Insights

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Direct marketing to customers

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Keeping your dealership top-of-mind with customers is key to retaining their business, and one way is through emails and direct marketing. But it must be done right, or you potentially risk losing your customer’s interest instead of grabbing it.

Your dealership may already be sending emails to remind your customers that their scheduled maintenance is coming up, or that it’s winter tire season. But if they only get a steady diet of service reminders, these recipients may simply hit the “delete” icon or even unsubscribe..

Consider adding a regular email that contains a variety of items to grab attention. Combine F&I and sales marketing messages with snippets of “fast facts,” the type people love to read on social media. These can be potentially effective marketing tools. Here are some tips to get you started.

Know the rules.

The federal government has strict requirements for commercial electronic messages, as laid out in Canada’s Anti-Spam Legislation (CASL). Be sure your messages stick to the legislation.

Personalize the message

Your customer knows the list is computer-generated, but including their name and information (“Please call us with any questions you have about your 2021 vehicle…”) will show you’ve taken the time to enter their information.

Determine the frequency

Your best timeframe is one message a month at minimum, and once a week at maximum, with once every two weeks a likely “sweet spot” for many dealers. If your email is interesting enough, customers will look forward to it. If your service department sends out maintenance reminders, coordinate with them on the timing of your emails.

What should you include?

To keep the email interesting and readable, keep it varied. Each “clip” of information should ideally be no more than three to four sentences long. If one segment goes over that, lead and follow it with a shorter piece. Add season-appropriate material, such as driving tips for foul weather. Some suggestions include…

Upcoming models

Rather than wait for an all-new or updated vehicle’s launch, provide each level of information as you receive it from your OEM. “We’re proud to announce the all-new 2023 model coming later this year…” to “The all-new 2023 model will have these special features…” to “The all-new 2023 model is almost here!” When you have an arrival date, invite customers to set up an appointment for a personalized walk-around in the showroom.

Fun facts and trivia

This could be a regular “did-you-know column” in your email. These could be interesting historical facts about your OEM or vintage models; about your dealership (“Did you know we got our start 40 years ago across town?”); or even about cars and driving in general (“Did you know Prince Edward Island was the first province to put a slogan on its licence plate?”).

Mention your neighbourhood

Include a blurb about what’s coming up in your area, such as museum tours, fall fairs, charity yard sales – “And feel free to stop by, grab a coffee and see what we have to offer.” If road construction is happening in your area, warn your customers and outline alternate routes to take to your store.

Highlight your staff

Include a short bio in each email of someone in the dealership. Even if that person doesn’t interact with the public, it familiarizes customers with the people in your store.

Include vehicles on your lot or coming in

“We’re expecting this low-mileage, well-kept vehicle on our pre-owned lot within the next week. Call and make an appointment for a test-drive.”

Stay on top of what’s happening

Sign up for your OEM’s media website, which sends news releases to auto writers. It can be a great source of items to include in your email, such as when models win crash-test safety awards or “Car of the Year” trophies; articles on history milestones; news on new vehicle plant openings, and more. Subscribe to the automotive feeds at news sources, such as Cision (Canada Newswire), to get press releases from automobile associations or survey companies. These often include driving tips, how many people plan to take fall-colour driving trips, and other items you can use.

Check and double-check again. Have someone proofread the email before it goes out. Don’t depend on spell-check programs. As with their/there/they’re, a word may be spelled correctly but used the wrong way.

Start and finish it correctly

Don’t put symbols in the subject line, such as $$ or !!, or all-caps, which could trigger spam filters. Use a consistent subject line, such as “Here’s your latest update from (dealership name).” At the bottom, include your logo, website URL, phone number and email address, plus any required “Unsubscribe” message. Send it on a weekday before most people go to work; studies show 6:00 a.m. is ideal. And don’t forget to follow up immediately whenever anyone responds to something in your email – because, after all, that’s the whole idea.

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Here’s how to “green” your dealership

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Environmental awareness is a hot topic across all industries, but especially so in the transportation sector. Automakers are addressing the issues with fuel economy improvements, emissions reductions and of course vehicle electrification and alternative fuels, but many consumers want to see improvements right at the ground floor.

