Consultants agree website design is important but it is the quality of the information available to the customer that makes the difference between a successful site and an also-ran.
Alan Crane, general manager of DCS Automedia, has no doubts. “Ninety per cent of website visitors never get past your homepage,” he said. “It is essential that it should capture the attention and interest of the user immediately. It is also essential the appearance of the homepage changes regularly. Dealers change their local press ads every week. They should be changing their homepage at least once a month, or more frequently if possible.”
Various proven techniques for retaining the interest of visitors include special offers of cars or service, free winter checks for users' cars or visitors' surveys. “You need to offer a good incentive – say in the form of a free prize draw for a car,” said Mr Crane. “But it is a terrific way of gathering data on website visitors and gives a stack of leads for sales staff to follow up.”
For 2nd Byte's managing director Jerry Horwood the measure of a website's success is number of e-mail enquiries it generates from sales prospects.
“You have to give them a certain amount of information,” he said, “and then have an easy, friendly and quick mechanism for them to e-mail you.”
Pendragon's chief executive Trevor Finn has similar opinions: “It's all 'give' in this environment. The lack of functionality of manufacturer-controlled dealer sites is one reason for the dearth of e-mail enquiries.
“The sites are providers of information rather than commercial tools.”
An astonishing proportion of automotive websites fail to incorporate any calls to action, according to Alan Crane, but it was the operators of these sites who moaned the loudest about the ineffectiveness of the internet.
“Each section of the website – new cars, used cars, service, parts – must all incorporate a prominent instruction to the visitor to make contact, whether by phone or e–mail,” said Mr Crane.
Having found the key to getting the prospect to e-mail the dealership, the next fundamental is to have the people and processes to handle that enquiry properly.
David Hawkins, director of Cybercar Europe, said: “Many dealers are poor at lead management. I know that if I phoned a dealership I would get three or four follow-up return calls. But if I send an e-mail I would be lucky to get a response from 25% of dealers. The dealer has to sell the appointment for the prospect to visit the showroom.”
Failing to respond to an e–mail enquiry within two hours represents a wasted opportunity, according to Alan Crane. “With each half hour that ticks by, the lower your chances of converting the lead into a sale,” he said. “If you do not respond within 48 hours then you might as well not bother.
“Cybercar has surveyed more than 2,000 consumers and we have a 12-point list of things they look for when buying a car,” said Mr Hawkins. “Buying online simply doesn't feature. The prospects want to touch and feel the car before they buy.” But if their e-mail enquiry has generated no response, it is unlikely that they will ever get that far.
“The majority of dealers do not have the processes to back up their web presence.”
Mr Crane said: “Many dealers do not bother to get their websites listed on search engines. They spend thousands creating their websites and then scrimp on notifying search engines of their existence. It is a classic case of 'spoiling the ship for a hap'orth of tar. The best website in the world is worthless if no-one ever visits it.”
Peter O'Connor, director of TMS Group, is a great believer in keeping it simple. “If you make the design too complicated, navigating round the site will be slow and users will find it frustrating,” he said.
Mr O'Connor is also a firm believer in tailoring the content carefully to suit the brand. “All our pages are different, reflecting the different franchises involved. Soon all our locations will run their own websites. While Volvo will be straightforward, TVR will be newsy and clubby, because that's the way TVR customers are.”
His views echo those of Jerry Horwood who sees a web presence is invaluable in building relationships with existing customers. “Dealers should think of it as a way of assisting customers in every aspect of owning the car, and strengthening the relationship with the business.”
Chris Healey, director of sales and marketing at Clever4 Network, which designed the Dixon Motors website, said: “The most important aspects of a website have to be ease of navigation and quick access to vehicle stock.
“Websites full of 'flash' and impressive graphics may look pretty but function is far more important”.
There was a strong suggestion customers were turned off quickly if forced to spend time gazing at animations.
