Playing 'hide the salami' with your live chat will kill car deals

It’s one thing to try to view the auto industry through the eyes of a consumer when you work for a dealership.  It’s quite another to attempt to view it as a vendor. But to TRULY get the feel for what it’s like to see the industry like a car shopper, one needs to actually shop for – and buy – an automobile. And during the few months that’s exactly what I did.

For most of us in the industry, we either have the inside track on factory employee pricing or a shot to buy trades near cost and typically avoid pricey dealer fees. But my journey through the auto industry has put me in a position about every five years in which I have to purchase a vehicle on the open market, either with stores where I’m not really connected or on eBay. Yes, I know how to work a deal and where fair numbers should be on my trade and my purchase vehicle, but it can still be like a lion’s den.

So what does this have to do with live chat on your dealership website? Only EVERYTHING! When dealers put chat on their website it’s basically offering shoppers a contract – a contract that they’re offering buyers a new way to interact with the dealership that meets the website visitors on their own terms. It’s an acknowledgement that the auto industry is changing to create a better experience for car buyers from first contact.

Quality dealerships and quality chat providers tend to strive for chat conversations that offer car buyers on their websites a good experience, with the goal of generating accurate lead information. But when a dealer perpetuates old-school car sales games with pedestrian behaviors like hiding the real prices behind bogus discounts or credits they blow the deal before it starts. It’s one thing to throw out a TV ad for a new vehicle with every improbable rebate thrown in, like military AND college graduate AND loyalty, or similar. But to have an ad with used car prices displayed $2,000 below list price with a ridiculous qualifier print that offers an arbitrary $1,000 “additional trade allowance” and $1,000 discount for “financing through the dealership” is a slap in the face to buyers.

What makes it even worse is when a dealer plays these ‘hide the salami’ games with live chat. Take this example:

[10:27:25 AM]<HB>Hello, how may I help you?
[10:28:07 AM]<Customer>I saw a certified 2011 santafe. Still have?
[10:28:44 AM]<HB>I can check for you, Okay?
[10:28:55 AM]<Customer>Ok
[10:30:15 AM]<HB>I am showing I have this vehicle on line but for me to be certain I need to physically check for you,okay?
[10:30:57 AM]<Customer>Assumin g you what is current price? No trade, cash deal?
[10:31:10 AM]<Customer>Assuming u have it
[10:31:44 AM]<HB>I am almost certain, I can secure the vehicle for your visit
[10:31:55 AM]<HB>When are you available to come in?
[10:32:19 AM]<Customer>That isn't the question... how much is it listed for?
[10:32:55 AM]<HB>I am checking it for you do you happen to see the stock number
[10:33:55 AM]<Customer>Not on my phone
[10:34:20 AM]<HB>You are referring to the one with 53,098 miles on it?
[10:34:59 AM]<Customer>Like 30k
[10:35:35 AM]<HB>What color is the Santa Fe I have several 2011's
[10:36:03 AM]<Customer>Silver I think. Awd
[10:38:26 AM]<HB>I believe the internet price is 14,996
[10:39:50 AM]<HB>Who do I have the pleasure of working with?
[10:40:12 AM]<Customer>Do I have to trade or finance for that price?
[10:40:39 AM]<Customer>Tom
[10:41:18 AM]<HB>Hi Tom yes that is the bases of that promotion thru our Dealership
[10:41:44 AM]<HB>Managesr are very motivated to earn your business
[10:42:01 AM]<Customer>My original question...what is the price no trade and cash deal?????
[10:42:21 AM]<Customer>List price?
[10:42:21 AM]<HB>$16,996
[10:43:06 AM]<HB>Who you like to make a offer?
[10:43:10 AM]<Customer>Thank you.

We can debate the finer points of chat strategy (like avoiding very poor grammar and typos with pre-written scripts), but the customer experience here was epically frustrating. For starters, first she said she still has the car then asks me which car I’m asking about (lie number one). Then she says she has several; there are only two (lie number two). Then she ‘believes’ the internet price is 14,996 (lie number three because that’s the listed price). Finally, after being asked three times, she finally acknowledged the price. By then I was done being yanked around, and so would anyone else looking for a smooth transaction.