Making the dealership “green” is the responsibility of all employees, and it’s a site-wide effort. It doesn’t have to involve massive overhauls (although it’s likely worth checking the energy savings payback on investments such as solar panels). Instead, small changes around the dealership will produce results overall, as well as give the right impression to your customers. It isn’t so much what is being done, as that everyone is doing it.

In the Office

Even in the digital age, car sales generate a lot of paper, and use recycled brands of paper wherever possible. Put a recycling bin beside every trash can to collect discarded paper as recyclers still have a strong demand for quality paper waste.

Look into the possibility of reusable water bottles printed with your dealer’s logo, which are often available at a relatively low price. In addition to supplying staff, these can be handed out as a promotion to customers, who will always have your phone number handy on them.

Power Down

At the end of the workday, everyone should be shutting down anything that isn’t required to run full-time. Turn off computers, monitors and printers, shut down speakers, and unplug phone charging cords. If anything has a small indicator light illuminated, it’s drawing power even if it isn’t actively working.

Across the dealership, use energy-efficient light bulbs. LED bulbs are initially pricier than regular bulbs, but they last longer and give brighter light while using less electricity. In rooms that aren’t always occupied, such as lunch rooms or washrooms, installing motion detectors that automatically turn lights off and on can help reduce power consumption, which in turn helps the dealership’s bottom line.

In the Lunchroom

If your municipality collects food waste from businesses for composting, set a bin aside in the lunchroom. It won’t be feasible to have a composter on your property, but if there are any avid gardeners on staff, they may want to take waste such as coffee grounds for their plants.

Cleaning Products & Facilities

Put out environmentally-friendly soaps and sanitizers in the washrooms. Hand dryers use fewer resources than paper towels, but if it isn’t possible to install them, look for towels made with recycled paper. Consider high-efficiency toilets and water-saving faucets. When hiring cleaning companies for the building, ask about their environmental practices and use of “green” cleaning products.

Watch the Temperature

Air conditioning is power-hungry, and keeping an eye on the thermostat will help keep costs in check. Those who have to wear suit jackets inside may prefer a cooler temperature, but customers dressed for summer weather won’t appreciate the office being too cold.

Dealerships traditionally have large windows, and direct sunlight can heat up the showroom and get the A/C working overtime. In winter they can run up the heating bill through excessive heat loss. Installing blinds and closing them when the sun shines in will make a difference; translucent ones will get the job done without darkening the showroom too much. Putting insulating film on the windows is another option, and using either one – or both in combination – will give a payback in energy savings.

Get Everyone Involved

Initiate a program for employees to suggest ways to “go green” in the dealership, with financial or other incentives if the plan saves money, either in time or resources.

Now Advertise It!

Customers like dealing with environmentally-responsible businesses, so now it’s time to tell them what you’re doing. Put up signs by the entrances listing what you’ve done, whether it’s energy-efficient lighting, dealership-wide recycling, or other initiatives. You’re in an industry driven by environmental concerns, so let your customers know you’re doing your part.

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How to turn your employees into a team

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There is no “I” in “team,” as the saying famously goes. But it is possible to spell ME from it, and if some employees are doing that, your store may not be operating as effectively as it could. Teamwork is beneficial for your customers, your bottom line, and for all employees as well.

It can be difficult for a group of people, all doing different jobs, to seamlessly mesh into a team all on their own. It takes a number of steps and it’s always ongoing, but the results are worth it. Try some of these tips.

Start at the beginning

Identify team players during the hiring process. You want a combination of go-getter plus a willingness to work with others for the greater good of the organization. Look for people who, when describing previous positions, use “we” along with “I” or “me.” As how they resolved issues, and if they worked with others on the outcome.

Ask questions they might not be expecting, and see if they listen and actually answer them. For example, if you ask, “At your last job, how did the group deal with an issue?” and the answer is, “I did this,” you might have a warning flag. Tell potential candidates how they’re expected to fit into the dealership, and see how they react. If they’re picturing their desk as an independent country, you might want to look elsewhere.

The entire dealership is the team

You may not have jurisdiction over the office staff, or parts and service, but they’re a vital part of the overall dealership team and should be treated as such. Every couple of months, schedule a meeting with the other departments, either one-on-one with the manager or as a group – and perhaps occasionally holding a larger meeting with everyone involved.

