Car Dealers Should Do Better Job Handling Online Shoppers

April 29, 2011

About a month ago, I finally signed a two-year lease on a 2011 Ford Escape. It’s a modest vehicle, but it’s spacious and outfitted with all the necessary accoutrement. I’m happy.

Before I finally settled, I spent countless hours reading online reviews and mauling through myriad specifications, like cargo space, wheel base, turning radius — all of which influenced my final decision. However, it was good old customer service and having a dealer I could trust that ultimately led my pen stroke to the dotted line.

I signed my lease at Sioux Falls Ford, where I spent the better part of high school cleaning up mangled automobiles once repaired in the auto body. My grandfather worked at the dealership for three decades and my uncle still runs the body shop. “Jeff’s nephew” means something around there. I signed my first lease at Sioux Falls Ford in 2008 and really felt taken care of. But, despite my deep loyalty, I looked around this time — online.

Online car sales are a very imperfect science, but I believe there’s a huge opportunity. Though I signed my lease nearly a month ago, I’m still receiving poorly written emails from Ford dealerships closer to Minneapolis, just checking in to see if I’m still interested in their inventory. When I expressed some confusion about car leases on Twitter, however, I received a response from Ford’s customer service account in a matter of hours. So while the Ford Motor Company has one of best social media strategies among Fortune 500 companies, its dealerships have major room for improvement. (I would recommend a centrally located database to ensure no dealership is contacting a customer who just leased a new Ford vehicle elsewhere.)

I could never purchase a vehicle online, but only because I trust my salesman at Sioux Falls Ford. I see the allure — avoid the upselling and the greasy-palmed salesmen who linger over your shoulder as you peruse the lot, championing the highest trim level for every vehicle you consider, no matter your budget. My salesman never asked what I wanted — he asked what I needed. That’s a personal touch that’s hard to establish online, and it’s doubly difficult when an online inquiry is thrown in the lead bucket. I believe something in the middle can exist — streamlined communication between customer and salesman whilst online.

One can only dream.

It’s a tricky balance to be sure — lessening the human interaction without losing the personal touch. How can auto dealerships leverage e-commerce? Quit thinking in terms of what the dealership want from the online environment — easy sales — and start asking costumers what they really need.