Whether it's the convenience or the impersonal nature of it, e-mail shopping by consumers appears to be growing, leaving powersports dealers with a new sales medium to wrangle with.
It's a medium that offers significant challenges. How do sales people, who are used to dealing face-to-face with customers, make a personal connection with a faceless e-mailer? Is the e-mailer a different demographic than the Average Joe on the showroom floor? And how should e-mail price shoppers be handled?
Answering these questions figures to be key to dealerships now and in the future.
“How you handle a call or e-mail can drastically change the sales of your store,” said Chad Sutton, sales manager at PCP Motor sports in Sacramento, Calif.
Sutton, who has been with the Central California multiline dealership for eight years, has seen a steady increase in e-mail shoppers in the past few years.
So has Ed O'Brien, the general manager for Grand Valley Powersports in Grand Junction, Colo. He estimates he hands out 20-25 e-mails a week to his sales staff. Some e-mail originates locally, others, especially during the snowmobile season, come from the Midwest and other parts of the nation.
David Warnsman, sales manager of Harley-Davidson/Buell of Bloomington, Ind., said his staff receives up to 25 a day, a number that has increased over the past year.
K.C. Wood, president of Barney's Motorcycle Sales, St. Petersburg, Fla., believes there's enough sales opportunity in e-mail shoppers that he recently hired a full-time Internet salesperson away from a Toyota auto dealership.
All of which points to more dealings in the future with firstname.lastname@example.org.
“They like the impersonal contact,” O'Brien said of the e-mail shopper. “So many years all of us have been beaten up by the used car salesman. This eliminates all that.
“For a lot of people, it's a lot less stressful for them that way.”
Less stressful for the consumer, but likely more stressful for the salesman. After all, there's no initial eye-to-eye contact, handshake or friendly greeting that so many times in the past led to that big sale.
“It is so impersonal until you actually contact them on the phone,” O'Brien said. “It's weird.”
Although the initial contact is vastly different, the actual customer likely isn't. That's the message from a former auto dealership Internet salesman.
“I find that the consumer on the Internet and the consumer on a walk-in (visit) are pretty much the same customer,” said Vang, who ran an Internet sales department for a Wisconsin Toyota dealership before being hired at Barney's.
“Anybody who walks on the floor (has) already done their homework on the Internet,” Vang said. “It's just that we as Internet professionals did not catch them while they're on the Internet.”
And catching them online is crucial, Warnsman of Bloomington Harley-Davidson said.
“If we've missed a deal or two, sometimes it's been that we haven't responded quickly enough,” he said. “It's not so much we've given them bad information, it's just the fact that people are in a time crunch. So what they do is e-mail out 15 (queries) to 15 different dealerships, and then who responds back to them is who they go with.”
Because timing is critical, one of Warnsman's top salesman monitors the dealership's e-mail, checking for messages at least twice a day.
Once that e-mail query comes across, most, if not all, salespeople have the same objective - get that person on the phone and eventually in the showroom. But what's the best approach to that first step of gaining the consumer's trust to getting their phone number?
“We want to get out from behind the computer as much as we can and try to verbalize with the customer in some form, non-confrontational obviously,” said Wood, Barney's president. “But the guys that won't get out from behind the computer, that want to hide behind that, then we're going to deal with them a little differently. We're going to nurture them along and give them just enough and keep probing that situation.”
Others in the industry are more concerned with providing general store information and don't worry about trying to make a personal contact.
“I don't see how you can,” said Warnsman, who on most occasions has his sales staff reply with form letters that give e-mail shoppers general information and contact numbers.
“We've found that the ones who respond right back, those are the guys or gals that are interested in the bikes,” he said.
That certainly can be true for price shoppers, which are rampant on the Internet.
“It's a matter of qualifying,” Barney's Vamp said of dealing with price shoppers. “When I say qualifying, (I mean) finding out what the customer wants and needs. As important as price is, that's usually not the driving point. The reality is if we are on the right vehicle within your budget, within your needs and wants, price doesn't really matter.
“Once you build a little trust, I move to, 'When can we get together so we can earn your business?' That's the bottom line. And then the price kind of disappears.”
But should prices be quoted to e-mail shoppers? There are differing opinions and practices in the industry.
“Our belief is that the goal of a customer contact via phone or via e-mail is to set an appointment for a customer,” said Tom Orlando, director of dealer development for Otis Hackett Group and a former dealer himself, adding that a good salesperson should be able to do 70 percent of the time.
Others try to stay away from giving prices, but won't refuse to do so if asked. That's the case with O'Brien at Grand Valley Powersports.
“Any price we give, we stick by,” he said, “and we win a lot of business because of that.”
Nearly all dealers and industry veterans point to the e-mail query as the first step in a consumer relationship that should as quickly as possible move to the phone or even better, the showroom floor.
To do that, Tory Hornsby of Dealership University recommends providing a Web form that consumers can fill out when they submit an e-mail query. The Web form should include the consumer's name, address, phone number, model and color of vehicle they're interested in and a notes box.
“You're so much more likely to get a phone number that way,” Hornsby said, allowing dealers and their salesmen to transfer that much quicker to a medium they're more comfortable with.
Copyright 2006 Powersports Business