This story was written for WRAL TechWire Advisor partner Johnson Automotive.

There’s a stigma when it comes to buying a car. Whether new or used, many people have a certain dread about trudging out to a dealership to deal with a salesman with slicked back hair and an ill-fitting suit. At least, that’s the stereotype.

Today, thanks to the Internet, both dealerships and customers are more informed than ever, leading to a smoother, less complicated car-buying experience.

“Our experience shows that nearly all of our guests have a specific vehicle in mind and are very knowledgeable about its features and value when they arrive at the dealership,” said Erick Kirks, marketing director at Johnson Automotive. “Back in the day, people would typically spend a Saturday riding around to various dealerships, looking at cars and taking test drives. Today, with all of the third-party sites that provide such robust information on all makes and models, I think customers have really come to trust those brands like Edmunds and You never really know what starts them down the path.”

That initial push — whether it’s seeing a new car on the road, driving an older car with mechanical issues or the result of a car accident — sends most customers online first. Maybe to a manufacturer’s site to see what’s available, maybe to Google to search for a model name that sticks out – but it’s almost always online. This usually sparks a chain of links and searches that, more often than not, leads to a dealer’s website.

At this point, a consumer might stop completely and not submit any information to the dealer, but thanks to specialized software, savvy dealers know what you’re looking at and where you came from.

“There’s no one single thing that turns into a sale,” Kirks said. “We use an analytics tool that provides us with multi-attribution reporting. With this tool we’re able to identify a lot of the anonymous activity that happens; so when customers are doing all this research, we are able to better measure what digital marketing efforts are helping to drive this research and ultimately bring the customer to the dealership, even if they don’t contact us online first.”

These data points are anonymous but will show dealers that someone came from an initial Google search for hybrid cars and ended up on the Johnson Automotive page for a Honda Accord Hybrid, for example. The data not only helps focus Johnson Automotive’s advertising efforts in the future, but can also indicate what’s popular with consumers.

Once buyers get on the lot armed with information and prices from online, sales associates no longer try and push one model over the other; it’s about customer service and ensuring that choice is appropriate.

To affirm those choices, dealers and sales associates are going to the same websites their customers are going to and showing that the prices do match up.

“We embrace the fact that our guests have done a lot of research,” Kirks said. “We use those same third-party sites to validate what we’re telling them. Many people go into a car buying situation with skepticism. We try to create trust by embracing transparency. ‘What did you look at online that brought you here? Let’s look at these things together.'”

That level of knowledge and validation is what separates the good car dealers from the bad.

Kirks suggested once potential buyers know what they’re looking for, to go online and look at dealership reviews. Customer service is going to separate the top-tier from those looking to just make a buck. See if dealers are responding to reviews, and what customers are pointing out.

Next time you need to buy a car, do all of that research ahead of time. The good dealers will be prepared and work with you.

This story was written for WRAL TechWire Advisor partner Johnson Automotive.