When employees think of the dealership as separate, unrelated departments, they may not realize how their actions can affect others. For example, a salesperson who’s only looking at the deal might not consider the impact of handing the PDI to service during the typical Monday morning rush. Likewise, service shouldn’t think of the sales orders as “just another PDI,” but as a vital early step in satisfying and retaining a new customer. Or accounting might know a way to streamline up the financing process, but doesn’t know if a suggestion from another department would be appropriate.

Be cautious with “team-building” exercises

These organized events can be successful in some instances, but not everyone wants to spend a weekend rock-climbing or axe-throwing with their coworkers. Read the room before you look into arranging an event. It’s important for everyone to get along as much as possible, but people don’t have to be best-buddies in order to function well as a team.

Don’t micromanage the group

Your task is to guide and direct the group, but the idea behind a team is that people work together to solve issues and move forward together. Of course, you need to step in and fix things now if a problem requires an immediate solution, but beyond that, let the group work it out while you keep an eye on things.

In any group, there will be people with different strengths. Take advantage of that; if someone has an issue, bring over the person who has the answer. You want group members to work amongst themselves, not just come directly to you each time. And when someone does a task on time and everything is as it should be, but the process to get to the finish isn’t exactly how you would have done it, let it go. The goal is the end result, not the journey to get there.

Recognize good work

A common complaint among employees is that their bosses don’t always acknowledge what they’re doing. Just a simple comment – “You really did a great job on that tough sale!” – can go a long way. That can be even more important with a team, where the individuals might not always see the bigger picture of what has been accomplished. Understanding how they all came together to make something work, and getting recognition for it, will pave the way for more successes as a team.

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It’s not just a service department, it’s a sales department

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Every customer who buys a vehicle from you comes through your door, but it isn’t always the door that’s closest to your office. There are potential vehicle and F&I product buyers in your service department, and you may be missing out if you aren’t targeting them there.

“We don’t do enough from the service side,” said Paul Reed, a dealership designer who heads up The Showroom Guy dealership service in Montreal. “The drive-through has to be a welcoming area, not just a weather shelter. The advisor greets them, and in the background, there can be signs marketing the paint protection, the extended warranties.”

Naturally, the service department is going to want the bulk of the available area to advertise its own wares. But sharing at least some of the space can be beneficial to both if it’s done properly.

Reed suggests that when a makeover is imminent for the drive-through, it should be more than just painting the cinderblock walls. “It needs to be a warm and friendly environment,” he said, as an extension of both the service department and the dealership overall. While dealers will usually go with the colours of their brand identity for the scheme, digital monitors are best if placed on a white section of wall that has a red panel over it, which acts almost like a frame when the monitor is attached over the panel. “It will stand out more, and won’t blend in. You always frame anything that you want to catch the eye. Otherwise, it’s just part of the drive-through and you don’t get that messaging across.”

Whether you interspace your messages with those of the service department’s advertisements, or have your own monitor dedicated to F&I, you should be selling service customers on the products you offer – especially if they’re related to vehicle longevity and value. Products such as ceramic coating, paint protection film, or rustproofing will appeal to people who are already maintaining their vehicles and understand the need to look after them. This is also where you can advertise the potential savings and peace-of-mind behind extended warranties, for those who didn’t purchase them with their vehicle but are still eligible to do so. “Starting in the service department, you’re programming them to guarantee their car longevity with the rustproofing, with the paint protection as they’re looking at the stone chips on their hoods,” Reed said. “Put those messages in early enough, and when they go to buy a new car, they’re already asking questions about it.”

The service department can also be a starting point for trade-ins and sales. Use the monitor to display photos and information of vehicles on the pre-owned lot or coming in soon, or all-new or refreshed models that your OEM will be launching in the near future. Also include messages encouraging owners to consider what their vehicle is worth as a trade-in, should they want something newer, or if life changes require or encourage them to move into a different vehicle segment.

Any time the showroom is quiet, give some thought to going back to the service department. Don’t overshadow the service advisors, but when applicable, introduce yourself to customers who are waiting for their vehicles, or just bringing one in, and talk to them about what they’re driving. If they’re open to it, have them come to the showroom for a coffee and see what’s new for the current model year. You might even consider working with the advisors to let you know when a vehicle is coming in that’s close to its warranty expiration. They’ll be even more encouraged to contact you if you sweeten the deal with a “bird-dog” finder’s fee to the advisor if a customer upgrades to something newer.