The Dixon site was designed so visitors had access to vehicle stock “updated daily”, said Mr Healey. Points of contact were also important so the site could respond to any visitor query and users make contact at any stage while browsing the site.
Mr Healey said the Dixon Motors' site had at least two icons that put visitors in touch with the dealership. Dixon recently opened a call centre where at least 20 operators were dedicated to responding to internet enquiries. Making sure that the website was responsive to enquiries was critical to turning internet leads into sales.
He said building database barriers with website visitors should be avoided, so as not force too much information from customers.
Kevin Turnbull, Autobytel UK chairman, said: “There is no need for flash graphics and excesses of information. The Amazon site does not need to use fancy graphics, it is simple. The technology works and it is a huge success.”
Mr Turnbull argued that a successful site must appeal just as much to newcomers as to experienced internet shoppers. For a while Autobytel UK thought all internet users were “super shoppers” but now realised this was not the case. It was essential for websites to be easy to navigate.
Again using Amazon as an example, Mr Turnbull said: “The expectations of internet users are also coloured by examples of best practice”. He thought users would only visit sites they felt comfortable or were familiar with. In response, Autobytel recently changed its business model to make the site more retail focused.
Mr Turnbull said: “We like to use the analogy of our site being like a shop window. We are not an infomediary, we are in the business of selling cars”.
He predicted that in the next three to five years between 5-20% of all new car sales would be via the internet and said Autobytel wanted to be “in that space”. The company was on track to record sales of 3,000 vehicles via its website by the end of the year and was positive about the future of the internet as a sales channel.
IT consultant to Whites Group Peter Blundell confirms that e-mail is not enough. “For a long time we had a basic site, which was really just an e-mail facility, and it did virtually nothing for us,” he said.
Whites put together an internet team using existing employees and developed infrastructure for handling calls. But equally important, according to Mr Blundell, is keeping the site up-to-date.
“I have seen a lot of websites where the stock list is updated about once every two weeks,” he said. “That is hopeless. It is probably out of date almost immediately it goes up.”
How Whites gets it right
Two key practices differentiate VW and Audi specialist Whites of Camberley, Surrey, from the majority of dealer websites – rapid responses and instant updates.
One year after scrapping their previous web presence, many experts admire Whites for the way they have created infrastructures to handle e-business that are ahead of most in the industry.
One person in Whites' central marketing department handles all sales e-mail enquiries. John Pilbeam responds to each within an hour of it being received. Overnight and weekend communications are handled first thing the next working day. He simultaneously copies his responses to either the Audi or VW internet sales specialist. They are charged with following-up within a further hour, and there is a rigorous follow-up procedure using e-mail and phone.
“The sales process can be a lot longer than with a traditional customer,” said Mr Pilbeam. “It may start with a brochure request from a prospect who is not able to change his car for three months.”
The internet sales specialists are equipped with laptop computers and mobile phones so that they can operate from any of the group's five sales sites. They have been trained to stay with the prospects tenaciously and enter all prospect information into a database using Microsoft Outlook.
The other side of Whites' unique approach is that stock listed on the site is constantly updated. “Each sales outlet can access the server, and as soon as a car is sold, it is removed from our list, and the other lists to which we are linked,” said Mr Blundell. “Each site also has a digital camera, and when a used car is ready for sale all its details and a photograph are posted on the site. The software also sends these details to the third party sites.”
He contrasts this with other dealer sites where “lists seem to be updated once a fortnight”, and with sales enquiries he has made on the internet: “60% didn't respond or not quickly enough.”
Whites' site can be used for service bookings, and up to 100 requests each month are handled this way. Whites also promote the site with their URL printed on all its literature. It is featured on many search engines, and via web portals such as GU postcode, and sites owned by Auto Trader, Exchange & Mart and the Evening Standard.
Although the internet process may be long-winded “it is really paying off now, especially for VW,” said Mr Pilbeam. “We sold a car recently from our Camberley site to a customer in Luton, mainly because we were the only people to respond quickly to his e-mail enquiry.” he said.