Best Practices

Those Pesky Little Auto Responders

After having spent the last week mystery shopping dealers, I am going to go on record and say that the auto responders currently being sent are a complete waste of the customers’ time. I have yet to see one that really impressed me.

Generally there are two scenarios one would send an auto responder; the “on-hour” and the “off hour” auto responder. If your CRM is incapable of differentiating between the two, then I would demand this feature from your CRM vendor, or consider finding a new CRM vendor.

Let’s start with the “on-hour” responder. Is there really any need to send one of these? Your sales team or Internet rep should be able to respond to a lead in a timely manner, thus who needs the auto responder. That first real message from the salesperson is the auto responder. For those of you saying “what if we can’t get to them right away?” well I would say that’s hogwash. There is no reason why a dealership shouldn’t be able to respond to an Internet lead within 15 minutes. If you can’t, then some process is broken in your dealership. This is a customer visiting your dealership in the form of an electronic transmission. Would you let somebody stand out on your lot for 30 minutes before going out to help them? Then why should an Internet lead be any different.

I personally believe it’s every person’s responsibility in the dealership to make sure Internet leads are handled in a timely fashion. Everyone from the Dealer Principal down should be watching response times and making sure customers are handled promptly and professionally. Most CRM tools now have the ability to notify a person on their cell phone when the lead has arrived. Not to mention, managers can normally see on a dashboard which leads have been handled and those that have not. It’s about execution folks! If you’re not executing then somebody needs to visit the process and put one in place that’s going to give you the best possibility to execute in a timely manner.

Now let’s talk about the “off-hour” Internet lead. This is one case where I think we should send an auto responder. The one’s I’ve seen lately are not exactly thrilling me. So let’s think about what we would like to accomplish with the “off-hour” responder. For me it would be about setting up a phone conversation with the customer once the dealership has opened. With that in mind, here’s an auto responder that I would personally be using:

(Customer first name),

I just happened to be checking my e-mail and I noticed your request for information on the (model). Our dealership is currently closed, but I will be contacting you in the morning when we open. Would you prefer an early or late morning call? Also, which number would be best for me to reach you?

I look forward to helping you with the (model) and thanks for choosing (dealership name).


Jerry Thibeau
ABC Motors

That auto responder should not be sent 1 minute after. I would say 10-15 minutes would seem more realistic that it came from a real person. Hopefully when I arrive in the morning there’s an e-mail waiting for me with the details. If I am a customer who is up at 2:00AM submitting leads, this is going to make me think…”I don’t want to be getting no phone calls at 9:00AM when they open, maybe I better respond to this.” So wouldn’t it be nice if we had a reply from the customer telling us exactly when to call them. One would think this would increase our contact ratio when attempting to call Internet customers. You get that Internet customer on the phone, it now becomes a phone-up and you’re one step closer to making that appointment. There is also something else you can put in that template which will help your cause, but unfortunately I have to leave some things in the bag of tricks for dealerships currently paying for my services.

About the Author: Jerry Thibeau is a sales trainer and the President of Phone-up Ninjas. His company focuses on helping dealerships around the world increase sales by teaching automotive professionals the proper techniques for scheduling more appointments with phone and Internet customers.

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  • December 21, 2009
Very good article. I'll be asking this of my CRM immediately. Your off hour template looks great.
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    Jeff Kershner
  • December 21, 2009
Right on Jerry. It's amazing what dealers send out to potential customers. The Auto-response is an often overlooked powerful tool. Show an urgency to serve the matter what time of the day it is.
In my experience, there are times that I truly cannot personally respond to a lead in a timely manner. (Example; a lead comes in during the middle of a busy Saturday afternoon, I am outside with my Saturday appointment customers and do not get back to my PC until an hour or more has passed since the lead came in). During times like these I would appreciate it if a well worded auto-response email went out to the prospect.

However, the content of this auto-response email should be short and sweet:
1). I received your lead.
2). I will be getting back to you as quickly as possible with the info you requested.
3). Here is my name, phone and email so you can know who will be replying.

No more, and no less.

