Phone calls take new priority in pandemic

More customers are buying cars using a computer today, but one of a dealership’s most critical tools — if not the most vital — dates back more than a century.

The telephone.

Some dealers have invested in or expanded the use of products that help shoppers do more of the transaction online — e-commerce platforms, chatbots, video tools, e-contracting — during a pandemic in which close human contact is discouraged.

Yet the phone is a technological sales tool at dealerships’ disposal. Phone calls became more important during the coronavirus outbreak, especially while physical showrooms in some states were closed to walk-in and appointment traffic this spring, several dealership phone services providers told Automotive News. And they remain an indication of how serious a vehicle shopper is about buying.

Vendors can record phone calls, offer training and coaching, track conversations and alert dealerships to follow up with customers when calls aren’t properly handled. Some dealership managers say mobile technology also has made it easier to communicate with customers through text messages, video calls and virtual vehicle walk-arounds.

“It’s easier to go online,” said Steve Barnett, CEO of dealerTEL, a Vero Beach, Fla., phone systems provider that works with about 100 dealership rooftops.

“When I break out of that mold and I’m willing to click to dial and call a dealership, I’m serious today,” Barnett said.

“If you don’t take care of me on that phone, I’m done with you, because the next dealership is one click away on the phone. I don’t need you. I’ll pick the next guy because Google gave me five dealerships here to dial from.”

When Shults Auto Group closed its showrooms in New York and Pennsylvania this spring under state coronavirus restrictions, Matthew Kahm rerouted all extensions to one phone at each store and assigned an employee to answer calls.

The Jamestown, N.Y.-based dealership group, with eight franchised rooftops and three pre-owned stores, set up a voicemail message letting customers know the group’s stores were short-staffed — between 75 and 80 percent of employees were furloughed, Kahm said — and that someone would respond as soon as possible.

Call volume fell off in the early weeks of the pandemic, so the load could be managed with fewer people, said Kahm, general manager of two of the group’s stores.

More employees were added to the phone group as the number of calls increased.

“That was the sign things were opening back up, when the phones started ringing again,” he said.

Shults Auto Group installed digital retailing tools during the pandemic at stores that didn’t have them, and employees used the phone to walk customers through the online sales process.

Kahm said callers now often want to confirm that the dealership received their online submissions.

“The customer’s already at that transactional point when they’re calling us,” he said.

“We have to continue to work on our skills as dealerships to wow the customer while they’re on the phone and make it easy,” he added, “and not have customers bouncing around all over the place.”

Phone providers say dealerships also need to improve their processes to make sure customers are well-serviced on the telephone to avoid a bad experience that sends shoppers to another store.

Lonestar Toyota in Lewisville, Texas, near Dallas, ensures sales consultants are knowledgeable about the brand’s vehicles so they can answer every question a caller might have, said General Manager Ronald Bowie.

More customers are interested in working an entire car deal over the phone prior to going into the store, something Bowie said is relatively new during the pandemic. If a customer wants to transact by phone, the deal is sent to a manager who will follow the deal through closing and work with a customer to finish the paperwork either in-store or off-site.

“If I’m talking to you, I have more of a connection with you over the phone than I do over an email,” Bowie said. “I can send something to you in an email, and then you go and you can shop me to 10 other dealerships. This is just more of a one-on-one: ‘Hey, let’s figure out a way to make you happy.’ ”

As the pandemic continues, dealerships can enhance their phone capabilities by turning voice calls into video chats, experts said. For instance, Barnett said, a sales employee could take a customer for a virtual ride from inside the vehicle he or she is interested in buying. Instead of focusing on getting a customer to go into the store, he said, sales consultants should use the phone to build rapport in whichever way a customer wants to engage.

“Treat the phone as the most valuable technology that they have,” Barnett said. “That phone will give you more return on investment than any other piece of technology that you invested in in your store if you just pay a little attention to it.”