New England car dealer Herb Chambers has had Web sites for his dealerships since 1994. "We had no choice," he says. `"Like it or not, the Internet is a fact of life in business today." And like other dealership owners, Mr. Chambers has invested in the latest Internet technology and training for his staff. The National Automobile Dealers Association says 70 to 80 percent of its members now have a Web presence and anecdotal evidence suggests that number is even higher. Despite the investment of time and money, however, the dealers are faced with a problem - their customers have gotten up to speed and even surpassed dealership sales consultants in their ability to use the Internet as a research and negotiating tool when the time comes to buy a new car.

Brian Kelley is president of Ford Motor Company's ConsumerConnect division. He notes "we are dealing on the Internet with a community of consumers." The Internet "makes those consumers smarter and more powerful, because it gives them more information than, frankly, we have. The consumer knows more now about our products than we do. And they know it faster than we do," adds Mr. Kelley. Sales people at the nation's dealerships grapple with this problem all the time. Customers armed with information about a dealer's costs come into the dealership and tell the sales consultant, "I know what you paid for this car and I'm willing to give you a $200 profit." The sales person gets defensive and tells the customer that the information on the Internet is wrong. "That led to lots of showroom confrontations and customer dissatisfaction," observes Sean Wolfing ton, an instructor with CyberCar, a dealership training firm headquartered in Wynnewood, Pa.

Companies like CyberCar are springing up to assist car dealers in bridging the knowledge gap between their sales people and their customers. Mr. Wolfington's company actually runs a Cyber University, five days of intensive instruction on ways to use the Internet to improve customer satisfaction. "We teach dealership personnel to use the same resources, to visit the same Web sites, as their customers," says Mr. Wolfington. "Then we teach them to use those resources as part of the sales process. We try to give dealers the tools they need to compete."

Mr. Wolfington will have a chance to prove his point this fall. A group of instructors from Cyber University will be presenting an abridged version of their program, the T.I.P.S. Workshop, to an estimated 450 car dealers and dealership managers as part of a special conference called Auto Retailing on the Web. Now in its fifth edition, the conference has proven extremely popular among online car dealers and serves as a sounding board for the latest ideas on using the Internet in automobile dealerships.

As Herb Chambers says, "What I want to do is to learn as much as possible about the technology so we can use it to increase the productivity of our people and adapt our efforts to better serve our customers. That's our future."

In addition to presentations from CyberCar and six other well known industry experts, a trade show featuring exhibits by industry leaders will showcase the latest in automotive Internet systems.

Exhibitors and sponsors include:

ADP Dealer Services, CyberCar, The Cobalt Group, J.D. Power and Associates, SuperSale.com, Reynolds & Reynolds, Chrome Data Corp., Autotrader.com, The Rikess Group, Netsearch, Credit OnLine, Inc.