Why can't somebody else in your dealership respond when that happens? If you're the only person responding to leads in your dealership, there's no way for you to become ubiquitous. If that lead comes in with a phone number and somebody calls that customer right away, they may just catch them while they are still doing research on the computer. Plus I wouldn't want to be the last person making contact. Look at the latest mystery shop I did Look at the mystery shop. I got the auto responder and then another from the sales rep a few minutes later. Was that auto responder really necessary?
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    John Marzy
  • December 21, 2009
Hello Jerry,

My first question would be "Is the model field required to be filled in when a request is made from your website or from a 3rd party lead provider?" If you read your email without that information being filled in, I don't believe the customer would think "I just happened to be checking my email.."

I would substitute Make for Model and just hard code it into the template if I was a single store or reword it differently for multiple stores.
Good thought John!

I know that some CRM vendors have a feature that will allow you to replace an absent auto-fill with a word or phrase of your choice. In this case I would use: "vehicle you selected." This is done when setting up the auto action.

Some of the more sophisticated CRM vendors will also allow you to send different templates based on where the leads came from.

These are features that should be available to you in your CRM tool.
Hi Jerry,

I disagree that on-hours should not get a response. Customers are now conditioned to get an "instant" response. If you order something at, and hit "submit," within seconds you receive a confirmation that your order was received. Similarly, automotive clients want to know that their "order has been received."

The auto-response can also help you "buy" a little time. Because quite honestly, if you think it's still all about SPEED, then you're still 5-6 years ago. I would rather send a Quality, Custom-Worked, Option-Filled Personal response in 20-25 minutes than the usual hum-drum canned "why buy here" and "same price I just saw on your website" email in 10-15 minutes.

Whatever the message, set-up your next step and therefore expectations, and you're benefiting both the client and yourself.

Now if my friggin CRM system would work all the time... hahaha... :)

I knew when I wrote this article I would get some people who would not agree with what I wrote. With the auto responders I have seen, and I have seen a lot of them, I am not impressed. Some of them go on and on and on. To me there really is no reason why anyone should not be able to respond to a customer and give them a "quality response" in a short time frame. I would also challenge you on the "SPEED" aspect. I saw an article on one of the automotive sites that mentioned salespeople who contact customers within five minutes will increase their contact rate by 800%. I would believe that statement. Not to mention that first rep to make contact has a pretty good chance of building rapport with the customer. So while you're busy typing out your fancy e-mail, I'll have already called the customer and made an appointment with them. Don't get me wrong, I like quality, but as long as it doesn't prevent me from accomplishing my mission.

You're only going to face so many different situations. Why not build a variation of templates for each situation and then you can easily customize them as needed. I could give you a quality reply in less than five minutes using my CRM of choice.

Also, don't forget that if there's a phone number, I am not even going to bother writing the template. If I get the customer on the phone, it's a phone-up. After the call I'll then send them an e-mail based on my conversation or voice mail. Hopefully that e-mail is to give them directions for the appointment I set.

Please don't take my comments in the wrong way, I welcome the debate. Prove me wrong and I'll gladly re-evaluate my position.
Hi Jerry! I would never look crossly on an intelligent discussion! I certainly hope you won't either.

There's nothing you mention with which I completely disagree. Honestly, you sound like most of the vendors and most of the OEM's. Practicality, on the other hand, is often lacking in typical vendor-speak. And I'm sure you'll agree that there's not ONE overall best anything.

Speed is important, yes. No doubt. But believe me, when the balance of content/speed is optimized, you win (no one said anything about typing -- all templates, of course. But adding-in the personal touch and appropriate content is key). ESPECIALLY when compared to the guy who just called to set an appointment -- I love when that happens: "You just spoke to someone from ABC? Did you get my email? You mean he didn't send you something like this? Hmmm.... well how does this look?) You can set all the appointments you want -- they'll show here. My WOW is going to be better than your WOW. Again, 5-6 years ago, first won, yes. Not now. Best wins now. You need balance.

