On the Fast Track to Greater Sales and Loyal Customers

How can car dealers leverage digital communities to engage and educate consumers, while also fine-tuning their own sales strategies?

Digital innovation possesses the same traits as an automobile, as it drives progress forward with speed and agility. Yet, while automakers and dealerships might have control of the wheel, consumers hold the map on this journey toward improved customer engagement and service strategy.

In recent years, digital technology has become synonymous with success, for companies that focus on such initiatives have the ability to meet and exceed mounting consumer expectations. Digital communities, such as social media sites and blog forums, however, alter both traditional and modern customer relationships within the auto industry because these collaborative environments distribute power more evenly between those who buy and those who sell, creating an ongoing conversation and sense of belonging.

Whitney Drake, customer experience social strategy manager for General Motors, says these digital communities are powerful because of their ability to create an ongoing feedback loop allowing dealers to continually optimize their experience for customers." "They provide brands and dealers with unfiltered, actionable customer feedback. Employees who regularly review and respond to customers in these communities and take the time to investigate issues will almost always be a step ahead of their competitors," she says.

By tapping into these popular digital communities, brands and dealers open themselves to countless opportunities for growth. But first, leaders must understand what each of these communities brings to the table, as there are numerous varieties in the industry. Dan Smith, CMO at Outsell, explains that, in today's market, there are three primary types of digital communities leading customer engagement:

  1. Direct Followers-From Facebook to Twitter, these social sites encourage consumers to follow their favorite automaker or dealer's account in exchange for content, incentives, and discounts. Such communities are very conducive to sharing information about events, vehicle launches, vehicle features, and sales promotions. In essence, these communities become billboards, allowing all who visit to scroll through dealer posts and learn about topics of interest. However, these channels aren't ideal for gaining buyer insight, as brands can't track much more than content performance in the form of social shares to assess customer engagement success.
  2. Review-Sites such as Yelp and Cars.com are where customers go to share and rate their dealer experience. Such communities tend to focus less on the vehicle and more on the dealership. How was the sales or service experience? Was an issue handled effectively? Did the customer feel valued? This invaluable information can have an enormous impact on the consumer's choice of dealership, while also revealing how the dealer should approach sales and service transactions and the key competencies they should seek when hiring or training.
  3. Enthusiast/Repair-Consumers who own within the brand or owners of specific models gravitate toward this sort of community to exchange vehicle performance, reliability, warranty, and recall information, recommend parts vendors, provide step-by-step repair instructions, and share customer experience stories. These forums allow consumers to validate the price of, the need for, and complexity of repairs. These individuals can also tap into the collective knowledge of other owners to make informed decisions and feel confident each time.

Once leaders come to understand how each active community influences their brand, automakers and dealerships can then begin to leverage these forums and extend the benefits of such conversations.

"People have been asking advice on cars and dealers since Henry Ford rolled out the Model T," Smith explains. "The difference now is that massive amounts of information are readily available online, and as a result, the dealer's role in being the source of information has declined. With the rise of social media, however, the dealers once again have the ability to participate in discussions by providing high quality content to their customers and prospects. Moreover, they have the ability to listen. Dealers no longer have to guess at what customers think. Customers are openly sharing their experiences on review sites, and often provide numerical rating that make it extremely clear where a dealer ranks."

Katie Troutman Johnson, corporate marketing manager for Village Automotive Group, explores such forums for insight into customer desires and pain points. From vehicle issues to new features, Johnson learns about what resonates with customers in ways that traditional surveys or feedback could never teach. In response, the dealership presents sales staff with talking points to make sure they cover these areas with the customer during the purchase process. Joining the conversation also allows the dealership to proactively turn potentially negative experiences into positive ones by offering their physical location as a place to gather and seek further help, as the sales staff isn't simply looking to sell-they're also there to advise consumers and help them make the decision that's right for them.

Employees that engage via digital communities, however, must tread carefully and remain open about their affiliation with the brand, says Johann Wrede, global senior director, solution marketing at SAP Customer Engagement. In these environments, consumers value authenticity above all else. Therefore, companies must invest in employee training, as these conversations will continue to take place with or without their involvement. With the right strategy, dealerships can demonstrate their commitment to the customer by acknowledging bad experiences and working to rectify them.