I have no qualms with her asking early and often for contact information. It’s one thing (though not a good thing) to avoid answering the price question directly, but lying outright? That’s a travesty in the era of dealers of trying to generate leads with live chat, text, and social media. It doesn’t matter if a dealer uses smoke signals or two tin cans on a string, they need to treat shoppers with integrity and respect. And if business practices NEED chat operators and call centers to use classic ‘tin man’-style tactics, like ‘bait and switch’ or ‘hide the salami’, than a managed chat system will never work, and self-managed chat will only end up costing deals, like this situation. I may have actually pursued that vehicle and worked a deal, but I was so disgusted with the experience, I went for other options.


Tom LaPointe CarChat24 Marketing Consultant 24/7 Interactive Automotive Dealer Website LIVE CHAT Solutions Managed Chat, Backup Chat Support, and chat software options 727-638-0195

A U.S. Marine Corps veteran, Tom has an MBA in Marketing and is an automotive writer and author with nearly 20 years experience in virtually every aspect of the retail auto industry. He has been involved with the internet from the beginning, building websites at Johns Hopkins University in the 90's, and has been a performance leader in nearly every dealer role, from sales and service, to BDC / internet sales and viral marketing.

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Comment by steven chessin on March 3, 2016 at 1:51pm

Michael - Thanks. Both both are possible. Hope you have been well. We have been doing this a long time ! 

The greatest reason the chat domino fails to fall  - and therefore the sales domino - is failure to get people to choose to the chat. There is an excellent book -- a best seller - "Blink" - that examines how humans react in the blink of an eye. When a major league batter reacts to a 100 mph fastball it is primitive instinct not thought - a fight-or-flight reaction. Swing the bat (fight) or duck to save your life (flight). To click-or-not-to-click that is the question. People do an instant threat assessment.This doorway is critical. They MUST be invited in. When my rep invites you to chat with her there is no risk nor expectation for her to know the towing capacity of the diesel or the rebate on the hybrid. She's a "people person" they like -  and trust her to refer you to the next more informed people you will like. LIKE and TRUST are 2 giant steps forward that she establishes in her preview icon and reinforces in words if you enter this portal.   She is far more likable than me  ! No.That's wrong ... in a sense she is my avatar, carefully selected to be the online host welcoming customers into the virtual store.      


Comment by Michael Abrams on March 3, 2016 at 10:45am

As always, Steven, you have spent the time to analyse the situation and are correct.  Chat is a job that requires undivided attention.  The comments made by Nicholas also strike an important chord.  You are far more likely to see the people you interact with on chat if you are forthright with answering questions. They didn't contact you for you to ask them questions.  All that does is create an adversarial relationship.

Comment by steven chessin on March 2, 2016 at 9:08pm

A salesman is always supposed to be on his watch ready to react to a showroom guest or a phone call. If both happen at the same he has a problem. And if a lead also comes-in he's juggling chainsaws. And then a chat request !!   Or --- he can sit around for hours listening to crickets watching an empty store BUT still remaining ready to spring into action. His mind is locked-and-loaded to sell sell sell ...  not chat. 

Chat is his lowest priority that doesn't have his undivided attention. Salesmen do not have undivided attention except maybe with a face-to-face customer. Salesmen are never in the right frame-of-mind to be attentive and patient chat reps -- they are afraid that they might miss an up or call while chatting.

This is not a process  -- it is a broken process. People should not do something important poorly because they consider it a 4th-rate priority.Out-source it to this nice blonde woman on the right side of this page ! Look how professional she is with her focus-group tested perfect-customer-service appearance that has the broadest demographic appeal. People want to chat with her !

Chat With Me Now 


Comment by Tom Gorham on March 2, 2016 at 5:31pm

Jeffrey, thank you for what should have been obvious... "But a process is a process, what may work well in one environment may not work at all in another. The demographics, desired market penetration, local competition and product line will have a deciding factor of "what works best".   True!

Comment by Jeffrey Seyler on March 2, 2016 at 1:53pm

 Steve, My apologies if I am coming across disrespectful to you and the work you do, I must admit I have deep rooted beliefs regarding the differences between a BDC/Call Center and an Internet Department as well as a Retail Sales Person and an Internet Sales Person, another topic for another day.

At the end of the month sales-from-managed chat - to salesman chat were 11 - 0.

As stated before, "wrong person in the wrong chair". But a process is a process, what may work well in one environment may not work at all in another. The demographics, desired market penetration, local competition and product line will have a deciding factor of "what works best".  I have no doubt Steve you have delivered nothing but success with "Live Chat" and getting appointments, could it be that the clientele for the environment you are referencing has no greater expectation than getting an appointment? I have been in dealerships where you wouldn't want to commit to much more than this.