Here's another real-world situation in which you'll score poorly (and this sucks, but it is a fact of Dealer Life). We are tested by the OEM's. Several of our franchises, like Lexus, tie-in ILM scores to prestigious awards, i.e., Elite of Lexus. And guess what they score? The first email! You can be the best Ninja there is, but if your email doesn't contain everything they want, you don't score well. Rediculous? Yes. Fact of life? Yes.

Lastly, I'll submit to you that you can't do what you really need to do in 5 minutes. I'll further submit that 5 minutes is too long -- as I mentioned before, customers want the INSTANT verification that their message, newly sent to cyberspace was received.

Would you mind if I mystery shopped your dealership before I continue this conversation?

You can e-mail me at [email protected] if you don't want to post what dealer you work for.

Does your OEM require an auto responder? If so, I would probably comply with the requirement.
Please feel free:

I don't know of any OEM's that require or score on an auto-responder, but several score on content.

Would you like it to be a public or privately viewed mystery shop?
No preference, Jerry. Always looking to learn new things, and I don't pretend to have all the answers. I would ask that after the shop you reveal yourself, as our follow-up process is lengthy (so we can invalidate the lead). I would probably prefer to keep our actual responses private -- I don't want to make it too easy for others to copy our stuff :)
OOoofff... hope you didn't shop us this morning!! haha... Swine Flu killing us (not literally, thank goodness!). Between call-offs and CRM issues, when it rains, it pours! But that's all part of it, right? Have a great process, do the best you can, always look for improvement, and take it one lead at a time :)
That's not a chink in the armor is it John? Just kidding! Actually I did already mystery shop you and will be putting the data together after lunch.

Let's get back to the auto responder. I saw yours and it was one of the better ones I've seen. My only question; if in the auto responder you make a statement saying you're going to call in a few minutes, what happens if the person does not call in a few minutes? This could potentially happen if somebody was out sick with the swine flu or perhaps they were just busy with something else. So in my opinion I would not want to send that auto responder out unless I was absolutely certain I could make that phone call. For a dealer using an Internet BDC, that would be easier to accomplish, but for a dealership using sales people off the showroom floor, you're opening yourself up for some disappointed customers when you don't call them as per the expectation.

If the dedicated BDC department is handling the lead right as it comes in, why not just manually send that e-mail. This way you're assured the person sending it will in fact follow-up with the customer. I did get one of these auto responders from your Toyota BDC rep, but no phone call has arrived and it's been an hour.

Please don't go alert your BDC, let's see what transpires. I am going to give it another hour before I start compiling the mystery shop report. As I finished writing this she just called.

It’s good that she called, but her original e-mail said a few minutes. Hopefully you can now understand where I am coming from with my comments in the original article.

As always, I welcome your feedback.
Hi Jerry -- thanks for the effort. I put my money where my mouth was, and lost my money! :)

We are a BDC -- dedicated team of responders -- and I agree -- if we can't do better, then we need to nix the responder.

When it rains, it pours. The gal you spoke with actually put you on hold because the school was calling her back to tell her that she does indeed need to pick-up her little boy and take him to the ER for x-rays on his (apparently) busted arm. But we are a NO-EXCUSE organization. Why this lead wasn't handled by the morning shift before Gina arrived at 11:30 is a serious issue.

Again, thank you for your efforts!

You didn't lose anything! I will tell you that you have a good process and I liked the templates you all use.

I am building the mystery shop website right now and will have it finished in about 20 minutes. I'll need your e-mail so I can send you the secure log-in info. [email protected]

And if anyone else would like to be mystery shopped, I'll be doing some more next week for free. Just join us in this thread:
The process is good, yes. (Thank you). But the best process in the world won't work if your team can't execute. Our performance this morning was embarrassing. No excuses. This will be a good learning tool, and hopefully we'll get better for it. Thanks again!
I'll tell you that you crushed your local Acura competitor in quality of response.

While your process didn't measure up to your high standards, it's probably a lot better than most the dealers in your market.

