Having exited the economic downturn relatively unscathed and realizing how it changed the game for marketers, Ken Meade decided to get a better understanding of his customer base. What the owner of Meade Lexus discovered was an opportunity to improve how his Lakeside and Southfield, Mich., Lexus dealerships treated a segment that accounts for 60 percent of his business.
It wasn’t Gen Y, Gen X or even baby boomers that Meade identified as his best customers; it was women. The discovery led Meade to call on Jody DeVere and her AskPatty.com certification program. His goal was to have every customer-facing associate — from his service and marketing departments to his front-end staffers — trained on the finer points of retailing to his female customers.
“With any marketing, it’s imperative to understand your audience, their needs and their buying habits,” Meade says. “If we know women communicate differently — that they make decisions in different ways — it only makes sense to tailor our messages to them in a way that complements that, in ways they can relate to.”
Founded in 1989, Meade’s two-store dealer group became the first auto retail operation in Michigan to be certified by AskPatty.com. The group’s Lakeside store, located off the Highway M-59 — one of the busiest freeways in the Detroit metro area — rolls, on average, 60 new and used vehicles per month. The Southfield location, situated near the Northland Center Mall — one of the oldest shopping centers in North America — also enjoys a good deal of foot traffic.
Since completing the training, the group’s customer satisfaction index has improved to almost 99 percent. Customer loyalty also is reaching new heights. Michaela Reardon, service manager for the Lakeside location, attributes the improvement to one realization the dealership made after completing the AskPatty.com training. “We learned that 70 percent of buying decisions are made by females,” she says.
The AskPatty Way
Reardon’s comment is one of the many truths DeVere has passed along to the more than 500 businesses AskPatty.com has certified since its founding in 2006. Another truth DeVere’s program preaches is that women tend to communicate through body language, which can be problematic for men. The problem, she says, is that men tend to avoid direct eye contact for extended periods of time.
“Women interpret that to mean that the man is not trustworthy because he’s shifting his eyes,” she says. “There are a lot of different, subtle skills we teach that help people become more effective communicators.”
AskPatty.com takes several different approaches to bridging the gap between the “way business has always been done” and the way female customers would prefer it to be done. The auto research site accomplishes that through online interactive video training and topic-specific Webinars. Clients also receive advertising support and a co-branded microsite.
Dealers who sign up for the certification program are given 60 days to complete the initial training. In that time, clients are assigned a support team, including a regular account manager, a social media specialist and a marketing consultant. DeVere says dealerships will begin employing the lessons learned within the third month of training.
AskPatty.com isn’t just about certification, either. It also doubles as an online resource for women, providing a range of advice — from selecting a mechanic and collision center to auto and tire dealers. The site also offers a dealer rater, forums where site visitors can seek out advice, a “Get a Quote” section, a direct link to a AAA-approved auto repair center and more.
“The training is about creating a culture that makes women feel comfortable,” she says. “It’s also about creating marketing and advertising that women respond to.”
DeVere says businesses who sign up aren’t necessarily looking for quick profits, but rather a new way to appeal to their female customers. That means eliminating several assumptions that have lingered in the industry, such as assuming female customers aren’t knowledgeable about the vehicles they want or how to maintain them.
Another misconception DeVere and her team works to correct is that every female customer is married and that they need to consult with their husband before making a final decision.
Demonstrating what she’s learned, Meade’s Reardon says a simple question works a lot better than assuming. “You’re going to get answers back,” she says.[PAGEBREAK]
Men Buy, Women Shop
Meade Lexus completed the certification program on Aug. 2, 2010. And when it renewed its partnership with AskPatty.com on June 16, it remained the only dealership in Michigan to garner the AskPatty “Seal of Approval.” Meade says that separating his two stores from the competition is a nice bonus, but getting certified was more about meeting the company’s objectives of always improving on customer service.
“We are constantly on the lookout for new methods of improving our services to our customers,” says Meade, whose customer base is made up of individuals with credit scores in the mid-700s. “So, when we became aware of this program, we immediately thought this was one of those ways to improve.”
