Internet Leads and Trying to Create a Business Development Center

by Mark Sheffield

The relationship with our customers continues to evolve. Fifty years ago, when it was time to buy a new car, the family would load up and hit the road visiting multiple dealerships to find the perfect vehicle. Thirty years ago, consumers picked up the Yellow Pages and started their search over the phone. Ten years ago, people began the process by using Google or Yahoo search engines. And I predict that ten years from now, dealerships will be reaching out to customers proactively based on the websites a person visits, and the topics they search for.

One thing that hasn’t changed much, however, is how we train employees to work with our customers. For many dealerships, more than 50% of their potential customer interactions begin on the internet, then progress to the phone, followed by a final in-person meeting to seal the deal. But where do dealers spend most of their training budget? You guessed it, working with the walk-in customer. One of my favorite questions for my Spader 20 Groups is, “Over the last 12 months, how many hours did you spend training your staff to respond to customer emails?” The answer is rarely more than a couple of hours, and for most it’s no time at all.

For the last five years, BDCs (Business Development Centers) have been a hot topic in our 20 Groups. For those who aren’t familiar with the concept, in simple terms a BDC is a person or group of people who handle the incoming internet and email leads for the sales department. (The role can be expanded to encompass other departments and tasks, but I’m working hard to stay focused.)

There are many reasons to consider going down the path of a BDC, but some of the main ones are:

  • BDC personnel are focused on one task: providing timely and quality responses to online customers. They aren’t distracted by walk-in customers, so they typically do a better job responding quickly to online inquiries.
  • The skills required to work with a walk-in customer are very different from those needed to build trust with a customer remotely. I’ve submitted hundreds of anonymous internet leads to dealers. The “average” response (when I even receive one) is typically poor. If your dealership equally distributes leads to the entire sales staff, your customers probably aren’t having a great experience either.
  • A BDC that is “up to speed” can more than double the closing ratio for incoming internet leads.

So, if a BDC is so great, why doesn’t every dealership have one? Once again, multiple reasons.

  • Dealership owners/managers/staff sometimes have a resistance to change, especially tinkering with big-ticket sales.
  • Dealers may feel like they don’t have enough internet lead volume to justify setting up a BDC.
  • The sales team often doesn’t believe it will work, and/or they are worried they’ll lose sales.
  • Many dealers tried unsuccessfully to implement a BDC, and returned to their original (more comfortable) sales processes.

The last one is the most troubling. Based on the dealers I know who attempted to set up a BDC (and this is confirmed by other Spader 20 Group Facilitators), approximately 70% of attempts fail, and the dealership reverts to their original sales process. The reasons why BDCs fail make up another long list, but the most common one seems to be:

  • The BDC was staffed with sales personnel who were pulled off the floor.

Other common causes for BDC failure are:

  • Didn’t think it through
  • Management wasn’t committed
  • Resistance from the sales team
  • Unable to find the right people to staff the new function
  • Didn’t have the required technology

This last paragraph may have scared some of you off. For those who are still interested, a great starting point is to determine which kind of BDC model will work for your dealership.

I’ve seen two primary models for a BDC:

  1. The most common model is focused primarily on appointment-setting. The BDC staff responds quickly and professionally to incoming leads, and their primary objective is to remain in contact with the customer while nudging them into setting an appointment to come into the dealership, where they’ll then be turned over to a floor sales specialist.
  2. The second type of BDC is one that takes the customer through the entire sales process, from greet to seat. This model is usually more difficult to make work because it requires more staff, and if you have multiple customers show up at the same time and all the BDC personnel are tied up, response times start to drop and the BDC loses its edge.

Additional things to consider;

  • For what tasks will the BDC be responsible? Most of the successful ones I have seen started out responding only to internet leads, and then graduated to handling incoming sales calls.
  • To whom will the BDC be responsible? If it’s going to be staffed by only one person, then I’d recommend they report to the Sales Manager. If the BDC is going to be made up of several people, then I’d consider designating a BDC lead/supervisor who coordinates with the Sales Manager.
  • From where will the employees come? Some of the best BDCs I’ve seen were staffed by part-time college students; they’ve grown up using the internet, and at that age they haven’t learned too many bad habits.
  • Do we have the technology to support a BDC? An effectively-used CRM is a minimum requirement for BDC success. If we don’t have a way to create a communication chain with each customer, then don’t waste your time.
  • What hours and days will the BDC be staffed? By expanding the “active communication window” outside of the normal hours of your brick-and-mortar location, you’ll instantly have an advantage over the competition.

If you’ve made it to this point, and you still aren’t sold on the BDC concept, that’s fine. It’s a significant commitment, and it’s not for everyone. However, if you aren’t going to deploy a BDC, at least make a commitment improving your current online lead processes:

  • Spend an hour each week training your staff on techniques for more effectively communicating with your customers by email.
  • Have your sales team members BCC (Blind Carbon Copy) management on each internet response they send.
    • During your sales meetings, highlight some of the best responses by reading them out to the team.
    • On the lackluster responses, work together to come up with improved replies.
  • Add internet leads to your traffic log and measure the online lead close rates per salesperson. Every dealership has that one employee who “just gets it.” Identify that person, and make sure they are getting their unfair share™ of those incoming leads.

If you think a BDC might be right for your dealership and you want more information, shoot us an email at and we will send you a three-page checklist on things to consider before going down this path. These are lessons I’ve learned from watching other dealers who set up BDCs (both successful and unsuccessful deployments). If you’d like some training materials for your staff to help improve your internet lead responses, then check out my LinkedIn page. Last year I posted a four-part series that outlines how to communicate with customers via email. Follow those steps and I guarantee you’ll improve your closing ratio.

Mark J. Sheffield

Spader 20 Group Facilitator