The service department shouldn’t be considered an entirely separate area of the business, but as a valuable starting point for potential sales. In many cases, these vehicle owners were initially your customers. Now they’re back in the building, and you should capitalize on that. “You can make more money selling in the drive-through than anywhere,” said Paul Reed. “Once you’ve sold the first car through sales, every car after that is sold through service. You need to send that message across, and your customer will want to come back to you.”

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Consumer Consent: What you need to know

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Nobody likes getting spam emails or texts, and so the Canadian government did something about it. Canada’s Anti-Spam Legislation (CASL) has been around since 2014, but it’s a good idea to regularly monitor your practices.

There are serious financial penalties for contravening CASL. You may have employees who have come from other industries and may not be familiar with it, so it’s important to stay on top of it. Keeping within CASL guidelines isn’t difficult, but the rules must be met. You can also be liable if a third party sends messages on your behalf, such as a company or individual that handles your website.

CASL covers commercial electronic messages (CEM). These include information about sales or promotions, sent to electronic addresses including emails, SMS text messages, or to instant messaging accounts. To send a CEM to these types of accounts, you must have obtained consent, you must provide your identification information, and provide a way for the recipient to unsubscribe from further messages.

Consent to receive messages includes implied and express consent. It’s considered implied consent if someone has already made a commercial transaction with your company, such as buying a vehicle or paying for service. Even so, your messages must still remain within the guidelines. The message must contain identifying information, including a mailing address. It must also include a phone number that reaches an employee or voice messaging system; or an email address; or a web address.

You are permitted to send CEMs for up to two years following that person’s last purchase or lease from you, or for up to six months after someone has made an application or an inquiry about a purchase or lease. After that, you must have express consent to send any more.

There are other definitions of implied consent permitted under CASL, but they can be tricky. If someone publishes their email address publicly on a website, and hasn’t added that CEMs should not be sent to it, you are permitted to send a message, but only if it pertains directly to that person’s business role. This could include reaching out to fleet managers about vehicle sales, but be sure you’re following all the rules about the message.

Express consent means a person has agreed to accept CEMs from you. Oral consent is accepted, but written consent gives you a digital or paper trail if you ever have to prove it. You can put a link on your website where people can sign up to receive CEMs. However, you can’t send a message to someone asking for their consent – that message itself contravenes the CASL rules. There’s no time limit on how long you can send CEMs to someone who gave express consent, but you must cease if that person asks you to stop, or otherwise unsubscribes from your list.

Your list of people who have given express consent is considered part of your business. You can’t sell the list on its own, but it can be part of the deal if you buy or sell a dealership. It has to be included in the paperwork, so ensure it’s part of the transaction.

CASL covers electronic messages. You can still reach prospective customers by Canada Post mail, or a telephone call. However, cold-calls may come under the federal Unsolicited Telecommunications Rules. It’s intended to rein in telemarketers – the people who call you at dinner, wanting to clean your air ducts – and it’s unlikely you’ll run afoul of it, but it’s always a good idea to make sure you’re following best practices when reaching out to customers.

The devil is in the details, as the saying goes, and the legislation has more than a few of them. For example, sending a message that includes a logo or hyperlink in your signature doesn’t necessarily turn that message into a CEM – but if you add a tag line that promotes a product, or encourages your recipient to purchase a product or service, it’s now a commercial message and subject to the CASL rules. Whenever you communicate with customers, be sure you’re doing it right.

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Customer Retention: What if that pre-owned isn’t your brand?

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Customer retention is among your most important dealership priorities. Studies show it can cost seven times more to win over a brand-new customer than to keep a previous one. Brand loyalty can be a driving force – but what about someone who purchases an off-brand vehicle from your pre-owned lot?

These buyers may not feel much need to return to you, since you may not be able to supply all their parts and service. But with many customers, vehicle brand loyalty is secondary to their dealer loyalty. If you can win them over, it can help bring them back in and possibly have them recommend you to others.

