All leads — be they a website lead, third-party e-lead, loan-by-phone lead or call-in lead — require the same response: a plan, a phone call and a call guide.

In 1992, my dealerships started working loan-by-phone leads with a third-party provider. Compared to today, it was archaic. We advertised a toll-free phone number touting financing for anyone. Car buyers called the number and answered automated prompts and we received a fax with all their responses. Today, most leads start at a computer keyboard and wind up in your CRM system, but regardless, they still must be worked the same way.

You must have a plan to work them effectively. So, what is yours? Hopefully, it starts with how someone will be alerted to each new lead when it arrives. It seems like these leads go from green to ripe to rotten in a nanosecond. When we were working those leads years ago, our goal was to call them within one hour of receiving them. Today, 15 minutes maximum should be the goal.

Make the First Call

So when should you call? Immediately upon receiving the lead! Don’t e-mail first — especially if the leads are “blind” leads, where the customer is not aware of the exact dealership to which they applied. That’s because a customer may not want to talk to a Hyundai dealer if he or she is looking for a Chevy truck. Your e-mail will alert them to who you are, and you can easily be ignored when you appear on their caller ID.

Next, you have to decide which ones to call. Let’s make it simple: You have to call them all. Over the years I have met with executives from most of the quality lead providers. They continually tell me their research shows that anywhere from one-third to one-half of the leads dealers buy never get called. That is just plain nuts. To pay $20 to $70 for a lead and then decide the customer cannot be financed before they come to the dealership is just being lazy. But it happens every day.

Keep this in mind: if, for whatever reason, you do not invite the customer to the dealership, you have essentially turned down their application. Many attorneys will argue that you then must provide them an adverse action letter. Now that you know you need to call all of your leads, you need to decide who will actually be doing the calling. Personally, I prefer call centers or BDCs, but that doesn’t mean a well-trained salesperson can’t be successful as well. What really counts is whomever is designated to call the leads makes that a priority. They should then be trained, monitored and coached daily.

Stick to the Script

Next comes the call guide. Some people call it a script. It’s just a matter of semantics; everyone talks a bit differently. (If you have worked in Boston, Nashville and El Paso, you will agree!) So it is more important to me that the call is bullet-pointed rather than “scripted” to the last word. The call guide needs to be built around the goal of the call, and the only goal is to set an appointment with a customer who will show up at the dealership, period.

The call guide should be structured so that you first establish rapport. Next, you can confirm a bit of the information you have received (you really don’t need any more to set the appointment), but remember the purpose of this is to forge a relationship with the customer, so act accordingly. Then ask for the appointment by giving day options first, then time choices (rather than yes/no options). Finally, confirm the appointment. My call guide always has a “hook” at the end to see whether or not you really have an appointment. If you would like a copy of my call guide, which has set probably two million appointments, just send me an e-mail.

Finally comes the phone call. Before you do anything, remember: “Smile before you dial!” That smile will transfer across the phone lines. Be open, disarming and friendly. More often than not it is not what you say, but how you say it that will make or break an appointment.

Remember, most of the customers you call will have applied before and been turned down. They are fearful that anything they say may blow the deal, so don’t play junior finance specialist on the call. And do not do a credit interview (unless they are coming from a long distance) to get them approved before you invite them in. If you do, you will likely blow at least a third of your opportunities.

Additionally, don’t ask specific questions about what they are interested in or how much money they have to put down. Bottom line, don’t do anything that will build mental barriers in the customer’s mind between them and getting their application approved.

My suggestion is to have all appointments directed to a sales or floor manager when they come in. First, it ensures the customer is directed to the correct sales consultant or department. Second, it disarms any later confrontation when a manager is asked to step in and take a turnover. They will already have met, had a friendly exchange and the manager will have introduced the salesperson as “one of their top people.” Finally, it ensures that the appointment is accurately logged.

Finally, any appointment that is made for another day should be called, confirmed and reminded of the appointment early the next day.

Top special finance dealers, whether they work on a blended floor or in a separate department, have been using this process for a couple of decades. It is a tried and proven plan. Following it should allow you to appoint at least 60 percent of the leads that you receive and have 60 percent of them show at the dealership.

For more information on the subject, and to learn from some of the best call-center managers in the country, be sure to attend our annual subprime conference. It will be held September 16–18, 2013, at Paris Las Vegas. For more information, visit I hope to see you there!