DANA POINT, CA – By now, dealership Internet managers know speed matters when replying to customer email sales inquiries. The need for prompt responses has been drilled into their heads for years.

But something that’s arguably more vital often is neglected in the rush to respond, says Peter Ord, director-training and business development for DealerSocket, a provider of dealership customer-relationship management systems.

“Response time is important, but how many times do we focus on responding as fast as we can and not focus on the message?” he says at a DealerSocket best-practices conference here. “In many ways, the message is more important.”

Whether it is because they are rushed or need to sharpen their writing skills, dealership staffers often send convoluted email responses that leave customers scratching their heads, frustrated and wondering why their questions went unanswered.

Ord’s advice: Be concise. Keep it short. Respond to their inquiries.

“When selling a car, how well are we able to make the message simple?” he says during a conference session entitled Leveraging Your Online Leads. “We don’t want to dumb it down, but to make them want to buy a car.”

Ord quotes his father, saying, “Smart people are able to explain complicated things in simple, easy-to-understand ways.”

Dealers need to communicate with their customers on every level and in every way, he says. That includes email marketing campaigns. But those often fall flat, especially when they contain overly general information that’s irrelevant to recipients.

“The No.1 complaint with email campaigns is, ‘It doesn’t apply to me,’” Ord says. Ways to avoid that include sending specific information based on buyer-history data retrieved from CRM systems.

For instance, it’s usually pointless to pitch fullsize pickup trucks to customers with a record of buying compact cars.

Although Ord says email message content is important, something tops that, at least early on: an appealing subject line.

“The subject line is the main reason people open emails,” he says. “It is not about the message at first, because people can’t see that until they open the email.”

In his conference sessions, Ord asks attendees whether they think it is better to call or email when responding to online customers who have provided their phone numbers.

In one workshop, the majority said picking up the phone is best. In another session, most participants said emailing is the preferred communication channel if that’s what the customer used to contact the dealership.     

Tilting toward calling, Ord quotes Larry Van Tuyl of the 69-store Van Tuyl Group that ranks No.6 on the WardsAuto Megadealer 100.

“Larry Van Tuyl says that if you don’t call the customer, you are doing everything to avoid establishing a relationship.”

And getting back to them quickly still matters; studies show lead closing ratios suffer as time passes.

To address that, DealerSocket offers a notification system that pings if a lead goes unanswered beyond 15 minutes. Staffers assigned to the leads get the alert. So do their bosses.