A recent article by AM-Online, summarising Auto Trader's latest mystery shopping test findings, caught my interest. They reviewed 1,000 retailers across three areas: emails, phone calls, and a digital presence, including online presence, reviews, and ease of transaction. Marc Thornborough, Auto Trader's Partnerships Director, noted that although the results showed improvement over the previous year, there was still significant room for enhancement, particularly in four areas:
20% of retailers failed to respond to an initial email lead.
Larger dealerships often did not properly qualify customers or capture their contact details, likely due to the high volume of cars and associated enquiries.
Lead nurturing was suboptimal, leaving potential customers uncertain about subsequent steps.
Many retailers did not provide the requested walkaround videos.
These findings were surprising given their fundamental nature, prompting me to conduct my test, focusing just on the emails.
My mini test
I enquired about 30 vehicles across five brands in 25 franchised dealerships from Thursday to Saturday.
Out of these, I received 28 responses.
The response time ranged from one minute to an astonishing 36 hours.
Three responses were immediate generic autoresponders, later followed up by human interaction. Of the 25 responses during dealership hours, 16 came from salespeople and 9 from marketing automation systems, featuring the mandatory "unsubscribe" option at the bottom.
The "from" name varied, including the individual's name, the dealership's name, or just an email address (including sandbox.test.email2@[dealershipname].co.uk).
Subject lines also varied significantly, ranging from simple model numbers like "308" to more personalised formats like "Tomas, your [dealership name] enquiry", "Your recent Autotrader request", or "Hi from [dealership name]".
The content of the emails varied even more.
Some contained typos; others had non-functional links or links redirecting back to the original Autotrader ad.
A few emails were overly pushy, others too lengthy and not particularly helpful.
Most lacked a clear call to action, merely stating, "Contact me if you have questions," with a phone number buried in the email signature.
Only one email included images of the car in question, another a personalised video walkaround of the actual vehicle, another a video of the salesperson's face, and another of a similar demo car.
Over half of the emails lacked any directive for the next steps, while the remainder suggested either visiting to view the car or calling to arrange a test drive.
Notably, none enquired about my specific needs or offered me options to choose from.
When I did not respond, 12 salespeople followed up, with 3 doing so excessively. The others stopped after their initial email.
What's wrong with it?
In summary, no single email fulfilled what I'd call 'best practice' standards.
Several issues stood out, including delayed or no response and overly aggressive emails. The rest was a mix of factors, each impacting the conversion rate. These ranged from no immediate acknowledgement of interest to slow and generic responses to unhelpful advice and unclear next steps, with a lack of professionalism and trust in between.
The consequence is simple: lost sales to slightly more adept competitors. The good news is that as no dealership truly stood out, gaining an advantage should be easy!
Is it worth it? Let's find out!
How much money is lost?
Let's assume a 25% conversion rate from lead to prospect.
Of the remaining 75%, let's conservatively estimate that 50% are lost because "the customer is no longer interested". This doesn't necessarily mean they no longer need a car; it simply means they found it elsewhere. Let's attribute only 25% of these cases to slow or unhelpful responses.
Therefore, the lost opportunities for every 1,000 leads from Auto Trader are as follows:
1,000 leads x 75% dropoff x 50% "no longer interested" x 25% slow/unhelpful responses = 93.75 lost opportunities.
Assuming a 50% conversion rate from opportunity to sale, this translates to an additional 4.7% in sales from the leads Auto Trader already provides.
Converting this to money ... For every 1,000 leads from Auto Trader, the 4.7% represents 47 more cars sold. Multiplied by £1,500 (the assumed average profit per car), this equates to £70,500 in additional profit for every 1,000 leads or £70.50 for each individual lead received. I believe my estimates are conservative; your actual figures are likely higher.
How to Fix It
Getting the extra 4.7% in sales requires redesigning the customer journey and implementing the appropriate technology.
Ideal Customer Journey
When a potential customer clicks the button on Auto Trader's website, they should immediately receive an email that:
Acknowledges their enquiry.
Includes a link to a personalised webpage.
This page should:
Greet them by name.
Explain that no one is available immediately (even if they are).
Show images and full details of the enquired car.
Offer preconfigured finance options and invite them to personalise the finance and part-exchange.
Show the assigned salesperson's picture, name, and contact details and the number from which they will receive a call.
Invite them to select a convenient time to talk from the salesperson's availability calendar, including sending a calendar invite after selection.
Display essential details about the dealership, including warranties, services, reviews, and ratings.
Calculate driving time based on their postcode and explain delivery options if they are distant.
Provide relevant FAQs and options to share and save the page.
... and effectively address all exceptions, alternative paths, and follow-up emails if there are no interactions. While this might seem daunting and expensive, with the right technology, it doesn't have to be.
Technology to support it
Without endorsing any specific vendor, several omnichannel marketing automation/journey orchestration platforms can deliver this. The "omnichannel" functionality is crucial because, besides sending emails, the platform should be able to dynamically create HTML snippets personalised for each customer, which any CMS (Contact Management System) can then display in predefined zones. For instance, your CMS template might include zones for greetings, car details, finance and part-exchange widgets, salesperson contact details, driving directions, and more. Based on defined orchestration rules, the platform will build relevant snippets for each user and inject them into your template's zones, effectively creating personalised, interactive "digital brochures" for each lead.
There are different ways to achieve this outcome, but this approach is faster, least complicated, and minimally impacts your IT systems and staff since most of the work is done on the marketing automation/orchestration platform. With the right platform and partner, this isn't a year-long, million-pound project, but it won't happen overnight either. In the meantime, there are quick wins that can make a noticeable difference.
In the short term, when a customer clicks the button on Auto Trader's website, they should quickly receive an email that:
Acknowledges their enquiry.
Summarises the car they enquired about.
Explains who will call them, when, and from which phone number, with an invitation to request a better time if inconvenient.
Any DMS/CRM should be able to send such a personalised autoresponder. If not, writing a script or mini app that gathers the required information from your systems, the Auto Trader API, or even parsing the notification email is relatively simple.
Designing the follow-up journey isn't too difficult, provided you engage the right partner. Achieving this in-house is unlikely because it requires getting outside the existing bubble and bringing best practices from other sectors.
The emails I received from the 25 franchised dealerships were not great and cost them a lot of sales. The good news is that these issues are straightforward to address. If you need assistance, we're here to help! And if you are unsure about the state of your emails, let us know, and we'll gladly assess them for free!