With the internet as an easy, accessible, round-the-clock research tool, a company’s reputation is more important in driving business than ever before.
In fact, Scott Sabo, partnership growth manager at customer-engagement platform Podium, calls it “the new word of mouth.”
“It’s become the most crucial aspect of how customers are attracted to businesses,” said Sabo, who recently chose a roofer and a new family dentist online. “In both cases, I said I’m going to take a chance with the one that has the most people saying good things about them.” He’s even going out of his way to drive further to patronize the providers.
A recent study found that 93% of consumers base their buying decisions on car purchases and service off online reputation, said Kyle McEvoy, founder and president of APC Integrated Services Group, which markets on behalf of new-car franchise dealers and car manufacturers.
“If you’re not paying attention to your online reputation, it will hurt you. It’s how people find you,” he said. “On the flip side, if you’re ignoring negative reviews, that’s not good either.”
As buyers get more sophisticated about researching sources of new and used vehicles, dealers must not only burnish their reputations, but find ways to stand out from competitors. Putting one’s brand above that of the vehicle’s manufacturer is one goal, and one powerful way to do that is by highlighting your contributions to the communities your dealerships serve.
“Get eyes on your dealership and how you treat your customers,” said Phil Valachi, senior vice president, operations, with Digital Air Strike, which manages customer leads for dealers across the country. “You’re wanting to protect your background but also expand market share.”
Another angle toward that end is maximizing dealerships’ websites so that visitors stick around rather than moving on to other sites.
“The more engaging you make your online assets, the more effective you’ll be in getting your brand out there,” McEvoy said.
Traditional vs. Digital
Though online marketing is essential today, dealers can’t discount traditional methods, the experts said.
“Why wouldn’t you?” said McEvoy.
And if you employ both methods, having a well-though-out coordination of the two is ideal, he said, mapping out a timeline of the steps on the customer’s journey as you plan strategy. “You might think about return on investment; if the most responsive is text, you might start with that.”
Sabo said the other opportunities are how you can keep the customer moving through that life cycle through your marketing, to get them returning for services.
To keep up with prospects and active customers, it’s imperative to track them online to see where they are in the process and therefore how best to market to them.
Don’t let the fact that site visitors often abandon their search of your online materials stop you from reaching out, said McEvoy, who advises dealers to track prospects’ IP addresses. And if they don’t fill out your outreach-request form, you can still capture information about them for follow-up.
“Think of it like they walked into your store. You want to know what they were interested in. They’re going to be shopping somewhere, so the more likely you follow them, the more likely you are to get a sale.”
Sabo said dealers should understand what prospects’ profiles look like and therefore why they’re converting to customers, or why not. Once you determine that, you can work to avoid the failures and replicate the successes.
“Is it the offer? How it was displayed? Then tweak that strategy.”
Once you’ve reeled in a potential customer, following up on the lead is a crucial step in the courting process. And the speed at which you do so makes all the difference in today’s digital world, the experts said.
“It used to be hours, then 15 minutes. Now it’s less than two minutes,” said Valachi. “A lead will go somewhere else.”
“It is the most important thing,” said McEvoy of response speed. “You have to have a system to respond to those.”
He told the story of two companies he shopped with, one of which won his business, the other losing their chance. In the first instance, he secret-shopped, filling out an online form, and was contacted by the company within 60 seconds. In the second, the company took nearly 24 hours to reach out.
“You do not want to be in that position. Get back as quickly as possible.”
Once you do follow up, make sure you address what they’re asking about, Valachi said. He added that consistency is also key.
The experts agreed that online reviews are an essential component of building and maintaining a solid reputation among the car-buying public. That means not only earning them but seeking them out and responding to them once they’re posted.
It may go without saying that such reviews are free publicity. More than that, they amount to your online “rating.”
Every customer should be given a chance to post a review on their interaction with your business, and you should make the process as simple as possible for them, Sabo said. That way, you’ll get a higher positive rating due to the higher volume of reviews.
“I think you’ll find the vast majority will be positive,” he said. For instance, Uber fares get a mobile prompt to review the ride experience before they leave the car, he said.
Most texts get read, Sabo said, but dealers should “meet the customer where they’re at” by using the technology they’ve found most effective.
In addition, if someone posts a four-or five-star review of your business, provide them with links to also post reviews on other sites.
“Have a way of acting kind of like a traffic cop to address people who didn’t have a good experience and someone waving your flag,” McEvoy said.
Dealers’ Google Business Profiles can be important pieces of their marketing strategies, the experts said, so it’s incumbent upon them to consistently manage them.
Valachi advised that profile information be kept up-to-date and accurate and that current offers are highlighted.
Beyond that, “Look at Google vehicle ads. Look at how people shop. Pictures resonate more than text – make sure you bring those two things together … If you don’t have that information out there, they’ll move on.”
Sabo said dealers should also consider how their service customers search for them and to make it simple to get a read on how it is to work with your service department. He added that dealers’ parts and service departments should be in their profiles in order to narrow reviews to those specifically.
Digging Into Data
Then there’s the homework of analyzing available data about prospects and customers, an important exercise that can’t be overlooked, the experts agreed.
Google Analytics is an unbiased data source, Valachi said, and the fourth generation is best for year-over-year statistics. “GA4 gives visibility and transparency on the traffic you’re driving … so you can shift dollars around to different campaigns. You can change strategies up.”
Third-party data augments the limited information a dealership can gather, McEvoy said.
“Within the people who’ve bought before, some have a higher propensity to buy again,” something you can learn from a third-party provider. “You want to emulate those profiles. Anytime you filter your database, you get much better (return on investment).”