Would you like fries with that?

Have you ever come in with a third-party lead generator for fast food?

No. Why? Because even though they have products of questionable nutrition, with confusing menus and confused employees, fast food companies do what they do, for the most part, pretty well. They offer fast service on value priced food options with a customer experience that focuses on getting your order right and moving you out of the restaurant or drive-thru in a timely fashion in order to make room for the next customer. Period.

So why do so many car dealers rely on third-party tools, sites, systems and products designed to attract new leads and generate business? Simply because, as a community, we as car dealers do not always do what we do very well at all.

Every time I attend a conference or read an industry publication, I notice the ads of companies who promise “more customers in your service drive” or “more car buyers in your showroom.” These companies are often well versed in tools and techniques to communicate with prospects about the services offered by their dealer customers. They employ smart and well trained front-line staff who get to know their customers and uncover their true needs. Then they focus on using the systems and processes they have been given to work with to do what they have promised. They help their dealers make more money, and they get paid very well to do that.

These third-party lead generating companies perform a valuable and necessary service given the way many dealerships operate today. The question I have is: why? Why do car dealers need someone to reach out to people who need to buy a vehicle, who live near their dealership, and who, in some, cases, have done business with them in the past or who know a member of their staff via their personal life? The answer I have come up with is not complex. It has very few contributing factors, and it is pretty easy to fix. If we as dealers made it easier for our customers to do business with us, more customers would do business with us.

Here are a few top-of-mind ideas to help you meet your customers’ needs:

  1. Answer the phone in four rings or less, whenever you are open. Make sure callers are transferred to the person or department they are looking for. Establish guidelines for the amount of time allowed between someone leaving a message and your employees calling back.
     
  2. The phone goes both ways; use the phone, the easiest communication method in your store, to keep customers updated on the status of their vehicle search, repair order or parts request. Don’t make them keep calling you to find out what’s going on.
     
  3. Make your showroom a 100 percent customer-facing environment. That means no intimidating huddle around the reception desk, no discussion of what’s for lunch or who is dating who. Lead by example, and treat every customer who walks in the door as a guest in your home, so your staff can learn to do the same.
     
  4. Do what you say you will do. This means delivering cars on time, and having service vehicles ready when you promise for pick up. If something gets in the way of following through on timelines, it should be the highest priority of that department and escalated through levels of management until it gets resolved.
     
  5. Manage through your managers, and stop letting the tail wag the dog. Your dealership exists to sell and service cars. It does that through the team of humans you have hired and placed in a structure with implied accountability to ensure the job gets done. The first line in every person’s job description should be about supporting their key function or outcome. A general manager has to be focused on making sure the department managers have what they need and are getting their jobs done. A sales manager must be present and engaged with the employees trying to facilitate sales all the time. Ensuring that managers have the latitude and attitude to be proactive and keep employees on task eliminates the desperate front line employee who feels that kinking your system is the only way to get his job done.

It’s not rocket science, but it is harder than it sounds. Our dealerships are ecosystems with a delicate balance unique to each one. We can’t, however, lose sight of what it is we are here to do. Working to meet our customers’ needs is the straightest line to the end of having customers who want to do business with us. There is an old expression that says, “I know that half of my marketing dollars are working for me, trouble is I just don’t know which half.” I once worked in an environment where the overarching belief was that “Money follows good customer service”, and this is true in any business. Maybe those big food chains are on to something when they ask us every single time, “Would you like fries with that?”

Cathie Clark has over 20 years of automotive industry experience, and is currently a dealer principal and president of Automotive Insider Consulting. Equal parts competitive car dealer and compassionate dealer educator, Cathie offers insight into digital and traditional marketing, F&I and sales processes as well as proactive compliance to improve customer experience. Reach Cathie on Twitter @autoinsidercat or at

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