Selling a used car online can boil down to how well you merchandise the vehicle with multiple pictures and descriptive seller’s notes. By contrast, selling a new car to an Internet lead sender calls to mind the old advertising technique: Don’t sell the steak. Sell the sizzle.

Your process becomes more critical than the vehicle itself because you may not have the exact car in your inventory that the lead sender wants. Making the sale hinges on your ability to connect with customers as soon as you receive the lead and then to work with them in identifying, equipping and pricing the best match. As you know, what buyers think they want can change when they are provided with information about all of their options.

Listen to the customer
The sales process begins with listening to car shoppers before you ask the gently probing questions necessary to assess their wants, needs, budget and timeframe to purchase. Respect consumers’ wishes vs. trying to steer them to the closest fit in stock at your store. Similarly, avoid the temptation to simply move on to the next prospect when an individual shopper doesn’t buy within several days. An Experian Automotive analysis1 of leads generated by Cars.com’s NewLeadsPlus found that 41 percent of new car lead senders purchased a car after 90 days.

Most dealers know to take this approach in theory, but the process frequently gets lost in the excitement of selling a car. In fact, only 26 percent2 of new car lead senders report receiving a satisfactory response from the dealer.

The majority of shoppers who submit a new car lead online do so an average of two months before they visit the dealer3. They want time to research the cars they’re considering before seeing them in person. They also want a relaxed environment in which to identify a dealer they trust, who will treat them with respect and who will negotiate a fair deal.

Be the dealer who guides them through this process vs. a hurried order-taker, and you’ll likely find your patience — and persistence — rewarded.

Implement a CRM system
Because you’re likely to be working with a lead sender over the course of several weeks, it’s important to use a customer relationship management (CRM) system to direct and track your interactions. The system prompts you to contact prospects and to send them updates about new additions to your inventory that match the car they want or about special interest rates and financing options.

Stay focused on addressing customers’ questions as they arise vs. systematically moving them toward scheduling a test drive or making a purchase based on where you want them to be on the sales timeline. Keep in mind the Internet shopper’s concerns that we just discussed, and move at their pace. You will go a long way toward building the level of trust consumers need to feel comfortable.

After a certain point, though, it makes more sense to hand-off follow-up to the CRM system itself. Using database marketing, you can “ping” the customers and prospects in the system with regular emails about other vehicles that may meet their needs, your dealership’s e-newsletter or service, parts or accessories coupons. Anything that maintains a dialogue, builds the relationship between the prospect and your dealership, or motivates a customer to visit your store could lead to a sale. Remember — continue to follow up with your leads until the person buys (from you or someone else) or dies (i.e., they drop out of the sales process for whatever reason).

Measure success
Close rates typically prove to be the best measure of your success. While close rates vary regionally, many dealers tell us that they, on average, complete a sale 8% to 12% of the time, within a 30-to-60-day timeframe. We also hear from dealers who report close rates of 30% or higher over a longer time period, so give the customer time. Salespeople who are diligent and consistently follow their store’s processes over time usually will be rewarded with the sale — and repeat business. Sixty percent of NewLeadsPlus lead senders, for example, purchased a vehicle4.

For more information
Improving sales from new car leads was the focus of our two most recent DealerADvantage LIVE calls: “Managing Leads: What’s Behind Your Online Leads” and “Managing Leads: Strategies to Close More Sales.” Recorded versions of these free Webinars are available online by clicking on the DealerADvantage LIVE tab at dealers.cars.com and scrolling down to the archives section.

1 Experian Automotive NewLeadsPlus Leads Analysis, 2006
2 Cobalt Group, News Release, April 2006
3 J.D. Power and Associates 2005 New Autoshopper.com study
4 Experian Automotive NewLeadsPlus Leads Analysis, 2006