Internet Auto Sales: The ‘New Normal’
Pictured left to right: Bradford White, Jennifer Jurgens, Michael Hoppius, and Mike Campo
Photo by Wes Battoclette
It wasn’t that long ago that the Internet sales manager at an auto dealership was the person who knew how to turn on a computer.
Even less than a decade ago, online contact between auto dealer and customer was often considered a futuristic novelty.
“When I started selling cars on the floor in 2007, an Internet lead was basically something that came off the fax machine, and someone said, ‘Here, call this guy, I think he is interested in a car,’ ” says Mike Campo, the Internet sales director for Mercedes-Benz of Cincinnati and Mercedes-Benz of West Chester.
Now online auto shopping is so commonplace it has significantly changed the traditional dynamic between dealer and consumer. But customers and sales people would agree the easy availability of online research – loaded with price and vehicle comparisons – has made for a more efficient, positive experience.
Auto dealers know they need a vigorous Internet sales team to compete in today’s market. That’s certainly true at Mercedes-Benz of Cincinnati, which has a team of five handling online contacts and sales for its locations on Montgomery Road and in West Chester.
“It’s not the same job it used to be,” Campo says. “You have to have a winning team capable of engaging and connecting with people by sharing emails, texts and making phone calls. You have to offer chat and text and all those tools right up front. You have to be able to close a deal by texting with someone on their lunch break.”
Campo, who helped set up the Mercedes-Benz of Cincinnati Internet sales department, says historically the typical Mercedes buyer tended to be a little older, traditionally a demographic slower to embrace the Internet. Campo believes that’s no longer true. In fact, he says the more affluent, older Mercedes buyers have come to appreciate the efficiencies of online auto shopping. Indeed, studies show online auto shopping is embraced almost the same across age groups and income levels.
Campo also says a robust online sales force is a must to deal with younger buyers who almost expect that to be a first point of contact. And, for the first time, Mercedes has started a push for a younger customer, introducing two more affordable vehicles – the CLA-Class coupe and the GLA-Class crossover – as an entry level over the last two years.
The most recent survey of U.S. car buyers from auto research firm Polk found that 78 percent use the Internet at some point while shopping for a new or used car. It also found that 75 percent of their time spent shopping for a car was done online, a radical shift from the days one would spend hours driving between dealer showrooms to compare. According to Polk, two-thirds said Internet research was the most influential element that led them to a dealership for a purchase.
Campo says the key to the Mercedes-Benz of Cincinnati online sales approach is that a customer will be connecting with a consultant as knowledgeable as they would find on the showroom floor.
“We put qualified, well-trained people in our first point of contact with the dealership,” he says. “They are the front line. I think that’s what separates us from other Internet sales departments.”
Campo says some dealerships still see Internet sales as an entry-level position. “My preference is to always hire someone who has worked in the car business and understands the process and the product.”
Online buying doesn’t mean auto sales have become an Amazon.com experience, especially for an upscale vehicle like a Mercedes-Benz. Michael Hoppius, an Internet sales consultant at Mercedes-Benz Cincinnati, says there is an art to online sales just as there is to being on the lot, but it requires different skills.
“You have to be a good writer,” Hoppius says. “You have to understand how to string words together, so it makes sense. You have to be very careful what you say and how you say it.”
Hoppius thinks the convenience of online auto buying has not changed the traditional interaction with a customer. “It’s not point-and-click. I am not an order taker,” he says. “I can negotiate and work with a customer online just like on the lot. The Internet just allows that process to play out more efficiently.”
At Mercedes-Benz of Cincinnati, when the online negotiating process is complete, the customer comes to the dealership to finalize the purchase with a product specialist, who is an expert in the functions and features of the car.
Campo says Internet sales have opened an entirely new market for the Cincinnati dealership especially when it comes to pre-owned Mercedes-Benz models. He says up to 70 percent of monthly online sales involved used vehicles. That is partly because of the unique nature of the prestigious brand, where loyal customers fall in love with what are considered vintage years and models. The Internet permits Mercedes-Benz lovers to shop nationally for that special car.
“The fact is Cincinnati is an affluent, high-end town, a good Mercedes market,” says Campo. “We have a better than average trade-in inventory. We have put cars on trucks and sent them to every corner of the country – California, Texas, Florida, Massachusetts. People may be looking for a unique color combination, year, make, model. Those cars are not just anywhere, and our price is competitive.”
Campo says used cars are an area where his Internet sales team really shines by making it easy for people to transfer funds, process paperwork and choose transportation services. He takes pride to post at least 30 pictures of a used car, including close-up shots of all four tires, the VIN number and other small details.
Campo thinks some dealers are still struggling with what an Internet department is and he thinks probably every dealer in Southwest Ohio does something a little differently. But at the two local Mercedes-Benz dealerships, Campo says the mantra is that online is the new brick-and-mortar, the new normal for car buying. He said consumers enjoy and expect the transparency of auto shopping that the Internet can provide.
“When someone asks over the Internet what do a I pay for a car, we tell them. That’s not something you always got in the past from a salesman on the lot,” he says. “It was, ‘Look at these cars and we’ll talk price later.’ Now people come in with their work done. They come knowing what they should be paying and what cars are on the lot at any given time. People want that information when they contact us online and our job is to supply them with what they need to make a decision.”
Mercedes-Benz of Cincinnati is located at 8727 Montgomery Road, Cincinnati, OH 45236. You can reach them at 513.984.9000 or visit their website at www.mbcincy.com.
Mercedes-Benz of West Chester is located at 5897 Muhlhauser Road, West Chester, OH 45069. You can reach them at 513.984.9000 or visit their website at www.mbwestchester.net.