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Telephone Skills: The Art Of Turning Leads Into Dealership Visits

Fifth of a series on the 10 Critical Components for Success in Special Finance

Before there were automobiles, Alexander Graham Bell invented a device in 1876 that to this day has a dynamic effect on the sales of automobiles. His device was the telephone.

It is not the ability to transmit the human voice into an electric current that presents such a challenge to today’s automobile dealers, but rather how the darned contraption is used to transform leads into dealership visits and sales. It is this challenge that confounds dealers and their management teams daily throughout the United States.

Dealerships spend tens (and sometimes hundreds) of thousands of dollars each year attracting the sub-prime customer to their dealerships by television, direct mail, newspaper, or even the Internet. The majority of dealers determine success of a particular campaign or event by the number of sales that were made during it. What most fail to remember is that advertising is not designed to sell automobiles; it is just the tool used to put potential buyers in touch with your sales staff.

Before the sale, before the presentation, and before the test drive can take place, the customer must cross the barrier of the initial contact. Usually it comes by way of a phone call. The phone call is the desired result of most sub-prime advertising and it is the way that three out of four sub-prime sales begin. The inability to convert initial contacts into dealership visits will easily undermine the most successful advertising campaign.

Whether your department is staffed by a single person, a staff of 10, or all calls come through a call center, it is vital that any person communicating with a customer has been thoroughly trained with the proper telephone techniques for Special Finance.

To accomplish this, we must first identify the goals of the phone call. The primary goal is to establish good rapport and set an appointment (which will be kept) for the customer to come to the dealership. Without achieving this, a sale will most likely never occur. In some instances the secondary goal becomes the gathering or clarifying of information used to qualify the customer’s creditworthiness and insuring the customer brings with them all necessary documents in order to take immediate delivery. The most important thing to remember however is that you are selling the ability to obtain financing, not selling a vehicle.

With regards to the Special Finance department, telephone activity is broken down into three types of calls: 1) Inbound calls of unknown nature where the customer is not identified at the onset as prime or sub prime credit; 2) Inbound calls where the customer has responded to dealership marketing and has identified themselves as sub prime credit or has called in on a line that is only advertised for SF; and 3) Outbound calls to set appointments from Internet or other lead activity, generally an application for credit. Each type of activity requires different approaches.

The best preparation for both goals, regardless of the size or configuration of your team, is to use detailed telephone scripts in conjunction with training emphasizing role playing. Some people may roll their eyes when the word “script” is used, but nothing ensures sustained success any better than a well-scripted call after practicing or rehearsing it until it becomes natural. The exact number and types of scripts will vary depending on the structure of the dealership and the types of marketing driving the calls and lead traffic.

Over the years my stores basically used the same script and then modified it to reflect what media generated the lead (i.e.—an infomercial, the Internet, or a fresh call directly to the dealership from a newspaper or television ad). Remember with many situations the dealership most likely already has credit information that the customer has supplied over the phone or Internet. As you craft your script, keep in mind your goals and also remember to anticipate four questions that you will most likely incur. The four most common are:

  • How much of a down payment will I need?
  • What will my payments be?
  • What is the interest rate?
  • Do you have any (fill in the blank) in stock, and how much are they?

You must be prepared to deflect those questions which can easily cause the phone call to fail to reach is goals. Any one of them can allow the customer to take the lead in the conversation, ultimately sidetracking you from your goal. In addition, at the time of the call, most of them can’t be answered. Even if you could, there is often no “good” answer. For example, if you quote a rate or a payment (heaven forbid) you have either painted yourself into a corner or unnecessarily scared away the customer.

There are some of you that may think this is too simplistic. You and your staff are well-trained teams. The fact is that the best teams practice daily – that is how they remain champions. (Even Derek Jeter still takes batting practice.) If the appointment setting or show rate starts to drop, then it generally means that people are beginning to ad-lib or skip items on the script. It is “back to basics” time.

 Inbound Calls

The most difficult of the calls is the inbound call that is unidentified in nature and placed through the dealership’s primary number. It is more problematic in the sense that, in most dealerships, it is likely to be taken by anyone on the sales floor. If the person handling the call is not trained to ask identifying questions prior to offering specific prices and rates, any resulting appointment is apt to be worked improperly.

If your dealership is utilizing any type of advertising or marketing designed to elicit these calls, it is imperative that a process is set up to identify as many SF callers as possible. This often can be accomplished as simply by having the receptionist or person answering the phone modify their greeting. For example, “It’s a great day at Acme Motors! Are you calling for the sales department or credit center?” If the response is the credit center, then the call is immediately routed to the person/team that has been trained to handle the inbound calls.