"Rather than trying to get customers into the dealership, these communities offer great opportunities to bring the dealership to the customers-to engage them where they hang out," Wrede adds. "By training employees in concepts like social selling, as well as establishing processes to deal with issues that surface in these public forums, they can engage consumers and develop a reputation for following through on their promise to deliver a great experience."

Lyle Stevens, co-founder and CEO of MAVRCK, emphasizes that it's important to keep in mind that a brand community exists to serve the people in it, not just the business. Building a brand community isn't just a marketing tactic. Instead, it's an evergreen, always-on strategy that also supports a variety of business goals. Digital communities can become the destination for consumers to learn, discover, and determine what they want from their vehicle, giving dealers the chance to inform, educate, and engage potential new customers. Dealers also gain the opportunity to co-create with consumers by encouraging them to be active contributors alongside the brand's creative efforts. Consumers obviously know the target group best because they are the target group, making user-generated content viable currency within today's competitive automotive market.

BMW and Mini, for example, understand their respective audiences and engage them appropriately. BMW focuses on posting high-quality content, which gets hundreds of shares and thousands of likes, while Mini draws customers into their experience by asking them to submit their own content. Jeep and its 'Badge of Honor' mobile application take engagement one step further by encouraging members to check in and post photos of their trail rides. In exchange for such behaviors, users gain access to specially featured off-road trails and maps, off-roading safety tips and reminders, and the history of off-roading. Users can even earn Trail Points, which translate to Hard Badges they can then display on their physical vehicle.

While Jeep clearly demonstrates its understanding of members' lifestyles, and how Jeep complements and reinforces their social identities, each of the aforementioned brands emphasizes the importance of understanding their audiences deeply. To successfully engage these digital communities, brands must identify their audiences and listen to what they have to say in order to connect with them appropriately in ways that remain true to the brands and their customer bases.

General Motors Drives Brand Advocacy via Digital Engagement

During the vehicle purchase process, more and more customers are turning to digital channels to both research their choices and discuss services. Customers can view others' comments, ask questions, and have conversations with each other, allowing them to gather information that may impact their opinions and final decisions. But Drake explains that, as customers increasingly use digital channels to manage their daily lives, they now expect brands to be present and accessible where and when they're needed. Thus, General Motors has embraced these communities by developing its own social media presence, which allows the company to build and foster customer relationships.

Drake adds that these communities allow GM and its brands to connect with customers in their preferred channels, throughout their customer journeys. "We engage customers to help with specific vehicle issues and find resolutions," she says. "Having a direct dialogue with our customers provides us with real-time information, and it also demonstrates our concern and commitment. By engaging quickly and providing solutions, we do more than make our customers happy-we create brand advocates. Customers appreciate good service, and are likely to voice their positive experience on their social networks for friends and family to read and consider."

General Motors also has its own team of customer care advisors who help identify purchase intenders on social media, answer vehicle questions, and connect them with their local dealer for test drives. By demonstrating and offering good customer experiences, GM has the chance to build brand advocates, retain customers, and alter negative opinions.

Chevrolet has successfully engaged its dealer network, Drake says, by delivering brand content that dealers can post to their own social pages. This timely, relevant content remains aligned with brand priorities and messaging, allowing dealers to maintain a consistent social media presence. Nearly 80 percent of all Chevrolet dealers within the U.S. have taken advantage of this opportunity because it's an incredibly turnkey way to deliver posts related to sales events and other brand initiatives, Drake adds. GM expects that number to rise as dealers experience how social media connects them with their communities and new car buyers.

"The best digital communities have healthy amounts of dialogue among participants, and dealers have an opportunity to impact the dialogue beyond sales promotions and events," Drake explains. "Education about vehicle features is the key and can be a source of great content. For example, if the dealer notices its customers are often confused by how to pair their phones with their vehicles, they could post a video or quick graphic to walk people through those steps."

Drake notes that, as social media influence and the importance of peer-to-peer recommendations grows and evolves, these communities and forums will offer a wealth of insight into how customers use their vehicles. In the future, there will also be expanded efforts around customer service across these digital platforms in order to boost owner retention and potentially attract new customers. Ultimately, many of the most loyal customers and brand advocates also occupy these communities. Therefore, it's important for brands and dealers to maintain positive relationships in such settings, as they impact consumer opinion and brand reputation. In the end, customers aren't looking for perfection-they just want to engage with brands that are responsive, caring, and genuinely concerned about their needs.