Until car dealerships follow the supermarket model and stay open 24/7 – never likely to happen – there’s always going to be a point when the showroom is closed.
But if you shut the doors and staff go home at 6pm, there’s no one to answer the phones when research says more and more potential customers are browsing your stock online and might have a question.
Smartphones and tablet computers such as the iPad have made night-time web surfing easier than ever.
But it means there’s no opportunity to engage with the consumer at that early stage of the decision-making process.
The answer for more and more dealers is ‘live chat’. It’s the latest branch of a digital marketing strategy which for many retailers already includes a standard and mobile website, apps and social media such as Facebook and Twitter.
As a way of communicating with potential buyers, live chat is the strand that’s least developed in the automotive retail sector and so presents the greatest opportunity.
“The future is about becoming part of the buying process at the earliest possible stage by engaging with the consumer,” said John Simpson, managing director of Manheim Retail Services, which offers software designed to maximise profitability.
“Many people arriving at a showroom already know what they want without any input from the staff. Dealers have the power to change that thanks to live chat on their website.”
Live chat is exactly what it sounds like, a real-time conversation between customer and salesperson which takes place on the computer.
A quick-fire Q&A goes back and forth for as long as either party is happy to be involved.
It can be during business hours or outside, but the good news is it doesn’t mean someone staying late in the showroom.
Sales staff like it because they can be at home in the evening with their family, yet still on duty to service a customer enquiry.
Senior managers and manufacturers like it because it’s maximising the retail opportunity and gives the impression of a professional operation that cares about its customers.
They like it because it allows them to be anonymous, do their research in a pressure-free environment yet still get additional information.
Philip Deacon is communications manager for Ridgeway Group, which started live chat last November as part of its revamped website.
It covers all 29 locations and is launched via an on-screen button that’s always visible.
“We felt we needed to offer customers easier ways to contact us on their own terms,” he explained.
“Initially we only got a trickle, but it now accounts for one in 10 of all website enquiries.”
Topics brought up vary dramatically, but the ability to see what webpage the enquirer was viewing when they clicked the live chat button is a useful heads-up on what might be coming.
“It’s not always people wanting to enquire about a car. We get lots of parts enquiries and an increasing amount of service ones.
"People want to locate their locking wheel nut key, or ask about telephone numbers of different locations. The enquiry could be about anything.”
Deacon said the biggest challenge has been adjusting the way the marketing team works in the office.
If the person covering live chat wants to walk away from their desk to make a coffee or go to lunch, the metaphorical baton has to be handed over.