Friending Your Car Dealer

Photo by Randy Stern

What is the worst thing we have to endure?

Would it be a visit to the dentist? Dealing with family members that you have little-to-no patience with? What about the after affects of a break-up with a bad ex? Bullying?

A lot of people will tell you that purchasing a new vehicle is right up there.

Does it have to be a bad experience whenever there's tens of thousands of dollars on the line? Whenever I visit a dealer, I try to find a vibe there. Would I be able to have a conversation with a salesperson? Would this salesperson know everything about the products he or she sells? Is there respect for the entire buying experience – or, will the sales manager and the salesperson gang up on you to get the vehicle sold today?

Having worked as a salesperson at a Toyota dealer in the Pacific Northwest briefly in the mid-1990s, I understand how the process works. I may not like it, but it is what we have now. There are variations on the theme – some good, some dubious. Social media also helped in changing the perception of the automobile retailer, where some engage from everything from sales to service to being a good citizen in the community and beyond.

Lately, my social media channels have been augmented by automobile retailers near and far. I studied their engagements to see where they are going with linking the retailer with the customer. It also reflects back to the dealership itself as reputations also resonate with the transaction or service appointment. Ultimately, a customer will say something whether good or bad – giving the dealership a chance to return the engagement either to remedy the issue or add layers towards a positive long-term relationship.

Has social media changed our perception of automobile retailers? You may be surprised by how much it has.

A lot of good work goes into implementing a social media strategy for a dealership. In some cases, a retailer will hire an outside agency to be their "voice" in social media. In the case of Derrick Dodge Chrysler Jeep Ram and Derrick Fiat in Edmonton, Alberta, they began with an experiment in May of 2011. It was not until they hired Joanne Hynes shortly afterwards where they began to ramp up their efforts. Hynes said that Derrick Dodge "saw an un-tapped resource that would allow us direct access to new and existing clients as well as fans of Chrysler brand products." The dealership, along with Hynes, noticed that many of their clientele were using social media outlets. This, in Hynes' words, "gave [Derrick Dodge] another tool and/or opportunity to reach out to them &/or to make ourselves, and our products and services more readily available to them."

The result has been great for Derrick Dodge and Hynes. Their engagement efforts give them a reach beyond the Edmonton market through their presence on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest. They can be found most every Monday celebrating "Mopar Monday" along with fans of Chrysler's products across North America and beyond. It is as simple as Hynes and the dealership answering back something of interest related to a Chrysler theme.

In the case of Dave Orr at Bayview Chrysler Dodge in Sarnia, Ontario, he had been on staff as a salesperson at the dealership. Orr took the initiative in June of 2010 to integrate the dealership with social media. It took Orr "four months" to get the management of his dealership on board with utilizing social media, but not without resistance. Armed with a degree in Automotive Marketing, Orr saw his young age – being a part of "Gen-Y" according to him – and implemented his own strategy for Bayview.

For Orr, the implementation of social media at Bayview Chrysler is continuing to take root. Once the numbers for traffic and followers start to grow, Orr said he will start "integrating dealership specific promotions to current and potential clients" – including discounts on after sales service and parts. Orr also engages with other Chrysler owners in fans through a Twitter-based chat community called MoparChat, as well as in sharing photos and status updates from SRT's official Facebook and Twitter accounts. "I'm about finding like minded people," said Orr, "sharing ideas and building on those relationships. I have seen a lot of residual 'Likes' on my Facebook page from the interactions I have with Chrysler, SRT etc., online. Same goes for Twitter."

Social media amongst auto retailers are indeed taking root across North America. In the Twin Cities, Luther Auto's Fiat dealers in Brooklyn Park and Bloomington use Facebook to celebrate their customers and as outreach into the community through various events around town. The Buick-GMC dealer in White Bear Lake use both Facebook and Twitter to engage with their customers and fans of both brands. Other Twin Cities dealership and retail groups have some form of presence on either Facebook or Twitter – or on both social media channels.

Through my own interactions via social media, I've found that a retailer's reach can go beyond their specific geographic territory. If you looked at my followers on Twitter, as well as other interactions, my impressions attract BMW dealerships across the continent as well as a few Fiat, Chrysler, Buick, GMC, Mazda, Audi and Porsche retailers – to name a few. No longer could I interact with a local dealership in the Twin Cities, but rather get advice from a BMW salesperson in New Jersey or a service manager at a Chrysler dealer in Alberta. This is perhaps one of the benefits of a dealership to engage in social media – going beyond your own local territory to connect with enthusiasts and potential clients.

But is a social media presence necessary? It appears that the answer is yes – for various reasons. Hynes said that, "If used correctly, social media is an important tool that allows dealerships to communicate in real time with fans of a particular auto brand and of your own organization. It allows you to develop long lasting transparent relationships with your community members and beyond. Also, it puts you in the fan's mind as being the place they want to spend their hard earned cash when the time arises." Orr adds that Social Media is "very beneficial because that’s the way the world wants to interact."

However there are opportunities and drawbacks to take in consideration when an auto dealership is using social media. From several observations, there were engagements when dissatisfied customers would post a message on Facebook or tweet about their experiences. The challenge for any business is to engage with the dissatisfied customer towards a remedy of the issue. Otherwise, that customer will go elsewhere towards a satisfactory transaction.

The resolution is to also become proactive online. Hynes pointed out that Derrick Dodge began a Twitter hashtag called "Ask Tony." When "Ask Tony" comes on Twitter, it gives an opportunity for customers to receive minor automotive service help online before taking their vehicle to the dealership in person. Hynes recalled a situation where a follower from Minnesota asked "Tony" for some auto service related assistance his son required while visiting the Edmonton area. "He chose Derrick Dodge because of our vast online presence and reputation," said Hynes.

In today's new world of instant communication and social media, more automotive retailers are finding that it is necessary to have a presence where most people get their information and entertainment – online and through their mobile devices. All it takes is a strategy, a balance of purpose with engagement in mind and a way to resolve issues when it arises online. The smart dealers who use social media will be the ones with higher sales and after sales satisfaction from their customers. It will also enable them to make inroads in their local communities as their reputation as social media citizens grow – even on a global scale.

If a social media presence and form of engagement helps to choose the place where to buy your next vehicle, then perhaps this is working as intended.

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