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Why Does your Team Still Stink at Maximizing Inbound Phone Calls?

Ask every dealer you know if they’d prefer a phone up or an email lead and 99% will say “phone up hands down.” This makes sense, since a phone up is usually lower in the purchase funnel and (when handled properly) delivers a much higher closing percentage than an email lead. If you count yourself among the dealers preferring inbound calls, all I can say is why do you want these when your team still stinks at answering the phone?

Forgive me, but they do… at least there is more than a good chance that they do.

Out of all the sales training provided to dealerships over the years, I would bet that phone skills ranks as the most frequently delivered class. Nearly every OEM has provided this training, many vendors like AutoTrader and routinely provide this training, and tons of consultants provide this training every day. In fact, many of you have dusty VHS tapes sitting in a drawer somewhere that contain excellent phone skills training.

If you’re like a lot of dealers, those VHS tapes featured a guy named Tom Stuker: an automotive industry consultant and trainer who’s worked with thousands of dealerships over the years. In 2011, Stuker became the first United Airlines frequent flyer to reach 10 million air miles. It’s precisely because so many dealership managers failed to reinforce the training from their “Stuker Tapes” that he received United’s first ever Titanium Mileage Plus membership card. (If your team was better on the phones, his services wouldn’t have been in such great demand, right?)

So, you’re saying we need more training?

Your team doesn’t stink at this because they need more training; they stink at maximizing inbound phone calls because they already have all the answers. They are “experts” at selling cars, so managing the inbound call about a particular vehicle is a cinch for know-it-alls like your used car manager. Don’t believe me? Start listening to your calls yourself and you’ll pull out your hair when you hear your seasoned and trained managers dealing with someone enquiring about a car.

Interestingly, if you run a call center or otherwise have specialized people manning the inbound calls (like a BDC), you might actually be pretty good at handling phone ups. Your traditional sales and management team – with all their years of training – are no good at phones because they are often too eager to shortcut all of the lessons they’ve been taught in the name of efficiency.

Watch them when they answer the phone: they won’t stand up; they won’t look into a mirror to ensure they are smiling; they won’t use a call guide to keep themselves on track; and they might even take these calls from their cell phone (away from a computer, pen and paper – all the tools they need to record the pertinent customer information). They won’t do the right things because they’re already the experts: phone training is for Green Peas.

Give these same calls to your BDC or a call center filled with those new to the business, and they will set nearly twice the appointments. It’s because they don’t have all the answers that is what makes these teams successful. They not only listened during your last phone skills class, they actually incorporated the lessons into their daily routine. Give them a headset, a call guide and a small mirror; and these true phone pros will stand, smile and successfully set appointments.

So, you’re saying we need to start a BDC?

Call centers and BDCs, unfortunately, aren’t the answer for every dealership. Additionally, with the pressures on dealer profit margins coming from all sides, single-point dealerships and small groups would struggle to financially justify even a well-run BDC. The key is not to take phones away from your team, but to make sure they start managing them correctly.

Phone calls, when handled properly, are gold. In fact, when you think about email leads, you have only one goal: get the prospect on the phone. Well, with a phone up, you’re already there. Now it’s time to shine… if you can.

While the average closing ratio for valid, non-duplicated leads entered into a dealer’s CRM was a paltry 7.7% in 2010 (based on data from the 2011 Automotive Internet Study that David Kain and I authored), the current data on inbound phone ups isn’t any better. In fact I will argue that, on average, dealers perform worse with their inbound calls than they do with their email leads.


Even I was surprised at the lack of phone skills that still exists today when I was reviewing some 2011 data provided by CallSource. Through the first 10 months of last year, CallSource physically listened to and analyzed more than 400,000 inbound dealership phone calls; revealing that dealership personnel successfully set appointments less than 8% of the time when speaking with a valid sales prospect. Given that not all of these appointments likely showed – and that not all of those who did show actually bought a car – the average closing percentage from phone ups was much worse than with email leads! Probably in the 2-3% range… Yikes!


So, you’re saying we should take our phone number off our website?

