When you start calling dealerships about your next new car, consider this: The salesperson at the other end of the line could be a veritable ninja in the use of the phone as a sales tool.

Jerry Thibeau, a Rochester, N.Y.-based sales trainer, ought to know. In late 2009, he started a company, Phone-Up Ninjas, to build up the telephone skills of dealership staffs.

Thibeau teaches everything from phone etiquette and a "positive and productive" attitude, to scores of sales tips and techniques. One of his specialties is to convert the call-in shopper into flesh-and-blood presence on the dealership floor.

The bottom line for consumers: They could be at a disadvantage in dealing with these ninjas.

From the dealers' standpoint, the rationale for ninja training is simple: Over the years, they have seen much of the sales transaction move onto the Internet – witness all the shopping and financing sites now available. So they risk missing the boat entirely if they aren't good at bringing customers onto their lots.

Good phone training can help them do this, often at the expense of a dealership down the street or across town. That, at least, is how the thinking runs.

The bottom line for consumers: They could be at a disadvantage in dealing with these ninjas. While they have clearly improved their bargaining position in the car buying game in recent years, precious few have coaches giving them pointers.

Thibeau contends they have nothing to worry about. Salespeople trained in his ninja arts are well prepared to introduce them to the right vehicles -- at the dealership, naturally. No customer can fully evaluate a vehicle from miles away, he said.

Salespeople no doubt agree, even though they may not be fully sold on the merits of phone training.

"Salespeople seem to think that their best customers are those who walk into a dealership. They almost see phone customers as a bother," Thibeau said. That's a big mistake, he said. "These people are ready to buy a car."

It could cost a dealership $5,000 to attack sales inertia with a good training ninja program, Thibeau says. He personally provides onsite training for $2,000 a day, plus expenses. But there are other alternatives, including webinars and remote coaching.

As part of his "mystery shopping" service, a member of his staff calls a store and pretends to be a customer. The conversation is recorded and then put under a microscope.

The firm uses audio editing software to drive home the instruction, replaying the conversation for the salesperson with constructive comments inserted at the precise point where the individual could have used a little help. Thibeau's team is also ready to critique emails and the telephone calls responding to Internet sales leads.

"We submit the Internet lead and then wait to see when the response comes back to us," he said. "We check to see if email was personalized at all or if any video was incorporated."

Getting the appointment is crucial, as it is in any sales profession. The true ninja moves ahead forthrightly with an invitation.

Dealers have a big enough problem with their staffs' performance on the telephone, Thibeau said. It's not uncommon for the salesperson to fumble a call right at the start. "People need to be 'upbeat and personal' when they answer the phone. That's the first mistake that people make," he said. "They don't answer the phone with any passion."

"If you call four dealerships, and all of them sound crummy on the phone, guess where you are going to go? The closest one. This is an opportunity for dealerships to set themselves apart."

He recommends the following as an opener: "It's a wonderful day at (dealership) this is (your name) how may I help you today?" Then the salesperson should ask a few questions to determine the customer's needs.

Getting the appointment is crucial, as it is in any sales profession. The true ninja moves ahead forthrightly with an invitation.

"If you ask in a weak manner, like, 'Hey, John, do you think you might want to come down to the dealership on of these days?' The customer is going to say, 'Well, I don't know – maybe.'

"Instead, the salesperson should ask: 'When would you like to come down and look at a new automobile – now or later today.'"

It's absolutely critical to get customers' names and contact information so they aren't lost forever once they hang up, he said. The problem is that many customers are reluctant to give that out.

The key is not to divulge anything significant in that first phone call, Thibeau said. He advises sales staff to say they need to check availability.

The dealership could lose a sale if the caller gets too much information too quickly, Thibeau said. If a salesperson were to instantly reveal that a Ford Focus has an unattractive color and 87,000 miles on it, the prospect might lose interest.

But with a little research, the sales staff might identify a similar car with a better color and fewer miles on it. The result could be a sale -- and a happy customer.

Thibeau's training sessions also relate to the basic "blocking and tackling" of sales work, including identifying a buyer's objections. One of Thibeau's sample ninja scripts goes like this:

- The reason I am calling you is to thank you for taking the time to visit our dealership. I really do appreciate the opportunity to assist you with the selection of a (make) (model).

- I often find that our customers will think of questions they forgot to ask me while in the dealership, do you have any questions about the (model) that I could answer for you? Is the (model) the vehicle you would really like to own? If you had to pick one reason that prevented you from purchasing, what would you pick?

In their arsenal, true Phone-Up Ninjas also have an exquisitely non-judgmental approach to the bane of a salesperson's existence: the no-show.

- Is (customer first name only) there?

- I hope I am not getting you at a bad time?

- This is (your full name) at (your dealership name).

- The reason I am calling is apologize for not being able to help you yesterday. With the big sale going on we got real busy here. So if you did come in I hope one of my associates was able to help you. You were not able to come in? Well I am glad I didn't miss you then.

A few rounds of training will improve performance measurably, Thibeau said, provided that salespeople take it seriously. His tracking and scoring systems reveal those who don't. The dealership is sure to suffer when they fail to, he said.

"You would think that someone who has been in the business for 10 years would know how to do a phone-up properly. The veterans are usually the worst, The new people will at least try, and after they run into rejection, they become like the veterans."

The training will get them past the obstacles, he said. A couple years ago, the long-time sales veteran came up with the idea of embedding tips and suggestions into recordings of sales conversations. He began experimenting with audio editing software on his own and then hired a programmer to help him develop a system.

It helps that many dealerships have special 800 numbers whose messages advise callers that their conversations may be recorded for "quality reasons." Those calls are the raw material of many of his coaching sessions.

"We are the quality control," he said "It is a great opportunity – here we have a real-life example that we can teach from."

The laggards naturally "aren't going to be allowed to take phone calls any more."

His staff will listen to the recordings, alert to opportunities for improvements, and then insert their tips. The next time the salespeople hear these conversations, they will hear themselves, the customer, and the coach's interjections at various steps along the way.

For a typical 10-person sales staff, with two critiques apiece, the cost works out to $700, or $35 per round of tips and critiques. Thibeau considers that a bargain.

Phone-Up Ninjas gives the salesperson a score on the original conversation, tracks whether the individual has listened to the coaching, and ranks the individual against other salespeople in the dealership and against Phone-Up Ninja's industry averages.

"Then we start watching the needle move. They get better."

As newly trained staff improve their sales record, the laggards naturally "aren't going to be allowed to take phone calls any more," Thibeau said.

That has to be the equivalent of relieving one of the ancient ninjas of his sword. There is no word yet on whether Thibeau's firm is planning on therapy sessions to deal with the letdown.