It's no secret that e-mail, chat and texting have all quickly become popular channels for car dealers to interact with customers. But all that new technology can't replace the efficiency and personal interaction of a phone call. For salespeople, it's an opportunity to make a valuable first impression on a customer who still may be in the early stages of buying a car. And for a service adviser, it offers a chance to make a customer more comfortable before bringing in a vehicle for maintenance and repairs.
But sometimes, a call can kill a sales opportunity just as quickly as it can create one, especially when dealers find themselves unprepared for handling customer requests.
"The biggest dealbreaker we find is when a caller dials the toll-free number — which the dealership knows comes from an Edmunds.com user — and the salesperson doesn't know what the caller is talking about when the customer asks about True Market Value® or True Cost to Own®," says Edmunds.com Director of Dealer Initiatives John Giamalvo. "All dealership personnel should familiarize themselves with these trusted tools and be prepared to use them in the sales process."
But other, more common missteps in everyday phone interactions are also easily avoidable. To get some useful tips on the best phone practices, Edmunds.com consulted with Jerry Thibeau, founder and president of Phone Ninjas, a service dedicated to coaching and evaluating customer-service techniques in the auto industry. Thibeau says that he has trained more than 15,000 dealership personnel in effective techniques associated with phone, Internet and CRM usage. Edmunds.com gave Thibeau a random selection of recorded calls from its dealership partners, and he offered the following tips on knocking a call out of the park.
1) Have a Smart (and Personable) Front Line
Phone greetings should always be friendly and enthusiastic. A safe and appropriate greeting is, "Thank you for calling [name of dealership]. My name is [name]. How may I assist you today?" But a surprising number of dealership recordings that Edmunds.com screened began with a halfhearted or monotone response.
"Your operator is your director of first impressions," says Thibeau. "Dealership employees should be encouraged to engage with customers and have fun with them. It doesn't have to be boring. It's going to create a more receptive customer and it's going to make the customer want to come back to you."
In some cases the operator who answered the phone immediately put the caller on hold. In other cases, the operator transferred the calls to the wrong department, which left callers bouncing around from one department to another. Dealers should train their operators well enough that they know where to direct every call -- without a fumble.
Listen to an audio example of Jerry Thibeau's Phone Ninja coaching session at http://phoneninjas.com/members/review.php?coachingid=20988&rcode=xpwRprXskiQTmiT
2) Avoid the Jargon
Words and phrases that are commonplace among dealership staff are not necessarily obvious to customers. For example, in one phone call Edmunds.com evaluated, the dealership staffer told the caller that she would be transferred to the BDC.
"Most customers have no clue what a BDC is," says Thibeau. "Instead it should be, 'One moment while I transfer you to the sales department.'"
Unless callers have demonstrated that they understand cars and dealership culture, customer service representatives should always use a lay person's terms.
3) What's in a Name?
Everything, as it turns out. Getting both the first AND last name is crucial for salespeople who are looking to engage in constructive communication with the customer. It's also critical if the salespeople are going to maintain solid records of their interactions. And there is an appropriate technique to getting someone's name.
"Always ask them for their last name first and their first name second," says Thibeau. "Often times when you get their last name second, the customer will say that the first name is good enough for now. Also start with 'And how do I spell your last name?' This puts the customer in alpha mode and lets them spell out a phonetically difficult name."
Almost as important as getting the customer's name is making sure that the customer gets and remembers YOUR name. (You don't want someone else stealing your commission when customers come to the dealership and can't recall who they talked to, right?) So, when you make appointments with customers, always make sure they have pen and paper to write down your full name, along with other critical information, such as the dealership's address and the time of the appointment. When callers write a name on paper, they are three times more likely to remember that name, Thibeau says.
4) Be Informative, but Don't Drive Them Away with Info
You should always answer customer questions directly and honestly. But if you volunteer too much information, you could be shooting yourself in the foot. Take, for example, the following interaction:
Caller: I'm looking for a 2009 or 2010 Honda Fit base model. Do you have any in stock?
Salesman: Let me see what we have. Actually I do have a 2010 base model in crystal black, five-speed manual transmission.
By including extra details that the customer did not ask about, the salesman may have just talked himself out of a potential sale. If the customer is not looking for a black car or a car with a manual transmission, he or she might move on to the next store.
"The whole point of the call is to get the customer to come in to see all of your inventory," says Thibeau, who adds that about 86 percent of customers wind up with a different from the one they initially discussed with the dealer. Instead, the salesperson is better off responding, "Yes, we have several models in stock with various options" before inviting the customer down to the lot.
5) Go in for the Appointment
Remember, the end game for every phone call to the dealership is to get the customers to come in, whether that's to see the available inventory or to get their cars serviced. As soon as salespeople can confirm that the vehicle is available or that the customer's car is due for service, they should immediately schedule an appointment. But in the calls that Edmunds.com evaluated, many dealers make a well-intentioned mistake by asking, "When would you like to come in?"
"Instead of asking an open-ended question, it's best to give the customers two options and let them pick either A or B," says Thibeau. "Ask them if they'd like to come in now or later this afternoon. And if they say later this afternoon, tell them you have two specific availabilities at 3:15 p.m. or 4:45 p.m."
Once the appointment is set, Thibeau advises dealers to tell callers to get a pen and paper and take down some "very important information." The salesperson should use this opportunity to confirm the customer's name, the time of the appointment, the dealership location, directions to the dealership, drop-off instructions and any other information that will make the process easy for the customer to follow.
Another option is to obtain the caller's e-mail address so the salesperson can send a message that thanks the customer for the appointment and reconfirms the instructions provided on the phone. Collecting e-mail addresses is also a good habit, says Thibeau, because it's a free way to communicate with the customers later on.
Thibeau's simple steps are essential for any dealer who wants to maximize the ROI of exposure through premium sources like Edmunds.com, as well as their trackable activity overall. Interested dealers can learn more about Edmunds.com's Direct Dealer Program in the Dealer Center at http://www.edmunds.com/dealers/edmunds-direct.html. To learn more about Phone Ninjas and how the company can help your dealership provide a better experience for phone shoppers, please visit http://www.phoneninjas.com.