Certainly, if you’re not going to get good, you should start working to maximize e-mail leads – at least then you’ll have a fighting chance to get the business – but doing anything to reduce a prospect’s ability to connect with you is, of course, ludicrous.

Instead of giving up on phones, why not agree to get good? Most of the tools you need are probably already in place; you just need to start managing this part of your process. Virtually all dealers have some form of call tracking in use; but just like a CRM tool, call tracking software requires management in order to be successful.

While there are much deeper analyses and training you can do with your team to maximize your phone ups, I’m just going to provide some basics here. Once you get good, feel free to bring in a professional or to dust off your Stuker Tapes.

First, you’ll need to start listening to all sales calls beginning right now. Yes, right now. Just assign all of the recorded inbound sales calls from yesterday to the managers working today. If you have three managers in the store right now, then each one should listen to one-third of the calls. The easiest way to do this is to just give Manager A calls 1, 4, 7, 10, etc.; Manager B calls 2, 5, 8, 11, etc.; and Manager C calls 3, 6, 9, 12, etc.

The managers should be listening to and grading each call based on the criteria you’ve established. Oh, you’re a typical dealership and you have no grading criteria in use? That’s okay; just have them listen for the following must haves: appropriate greeting; needs analysis; gaining contact info; gaining the appointment; handling objections; and properly closing the call. By the way, you’ll want your team to use a call guide (that’s a piece of paper that looks like an abbreviated job application with lots of blanks for them to complete during the call).


Now, take this data and begin training your sales team (one-on-one and in your weekly sales meetings) by reinforcing the good behaviors and recognizing the bad behaviors as opportunities. It’s amazing the progress you’ll make in just the first week. It’s no mystery, by the way, on why your team gets good fast: just knowing someone is listening to calls makes salespeople instantly better.

But Steve, our managers are already swamped

In the past, if your sales management team truly did not have the time (or the stick-to-itiveness) to listen to every prospect phone up, then you probably just stunk at maximizing inbound calls. Today, technology and some really efficient vendors can take the burden off their backs.

From simple call tracking to actually listening to and grading every call in near real-time, many of the companies in the automotive telephony space have created products and services that are designed to allow your management team to focus on more pressing matters.

For example, most of the inbound calls your dealership receives aren’t even prospect sales calls – regardless of what number the caller used to reach your store. For many dealerships, it doesn’t make sense to take a top floor manager and tie him down to a desk listening to mostly service and personal calls. Having an outside company monitoring these just makes sense for these dealerships. Additionally, some of the providers have added mechanisms to alert your managers when a hot prospect has just called your dealership, but your team may have dropped the ball. Like a traditional management T.O., this gives you and your managers a chance to reengage a prospect with the opportunity to turn them into a buyer.

If you need more of a reason to start maximizing inbound sales calls, perhaps the data from another 2011 CallSource study (this one conducted with Polk) might sway you. In the study, they found that 26% of prospect phone ups from January through March 2011 bought a car by the end of May – the only problem was that 90% of these prospects bought at a dealership other than the one that received the original phone up. Are you losing 90% of your phone opportunities because of bad processes?

That’s it; I’m dusting off the Stuker tapes!

If you do decide to start managing and improving your handling of inbound phone calls yourself, you’ll soon want to add real-time monitoring of these. Eventually, you’ll get good enough to begin monitoring and improving your outbound phone follow-ups (with unsold appointments and traditional be-backs). Then you’ll really be cooking.

Of course, if you’re like most dealerships, you’ll take this issue of Digital Dealer magazine and lay it in the same drawer with your Stuker Tapes; and just go back to stinking on the phones. It’s because of dealer inattention to these matters that consultants and trainers are kept so busy flying back and forth across the country.

By the way, on January 17 on Spike TV, a new show premiered called Car Lot Cowboy starring none other than Tom Stuker himself. It seems that because your team still stinks at answering the phones, Tom Stuker now has a reality show to go along with his United Airlines Titanium Mileage Plus membership card…

Good selling!

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