.

Think about the times you have called a company or business and how that phone call was answered.  How were you greeted?   Did you feel ‘rushed’?  Did you feel like your questions and concerns were important to the person on the other end?  Did you feel like they were honestly trying to assess your needs and give you the information or assistance you were looking for?  Did you feel like the person on the other end was knowledgeable and qualified?

Several of the very successful dealerships I’ve had the pleasure to work with over the years have all phone sales inquiries forwarded to an available, qualified sales person who has been fully trained on handling ‘phone-ups’ in the same manner the salesperson would greet a customer walking onto the showroom floor or lot.  But unlike a customer who walks in the door who might be willing to wait a few minutes for an available associate, callers might not have the patience to wait and if all salespeople are busy, the call is routed to a sales manager.

To Price or Not to Price, that is the Question!

If you speak with 15 different dealers on the subject of ‘giving out a price’ on the phone, you might get 15 different answers.  Here are a few responses I received when I sent out an inquiry to a number of dealers:

“Our salespeople explain to the customer that it is difficult to quote a price on the phone because often our competitors call in disbelief of the discounts we’re offering

However we offer a return call to the caller from our sales manager who has the ability to give out more information, then we take a name and number and promise a return call within 15 minutes.”

“On advertised used vehicles we quote our current offer, but explain that we may also have similar vehicles with lower prices according to equipment and mileage.  We give a range of MSRP pricing on new vehicles depending on equipment and explain every one of them has different discounts and incentives so it would be hard to quote a specific price with the customer seeing the options.”

“If someone calls for a price we encourage them to call the ‘one price’ dealer in town, and then bring us the quote see how much we can beat it by.”

“Our people are trained to develop a personal relationship with call-in customers because we’ve found when there is a good connection, asking the right questions, we have a lot more success setting appointments where people actually show up.”

However you decide to handle the ‘pricing’ issue, how you answer, greet and direct phone call information inquiries will have a major impact on whether that call is converted to a sale.  Here are a few suggestions to improve your success:

  1. Be Phone Friendly!  Let shoppers know you are happy to answer questions on the phone.  Give out your number several times in an advertisement about your phone friendliness and always tag every ad, in broadcast and digital with both your website URL and an easy-to-remember phone number.

  2. Be Phone Prepared!  Make sure every person who handles incoming calls for sales information is properly trained in how to handle calls properly.  Recognize that not all people do well on the phone.  Anyone answering a phone must be able to speak and annunciate clearly.

  3. Spy on the competition!   Call your competitors.  Ask for sale and pricing information and see how the call is handled.

  4. Monitor your team!   Have someone call and ask for sale and pricing information from your dealership and see how the call is handled.  You have to inspect what you expect.

  5. Do Phone Follow-Up!   If a customer gives you name and contact information, follow up this inquiry just as you would any other visit, logging the call and entering information in your CRM system.

  6. Put Your Number in Lights!  Location is still one of the most referenced attributes in research studies.  If you are in a location with lots of traffic and you have the option of adding a telephone number to your sign, you’ll be amazed at how many calls you receive, especially during peak traffic times.

And how about this!  A dealership in Michigan has an after-hours/weekend/holiday message that goes like this:

“Thanks for calling!  Even though our dealership is closed right now, our website is open 24/7 and if you’d like to speak to a sales representative right now, press 7.”

The dealership has salespeople that, on a voluntary basis in a rotation, take calls on their cell phones after hours.  At the end of the day, the receptionist forwards ‘7’ to the salesperson ‘on duty’.

This article was originally published in Dealer Magazine.

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