Turn an off-brand customer into a lifetime customer

The questions customers ask about their vehicles are pretty much universal. How do I pair my phone, or set my radio stations? How do I set the cruise control, or change the information in the instrument cluster? Where’s the spare tire or tire kit?

Most of this will be in the owner’s manual (if the vehicle didn’t come with one, it should be downloadable from the automaker’s website). Some manufacturers also have online videos showing these functions. If you’re not familiar with the vehicle, do a little background reading or viewing, and proactively show the customer how to perform these functions when delivering the vehicle. It makes you look good, and reduces the possibility your customer will visit that brand’s dealer to find out.

Maintenance and repairs

You won’t be able to do everything on an off-brand vehicle, but you should be able to handle scheduled maintenance such as oil changes or tire service. Introduce your customer to the service manager and explain what the department can do. Be sure the customer’s information is set up to receive service reminders. They have choices – not just with their brand dealers, but from quick-lube shops and big-box stores, which are usually top-of-mind for owners of pre-owned vehicles. Those are often an impulse decision when the lineup is short. If you reach out to your customer before the service is due, offering a convenient appointment time, you may retain that business.

Remind them that all their records will remain in your system and be immediately available to them, should they need proof of maintenance for any factory warranty repairs from that brand. Offer any of your discount programs, such as for early winter tire switchover or storage. Customers need to know they’re important to your service department, even if their car’s logo isn’t the one over your door.

Keep in touch

Once the customer drives off the lot, your salesperson or manager should be in contact. Call the following day, then within a week, and then within a month. For the first call, ask if everything’s intuitive, or if they need help with any of the vehicle’s functions, and if there’s anything they forgot to ask. In a week, remind them of available offers, such as extended warranty. In a month, check in to be sure they’re still happy with the car, that they know who to call for service appointments, and if anything’s coming up such as tire changeover. On each call, ask if there’s something anyone in the dealership could have done better – and if there is, make it right, and right away.

Even if the customer hasn’t kept in touch, send a reminder within a year to note the purchase anniversary, along with alerts for new vehicles from your brand, or cars that will be coming onto the lot. All of this requires meticulous record-keeping, and the dealership should be keeping spreadsheets with daily reminders of customer milestones. Should that particular salesperson leave the dealership, a manager should call and inform the customer, with reassurance that the dealership as a whole is still here to help.

Think about your favourite store that sells numerous brands, whether it’s clothes or shoes or stationery, and why you keep going back there to buy. It’s all about the experience, and not just the brand. That’s what will keep your customers coming back.

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Movie Magic: Can online videos help drive sales?

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Everyone is familiar with social media, and just about everyone has the ability to make videos with their phones. Put the two together, and you can have a powerful sales tool. If you’re not making videos to promote your sales, you could be missing out.

It's estimated that 90% of shoppers watch videos to help them make buying decisions, and that includes vehicles. Putting salespeople and vehicles on video, including on your website and on social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook, have the potential to reach thousands of people, and generate leads and sales.

These aren’t the cheesy commercials of late-night, local-cable fame (although in small quantities and with a light hand, something along those lines could be a fun touch). Instead, the most effective videos are more like one-on-one conversations with customers, and often include walkarounds of feature vehicles on the lot.

The first benefit is recognition. Virtually all buyers do their preliminary shopping online, but most will eventually come into a dealership. Many will then face a showroom of unknown salespeople, which catches them off guard. If they’ve been watching one on video, that’s a recognizable face. That familiarity gives that salesperson a definite advantage even before the introduction is made.

Walkarounds can be similar. The shopper has already virtually been around and inside the vehicle – and if someone has come this far to see it based on the video, it’s going to be an easier sale once they’re sitting behind the wheel.

Of course, not all videos are equal in their execution. Some people are more natural on camera, while some stiffen up and seem wooden. Some need more expert help with camera angles and editing. If this is the case, make a team effort out of it, putting a best face forward for the dealership’s site or social media channels. These are tips for making the best videos:

Keep it short and sweet. Aim for two minutes or less; any longer and you risk losing your audience. On a walkaround, start at the vehicle, not as you’re walking towards it, and highlight the important features. If there’s a lot to show on it, make a second video for viewers who really want to see more, and then link that longer second video to the shorter first one.