One of the things to come out of the training was the realization that the dealership’s hottest selling vehicle, the Lexus RX 350 crossover, was a favorite among its female customers. Sales staffers also learned that women typically take 17 weeks to make a buying decision, a realization that stunned even Meade’s female associates. And female customers shopping the Internet take even longer, says Kate Houlihan, Lakeside’s sales manager.
Through AskPatty.com, the dealership’s sales staffers learned that female customers can take twice as long to make a buying decision if they’re shopping on the Internet. Houlihan, however, thinks she has figured out a way to shorten her female customers’ decision-making process.
“Provide the information that they’re asking for and do it in a timely basis,” she says.
But not all the lessons learned through AskPatty.com’s training were related to women. For instance, Kristina Reid and Dan Kilian, members of the dealer group’s marketing team, realized they weren’t taking advantage of everything the Internet had to offer.
“We had a very minimal Internet presence at the time — a few mentions on some third-party sites and some links that appeared on our own Websites,” Reid says. “By taking advantage of tools such as social networking, social bookmarking, video and photo sharing, user reviews, and more, we have significantly enhanced our online growth and marketing reach. The results have been great.”
Certification also has been a big help to the group’s male staff members. Keith Baer, Lakeside’s business manager, recalls an incident in which a female customer requested a female salesperson. The male salesperson who had approached her was not only able to tell her the dealership was certified by AskPatty.com, but that it also co-hosted a site with the Thousand Oaks, Calif.-based company.
“The customer didn’t have a problem with that and the salesman was able to sell her a car using the AskPatty training,” says Baer.
For Baer, who has spent his entire 13-year industry career at Meade Lexus, the training only served to confirm what he always knew about working with a customer in the F&I office — that customers appreciate a low-pressure approach when it comes to the F&I presentation.
Meade Lexus has more than held its own the last two years and continues to see modest increases in sales and F&I income despite stiff competition from Cadillac and Lincoln stores in the area. The service department would also like to continue to see increases, which is why Reardon embraced the training she and her staff received from AskPatty.com.
“Women dread the whole service experience,” Reardon says. “To sell the benefits of why you need to maintain the car [to women], it’s not necessarily about price. It’s about ‘Why do I need this?’”[PAGEBREAK]
Staying on Target
Arranging the training schedule wasn’t easy, but Meade and his management team committed themselves to making sure all customer-facing staffers were trained by DeVere’s team. Because Baer’s and Houlihan’s F&I and sales teams all have computers at their desks, their departments were able to take the training whenever they weren’t working with a customer.
“They would take one or two modules, and, if a customer came in, they would just take a break,” Baer says. “Most people completed the modules in a day or two.”
Between the two dealerships, about 85 employees completed the training in about a month’s time. To get the entire service department trained, computer stations were set up to allow staffers to review lessons at a designated time. “We blocked their schedule and made it a priority,” Reardon says. “Most people finished within about three hours.”
Like most dealerships, successful implementation of any new process or strategy must start from the top. It’s clear that’s how things run at Meade Lexus, especially since Meade’s office sits in the center of the showroom at his Southfield location. His office’s location also provides a sense of just how involved he is in everything that goes on in the dealership.
“There is an understanding that when the company succeeds, the individuals succeed,” Meade says. “There is a lot of teamwork going on and I think our employees feel a sense of camaraderie as a result.”
AskPatty.com is not for dealerships that need it, says DeVere. Rather, the program works best for dealers who understand how important women are to their bottom lines and market share growth, which, she adds, was the case with Meade Lexus.
“Women are a big category. We’re talking about a large demographic breakdown of age groupings and economics,” she says. “You can’t just market to ‘women.’ You have to market to the segment of women in your local market appropriately.”
SIDEBAR: Top 10 Ways to Lose a Female Car Buyer
1. Don’t listen.
2. Assume that all women are soccer moms.
3. Assume that the man is actually buying the car.
4. Talk down to them.
5. Assume that women are not knowledgeable about vehicles or maintenance.
6. “Profile” women that are single or come in alone.
7. Assume that all women are married.
8. Ask them to check with their husbands first.
9. Don’t have a clean play area for children.
10. Assume you know what they’re looking for.