Last week’s announcement by Autotrader.com, combined with previous announcements by Cars.com and other
automotive website providers, shines the spotlight on live dealer live chat.
Many of us are asking questions about what this means for our dealerships, so I conducted an exclusive interview with Marc Hayes, the founder and head of products for Contact At Once! whose software powers the live chat features on both Autotrader.com and Cars.com.
Jeff: What are the implications of last week’s Autotrader.com announcement?
Marc: The broad implication is that, if live chat wasn’t already a mainstream technology in automotive retail, it is now. The momentum behind dealer chat has been building for several years with adoption by Cars.com, CarsDirect, and others. Now Autotrader.com has implemented chat. Dealers that don’t already have a chat strategy will need to develop one.
Jeff: Chat is a 15+ year old technology so, unlike other trends born of “new” technologies, such as social networking, why is chat just now trending in automotive retail?
Marc: The short answer is that consumers like it. This is evidenced by conversion data like that in the Autotrader.com announcement “Early value tests conducted by AutoTrader.com showed that dealers who added dealer live chat to their listings experienced an average lift in shopper interaction of about 20%”. Our other customers report similar increases in the amount of consumer engagement realized from including chat on their sites. As a result, it helps dealers sell more cars and improve the return on their digital advertising spend.
Jeff: And why do consumers like chat so much?
Marc: There are many reasons, so in the interest of time I’ll just highlight a few. First, people often shop for cars while they are at work. The web logs of any automotive website will confirm this fact. People at work can’t discreetly call or be called, but they can discreetly initiate a chat, ask a few questions at the moment of interest, and schedule an appointment. Second, consumers increasingly prefer text-based communications of all types – SMS text messages on mobile phones, Twitter, Facebook messaging, Skype chat, etc. As consumers use text-based communication more and more in their daily lives, it follows that they will use it when car shopping too. Third, consumers desire instant gratification. Fewer and fewer are willing to fill out a lead form and wait for someone to contact them.
Jeff: Autotrader.com is the latest in a long list of sites such as Cars.com, CarsDirect.com, CarSoup.com, and many regional and local players who’ve selected Contact At Once! to power their chat features. How is it that your company has become so pervasive on automotive sites?
Marc: When we founded the company in 2005 we had a vision unlike any other chat vendor then or since. We didn’t view chat as just an add-on for dealer websites. Rather, we looked a data showing that 90%+ of car shoppers start their search on a website other than a dealership website and said to ourselves “so why does chat software only work on dealer websites?”. We felt dealers could sell more cars if we could connect them to shoppers on all of the sites their inventory appeared on. Thus, we built ContactAtOnce! to include both the traditional dealer website chat software and, uniquely, an advanced patent-pending layer of chat features that enable it to work on 3rd party sites as well. Because of that, our company stood out when Cars.com, Autotrader.com, and other automotive site providers conducted their in-depth vendor evaluations and selections.
Jeff: Dealer conversations around chat inevitably turn to the topic of whether or not dealership personnel are capable of answering chats effectively. What has been your experience on this matter?
Marc: We know many dealers are not only capable of but do answer live chats quite effectively. As a company we are agnostic. The vast majority of our dealers prefer to answer their own chats but many use a BDC as a “backup” during busy times and after hours. Other customers feel our BDC can do a better job than their people and just outsource it 100%. Still others don’t want anyone other than their personnel interacting with customers. So, it varies from dealer to dealer, and our goal is to provide a valuable service no matter which model a given dealership prefers.
Jeff: What would be the best thing to compare chat to for reporting purposes? Most of the time it is graded against Internet leads, but it is really more like a phone call right?”
Marc : Our customers report closing ratios in the 20-25% range which is more like phone leads than form leads. One of our customers, Marc Ray of Grogan’s Towne Chrysler Jeep Dodge, recently told us “Chat is today’s phone up. If you don’t have chat it is like not having your phones plugged in.” I love that quote!
Jeff: Since it is more like a phone-up than an Internet lead, is there a specific way a dealer should be training (or looking for training on) instant chat?
Marc : Absolutely. I think most chat vendors offer some type of live chat training. We offer free online self-paced training courses, as well as free live webinar-based training. Users can register for the webinars and/or access the online training courses from http://contactatonce.com/support-training. We also partner with a number of training and consulting firms who have incorporated chat training into their overall internet department and BDC training programs.
Jeff: Is Autotrader.com your customer, or are they reselling your software to dealers?
Marc: Autotrader.com is our customer. They licensed our software because they found during trials that chat increased the number of online shoppers interacting with dealerships by about 20%. They spend significant sums on advertising to attract shoppers to their website, so a 20% improvement is a big deal.
Jeff: So a dealer can use your software to handle chats coming from Autotrader.com, Cars.com, or other 3rd party sites because those sites have, in effect, licensed your software and “bundled” it with their advertising packages?
Jeff: And if a dealer wants to add your chat software to their own website, they can buy a license for that directly from you?
Marc : Correct. In that way, a dealer can use one set of tools and processes to handle all chats no matter where they originate. Pricing and product details for our Dealer Edition license can be found on our auto dealer chat website.