I back up my comments by going back to Tom's lead off comment in this article, get the feel for what it’s like to see the industry like a car shopper? I would add to this; "like an Internet Shopper would shop for any product on the Internet".  If you are getting X number of appointments with X number of "Live Chats" and that exceeds your expectations or previous record of success with "Live Chat" you have found what works for your environment. But I can assure you the average Internet Car Buyer is yearning for much much more than making an appointment to come see any vehicle when they engage with "Live Chat".

Comment by steven chessin on March 2, 2016 at 1:26am

Nicholas  - I had the rare opportunity to set-up a store from scratch including in-house salesman chat from one major lead source - AND - a free month trial of managed chat from ActivEngage handling another lead source.

I received all the transcripts to review this head-to-head comparison test. The lead sources were equal. The managed chat women asked for and got contact info quickly - they accepted all questions - promised a call soon from a manager - did not miss a single opportunity - and about 1/4 of the time booked appointments from the chat. They established trust and good will and sent me complete reports.  

At the end of the month sales-from-managed chat - to salesman chat were 11 - 0.

From that experience I gained total confidence in a professionally managed chat team and have used several successfully including CarChat24 - ContactAtOnce - and others. They set the bar so high that whenever management has denied my recommendations I knew the downward spiral had begun. For me the question of how to handle chat is simple  -  out-source it to a pro chat team and have one less thing to go wrong. 

Comment by Nicholas Dolas on March 1, 2016 at 5:51pm


The whole goal of any lead is to convert it to a showroom visit and then a sale. In a chat scenario if someone requests any information and you decide to not answer or try to gain contact information first you could set yourself up for failure from jump street.  At the end of the day in my humble opinion, if you answer questions asked of you during a chat you have a better chance of seeing that person enter the showroom, if you choose to be coy and avoid what is asked during the chat do you really think that person will come in?  

Think about this if you needed to buy a vehicle and you chatted in and asked basic questions, availability, price. You have Dealer 1. who tells you yes its available and the price is X, and Dealer 2 who runs you through a ringer to get your questions asked where would you go?   Thankfully the dealership I work at advertises the vehicle for what it will be sold for whether you pay cash or finance so there are no shell games with special online prices that you need to qualify for. 

Comment by Brian Bennington on March 1, 2016 at 3:19pm

As always, Big Tom, it was enjoyable reading one of my "True heros of the auto business" as he described the agony of conversing with a "Chat Clown" while trying to buy a vehicle.  (That "blow-by-blow" was riveting, once I got by the typos.)  I bet you had some strong feelings about where you'd like to "hide the salami" in this particular case!  However, I wish you would forego the negative references to "Old school" as it's not an accurate description in regards to the timeframe of disingenuous sales tactics.  People are as deceiving now as they've ever been, and there were a lot more honest and forthright reps back in the "old days" than there were "bad players."  Plus, no one could hide behind excuses like "my computer's slow today," etc.  (I've got mixed feelings about the new photo and the hat....  Are you doing Rap now?)        

Comment by steven chessin on March 1, 2016 at 12:27pm

If chat converts a blind communication into a lead with contact information it was successful. In this chat a salesman gives price  - requests offer -  burns lead  --- and therefore any chance to sell was aborted.   

Comment by Jeffrey Seyler on February 29, 2016 at 6:11pm

Because chat reps are not licensed salesmen nor certified product specialists so they simply do not have the authority to provide much information.

Precisely to the point, the wrong person is in the wrong position to properly represent the best interest of the Dealership to which the individual has requested the "Live Chat" with. Why on earth would anyone want to "Chat" with a fully unqualified representative of any business?

This is where Independent and Franchise Dealerships alike have missed the entire opportunity to move with the changes the Internet has offered the Auto Industry. This would be the equivalent of out sourcing your Customer Service Department to a call center in India, they don't "know" your product, they don't "know" your inventory and they often don't "know" your business. 

A Pure Internet Sales environment in a Auto Dealership should be performed by Dealership Specialist who "know" your product, who "know" the medium being used, not just how to use to it, who "know" their inventory and have access to confirm its availability (among many more traits and abilities). They should be a cut above the average retail sales person when it comes to responsibilities and accountability, and if they are not, opportunities are being missed by using a messaging/appointment service (aka BDC).

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