The easier inbound call to handle is one where the caller either identifies themselves as a SF customer by asking for individuals or the department as instructed by the dealership’s advertising message or by calling in through a number advertised solely for SF. Again the call can be routed directly to the person or team that has been designated and trained to handle these calls.

Remember, the key with either type of inbound call is to put the customer at ease, establish rapport, and ultimately set an appointment. If your situation is one where you feel it is necessary to have the customer submit some preliminary credit information, use caution in the way that you request that information.

First, always remember that if you are asking for any personal, non-public information it is necessary to send the caller a copy of your company’s privacy policy. Next, realize that it is not only what you say, but how you say it that will determine the call’s outcome. I have heard more telephone calls sound like a WWII Nazi interrogation than I could ever count. Dealership personnel don’t realize it, but they become terse, cross, and sometimes just plain rude. I would dare say that nearly everyone can remember a point in time in their life where they applied for a loan, whether for $1,000 or $10,000,000, and “puckered” – wondering whether it would be approved or not. The customers that are calling certainly have felt that angst more times that you and are certainly anxious about the discussion you will be having with them. The instant that you build a barrier between them and their end goal of being able to finance a vehicle is when the appointment opportunity ends.

Outbound Calls

Dealerships that purchase leads or advertise for customers to call into an automated data collection system or apply online must turn those leads into appointments. This requires an outbound calling process.

Certainly these leads allow you to know in advance that these customers are SF customers. Indeed, with most of these opportunities, the dealership will have already gained a fair degree of credit information. However, the line between success and failure for these outbound calls can be razor thin. As with inbound leads, whether utilizing a single person or a full blown call center, scripted word tracks are the key.

While being conscious of the anxiety in the customer’s mind, you also must pay attention to another factor. Depending on what caused the customers to submit their data, they very likely are not expecting your phone call, and indeed may not be appreciative of it. With that in mind, the four components of your script should be:

  • Quickly establish rapport - you have 30 to 45 seconds to put the customer at ease.
  • Verify the credit information - Continues to build rapport. You don’t have to have every bit of information complete until they arrive at the dealership.
  • Ask for the appointment - Never ask a “yes or no” question, instead ask whether this afternoon or tomorrow morning would be better, then provide two time options.

Reconfirm the appointment commitment - Have them write down the stips they need to bring with them. Then, have them read what they have written. If they can’t read at least most of them back, it’s likely you don’t have a real appointment.

When calling  leads, one key factor is to remember that time is of the essence. Internet customers are often looking for immediate gratification. They want to know whether or not they are approved right now. They might even be sitting across the desk from a less-skilled F&I manager who has just submitted their credit info as a last-ditch effort to a company like e-Loan. In either case, time is your enemy. The ideal response time from the moment the lead arrives is within 15 minutes. At an hour the lead begins to become very stale. If the customer was sitting at the finance desk of a competing dealership when their information was forwarded to a company such as e-Loan, every second counts!

Outbound calls become a numbers game. The benchmark goal is six leads result in three appointments of which two will be kept. Remember this while churning through what for some stores is a never-ending sea of leads. In doing so, make sure that you remember to always ‘”smile before you dial.” It may be your 30th call of the day, but for the person receiving the call it is their first and you have but one shot to make a great first impression. 

What About Call Centers?

Depending on your dealership or department’s size and structure, as well as the number of incoming calls and leads, sometimes a call center (or BDC) is the most efficient way to accommodate them. The average sales person can handle roughly 75 new leads (of all types) per month. The best of the best can handle 125 or so. When opportunities exceed those numbers, time constraints mandate focusing on the low-hanging fruit – those customers that most easily can be predicted will result in an approval or sale. This less than optimum process will easily result in the loss of one-third of the opportunities.

Trained and proficient operators on duty in a call center can generally make or take 100 calls in an eight hour shift. This not only allows the dealership to process a higher number of calls, but also to train and coach a smaller staff of people that have but one purpose which is to make or take the calls and to set appointments that will be kept. Space unfortunately prevents me from detailing the call center structure and pay plans. You can start relatively small. Often one of the call team members serve as the department manager while still making calls. The added cost can be compensated for by either just converting the available opportunities, or a small soft pack added to each SF sale.

At the end of the day, whether your incoming calls are handled by a single person or a full blown BDC, the return generated on your significant SF advertising budget will hinge on how well those calls are handled. People often focus on the results (how many vehicles were sold) as opposed to the activities that result in those sales (how many appointments did we set that were kept). The phone is where it all begins or where it can end before it ever gets started! Place your focus and coaching there and you will reap the rewards.

Click here if you would like a copy of my outbound script that has no doubt set over 500,000 appointments.

Until next month,
Good selling!

Vol 4, Issue 5



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