Hiring the silent salesman?

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Imagine this scenario: You’ve survived the Great Recession. However, to make it through the epic national bloodletting, you had to reduce your shop’s staff. And now that riding season is here, you’ve got customers coming in looking to buy gear or get information on vehicles. Unfortunately, you don’t have the staff required to give personal attention to everyone. What can you do to help mitigate this issue until you can get staffed up again?

Well, do you have a website? One of those fancy e-commerce-enabled ones that you’ve never really been able to do a whole lot with or see a dramatic ROI?

Here’s an idea: Turn your Web presence inside-out! Set up a few obvious, comfortable locations in your dealership where customers can access your website and get information about vehicles, parts and gear. The formal name for these would be Internet kiosks. They are a great way to leverage a powerful asset that you are most likely not using to its full potential. Kiosks allow customers to do a certain amount of self-directed research or shopping in a similar way that they do now with a brochure or with those stacks of parts catalogs (without all the counter clutter).

Kiosks are not just a band-aid for a lack of staff. They have proven to be worthwhile enough that major retailers like REI, Staples and Best Buy have made them part of their stores. In addition to having customers use the kiosks on their own, they are useful as a tool to have your parts or sales staff use with the customer.

By seeing how effective your site can be in a real-world scenario, maybe you can justify spending the time and money to make your website even better. Merchandise your site and create useful product groupings to help customers in your shop, and you’ll automatically have a website that will perform better out in its natural habitat.

So how would you pull this off? Well, there are companies that can provide you with ready-made Internet kiosks (Google “Internet kiosk manufacturer”) so you can just plug-and-play. If you have access to someone with adequate technical capability, you could also whip these up yourself.

Browsers like Internet Explorer, Firefox or Chrome all have the ability to be run in a “kiosk mode.” Kiosk mode locks down the browser so that the user is very limited in what they can do. There’s no ability to access the OS, run other programs and so on.

A basic PC from Dell or HP that would be suitable can be had for a few hundred bucks. You can even go for one of those new touch-screen-based all-in-one models. A fairly stylish computer stand from Ikea will set you back another hundred bucks.

You could even pull off this idea with one of Apple’s new iPads. Regardless of the computing device you choose, you’ll want to make sure the entire thing is secured to avoid having it walk out of your dealership.

And speaking of security, you’ll want to install filtering software on the PC or control access at your store’s network router to limit the sites that the kiosks can access. You don’t want customers surfing porn or, worse yet, visiting a competing dealer’s or retailer’s site!

Finally, you’ll want to communicate to your staff what’s up with the kiosks. Make it clear that you don’t see the kiosks as a way to replace the humans in the shop. Educate your staff that the kiosks are a tool that they can use to actually improve customer interaction, or as a way to allow customers to do a little self-help when things are crazy. It’s better than having customers wander aimlessly around your shop twiddling their fingers waiting for someone to help them.

Don’t let the lack of staff be the only reason you try out the kiosk idea. Many top retailers have found that having shopping kiosks is a great way to flesh out a full multichannel retail strategy. Maybe you’ll discover you’ve been sitting on a secret gold mine all this time. You just needed to look at it differently!

This story originally appeared in the Dealernews June 2010 issue.