You're welcome!
BTW, Jerry -- your format for reporting on the mystery shops is VERY COOL. A1. What a GREAT learning tool... can't wait to have a Team Meeting. Thanks again!! -- JQ
Jerry, you are spot on when you blogged “I personally believe it’s every person’s responsibility in the dealership to make sure internet leads are handled in a timely fashion.”

Today consumers drive the car buying process because the internet empowers car buyers to expect instant information at their fingertips. They demand comprehensive, detailed vehicle information that directly addresses the questions they posed. And they want that quote right away—15 minutes, tops.

Catherine Edwards,
ResponseLogix Marketing Director
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    Ed Oliver
  • January 27, 2010
"I just happened to be checking my e-mail and I noticed your request for information on the (model)."

So your first response to the customer is a lie?

Always looking for ways to improve but dont need that kind of advice.
Lovely, another consumer advocate. Not everyone is cut out to work in this industry. You sure you want to have this debate with me?
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    Ed Oliver
  • January 27, 2010
Just left my opinion is all. I am entitled to it. I do not care for that approach at all.

Judging from the rather nasty tone and the content of your reply I do not care to have a debate, discussion or any interaction with you what so ever.
If you don't care for that type of approach then maybe you should have kept this comment to yourself: "So your first response to the customer is a lie? Always looking for ways to improve but dont need that kind of advice."

Here's a few questions for you to ponder Mr. Oliver:

1. Customer inquires about a vehicle that you know has had a rough history, probably not a car you would buy for yourself. Would you tell the customer "A" they shouldn't buy the car, or would you tell them "B" "oh it's a nice one, you should come down and look at it?"

2. You present an offer to a customer that you know is a huge gross for the dealership. The customer ponders the offer and inquires if you can do any better, do you reply with: "A" "Yes we're making too much money off you, let me go grind my manager some more?" Or do you tell them: "B" "No, that's a really good deal you're getting, would you like to take delivery today or tomorrow?"

If you answered "B" then how is that any different than what I am suggesting in my e-mail. Based on your first comment, you're an "A" man.

I'd love to explain the theories of capitalism to you, but I have better things to do with my time this evening.
  • J
    Jennifer G.
  • February 9, 2010
I read this site because of the great new ideas from the authors and commenters. I think some of the best information and new ideas come from differences of opinion. Mr. Thibeau, you make some very great points, but Mr. Oliver brings up a good point.

It's a great article to start with and I think the use of the autoresponder has evolved and will continue to do so.

I do believe in an after-hours autoresponder if for no other reason than to acknowlege we've got the customer's request. Any time you do anything online, you get a confirmation email, so why should contacting a dealer be any different? I don't want a customer moving on to more and more dealers just because they think I'm not getting back to them.

If we remove any emotional/ethical quandaries from the discussion, I still question beginning with a lie for practical reasons. I happen to be one of those people who gets caught every time. With my luck, at some point, I'd wind up in a discussion with a customer about my previous night's activities where I couldn't possibly have been checking my email or something. I just wouldn't want to have to worry about keeping up with a lie.

Wouldn't it be just as effective without that part? It implies that you're checking your email but doesn't assert it unecessarily. Besides, I think in my CRM tool it would likely come out as:


I just happened to be checking my e-mail and I noticed your request for information on the HENWAY 3.5R XLR 401K EDITION MODEL CODE AA75R.

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    Jerry Thibeau
  • February 9, 2010

My message is that you should send an after hours message. During dealership hours we should be responding to them so quickly that we don't need the auto responder.

The one I exampled above works well when using a good CRM tool. I want the customer thinking I am on top of my game and customer focused. So if your CRM is not going to be able to provide the right vehicle info, I would suggest not sending.

When I think the message is from a real person I am more apt to do a little more reading. When I know it's an auto responder I tend to not pay it much attention.

All I am trying to do above is paint a mental picture for the customer making them think I am one hard working car salesman.

I know people who will write an e-mail to their boss and then have it go out at like 5 in the morning to give the boss the impression they are up and working early in the morning. It's all about perception.

Nobody has to send that exact e-mail out, they can choose to do what they want. I am sharing with the community what what I've seen work. What have you got to lose? Try it!