Make content regularly. If your site or channel sits unchanged for too long, people stop visiting. Aim for at least three to five posts a week on social media such as Facebook, and try to have video in at least a couple of them. The more you post, the more people will come in to see.

Do it right. Your videos don’t have to be Hollywood productions, but there should be a level of professionalism. Shaky camera work looks bad and can even make some viewers queasy. Invest in a hand-held camera/phone stabilizer for moving shots, and a small tripod for static ones.

Have a theme for each video. Don’t just talk about buying cars. Have a conversation with the camera about thoughts for the day – gas prices, why SUVs are so popular, bad drivers, something cool you saw on the way to work. Of course, keep politics and other controversial subjects out of it. You’re trying to establish a rapport with your viewers, not just sell to them.

Get customers involved. Buying a new or new-to-them vehicle is a big deal for many customers. Have someone video the process as they come in, get the keys, and take delivery, and then send it to them. It’s a great touch and could have them recommending you to others. If they give permission, post it online – here’s another happy customer.

Selling yourself is just the first step in selling a vehicle. Your phone and your social media channels are among the easiest and cheapest ways to make that happen.

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Staff Support: Managing your employees and their jobs

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Employees are your greatest asset, but only when they’re performing at their best. You need to understand the dynamics in the dealership, and understand what it takes to keep people motivated and help them work together as smoothly as possible.

One of the keys to keeping an even keel is being proactive. If you regularly communicate with all employees, keep an eye on performance, and watch for any warning signs and act on them as soon as they’re visible, you’ll earn the respect of your employees and put a better face forward to your customers. Here are some tips to help you manage the process.

Training and support are essential. All too often, dealerships fall short on training. It can be the nature of the business, as people frequently move between stores, and some jobs are very specialized but don’t always come with a full training manual.

Start by hiring the right person. That may not necessarily be someone with a lot of experience, but who’s willing to learn. Make sure that person integrates into the team and others are patient as your new employee grows into the role. Keep the lines of communication open. Don’t wait for people to ask for help; drop by regularly to see if they do. But also watch for signs that the job and the person are not going to mesh. If it’s not going to work out, you may have to take action. But before you take the last-ditch route of termination, see if there’s another position in your company where that employee may shine.

Think about the corporate ladder. There may not be as much room for employees to move around as they might in a large corporation, but identify potential paths. These don’t always have to be upwards, as some employees might like a lateral move for a change of pace, or to learn new skills. When someone’s hired, let them know where there’s room to move.

If a position opens up, see if a current employee is interested before you look outside your organization. Not every move away from one’s specialty is necessarily a demotion. For example, an older technician who’s finally had enough of tussling with transmissions might consider becoming a service advisor, rather than simply retiring.

Identify the trouble spots. Some trends can be easier to spot than others. In many positions, you can evaluate an employee’s performance by the sales numbers, but that isn’t always the full story. It may be coming at the cost of other employees or even customers, such as a service advisor who upsells unnecessary items or muscles out others working on the service desk. It benefits your bottom line right now, but could cause ongoing issues.

Identify the trouble spots. Some trends can be easier to spot than others. In many positions, you can evaluate an employee’s performance by the sales numbers, but that isn’t always the full story. It may be coming at the cost of other employees or even customers, such as a service advisor who upsells unnecessary items. It benefits your bottom line right now, but could cause ongoing issues.

People are usually on their best behaviour when the boss is around, but you’ll find out more if you’re frequently out on the floor and employees know you’re willing to listen to them. There will always be occasional issues when people work together, but if you notice a lot of friction, see where it originates – and don’t discount the fact that the person you think is an “excellent employee” might be the problem. It’s also important to get both sides of the story. If there’s conflict, don’t automatically favour the employee who is the first to grab your ear.

Don’t just do annual reviews. Hold meetings several times a year, and look at both sides: How they’re doing for you, and how you’re doing with them. Perhaps you haven’t made it clear what you expect of them, and they’re not meeting your expectations because they’re not sure where that benchmark is.

Assure confidentiality and try to keep it casual, rather than a formal event with note-taking. Ask what’s working, and what your organization could do better for that person, which may open up more of a line of communication. If friction points come up, get the whole story from others on the team before making a decision.

Keeping a store staffed with the right people is always a challenge, but careful planning can make it easier to get it right.