By Desiree Homer
Keeping the Engagement & Revenue Channels Open
How’s your dealership holding up right now? There’s a lot you can’t do. Whether your state has initiated a shelter in place order, or you’ve decided to reduce the viral transmission risk on your own, the list of operational stalls is long for everyone.
There’s good news here, though. There is plenty you can be doing despite the current conditions. In fact, the savviest dealer owners know this operational and economic setback affects everyone, and despite the need to hit pause on traditional operations, idling in place isn’t an option. Those who truly leverage what they can be doing now, and use this downtime wisely, will emerge successful on the other side of this pandemic. We’re brainstorming and taking a page from the playbook of dealers nationwide, who are finding plenty to do during these uncertain times to stay engaged and remain profitable.
Your Dealership Is an Essential Business, But Can You Sell Cars?
As you know, the Trump administration officially deemed the automotive businesses and dealerships as essential, meaning operations are allowed to continue, despite guidance and recommendations to close non-essential businesses. In theory, the classification refers to service and parts departments, in an effort to keep America’s fleet of vehicles operating safely. Many are still left wondering, however, if car sales will continue to be permitted, or if buying a car right now is a good idea at all.
While the slope is slippery, there are clear guidelines in place for social distancing that need to be maintained. However, there will be a potential need for consumers to take ownership of new vehicles, as many are coming to the end of their leases, for example. As essential workers take to the roadways to continue working, and there will be many of them as the essential business classification allows for several industries to remain in operation, there is the potential for accidents, breakdowns, and new commuter routes taking a toll on older model vehicles. Your dealership can be ready to accommodate these buying needs and may do so without violating the social distancing requirements. Whether or not you should be selling cars right now, will depend entirely on the nature of your market, needs of your essential workers, and state-imposed mandates for safe operations.
Buying Without Visiting the Showroom
Customers can still buy cars without leaving their couches. The Jeff Wyler dealerships, with stores across Ohio, Kentucky, and Indiana, had already been embracing this trend prior to the current pandemic. The auto group, through its digital retailing platform, offered virtual vehicle walkarounds and home delivery within 100 miles. Before the COVID-19 came about, the group reported one to two percent of customers conducted their purchases this way. Of course, in today’s economic condition, the digital platform is proving to be the only way customers can engage the dealer.
The automakers are certainly stepping up, despite the mass production shutdowns in recent weeks. GM and Ford may soon be making ventilators during this temporary halt to contribute to the growing need for hospital equipment. But, you’ll find many companies are offering increased consumer-facing incentives for those who buy cars during this uncertain time. Hyundai is offering a six-month deferred payment option. Others are extending the zero percent financing window to seven years. For anyone needing a car, your brand may have plenty of incentives to leverage.
Digital Connection Is Everything Right Now
The foot traffic may have slowed, and for some dealers, it is grinding to a halt altogether. However, dealers are taking to their digital channels to keep the lines of communication with their markets open. Under normal circumstances, March and April are busy times as car buyers come in with tax refunds. It’s safe to say those buyers will be delayed. But, knowing that the day will a that those buyers will eventually still receive their influx of cash, and the showroom doors will open again, staying connected with buyers now can establish the funnel that leads them to you. The pent-up demand will be released, and the rebound day is on the horizon.
As millions of Americans shelter in place, their time spent with devices and media has increased exponentially. Using those digital resources as a method of connecting with your captive audience, can keep a car buying lifeline connected to your local brand. Many dealers have been taking to videos, via social media and YouTube, to showcase vehicles and share their sanitary practices in continued service to their communities.
Strategize with your marketing teams and layout a content plan that realigns your dealership with relevant engagement and messaging. Some dealers are making weekly videos, featuring digital walkarounds of new cars. The call to action isn’t asking buyers to come in today. Instead, they speak to the audience about when they’re able to come in and test drive. Engage and invite video viewers to comment on their favorite shelter-at-home activities. Create fun contests or a car enthusiast-based trivia games that prompt consumers to engage regularly. Keep them liking and sharing, and don’t be afraid to offer gas cards or rain checks for valuable services they can’t take advantage of now.
Innovating with A New Rule Book
Dealers are finding ways to innovate with the new rule book amid the current COVID-19 conditions. Many of the efforts are based on promoting the parts and service departments. With a message of community support, dealerships are letting their markets know that they’re open for business and ready to help within the parameters of the safest practices. Offering pick-up and delivery of vehicles for service is often now partnered with a tutorial on how technicians are sanitizing the steering wheel and door handles upon returning the cars, as an example.
Be looking for the needs of your community right now. There may be an opportunity to offer a loaner car program to local essential workers reporting for duty. Dealers can be a resource for delivering cans of gas to those who may be at risk or with underlying conditions. Meal delivery, shopping trips, and shuttle services may also be needed in your communities. Positioning your dealership as a partner can then help you develop your best strategies for innovating under the new rules of operation.
Promoting Volunteer Efforts & Charitable Contributions
Your message right now to your customers and communities can also be one of contribution. Use your platforms to share local checkpoints for free lunches, resources for children who are e-learning, or volunteer efforts. Soliciting business for your service lane can be delivered in the voice of support for those workers who may still need to fix a flat tire or oil change. Some dealers may be in a position to open up the showroom as a place of collection for donated supplies. Others may be able to help by purchasing and donating food and supplies to local shelters, animal adoption organizations, or medical facilities. If you have the ability to hire a few workers to add to your detailing department, you can demonstrate your contribution to keeping consumers working where you can. Any efforts you are able to make should be shared via the digital channels. Advertising is often meant to attract buyers. In today’s safety-first landscape, consider designing your marketing strategies to entertain, educate, and inform your newly captive audience. In doing so, you will be positioned as a voice of authority and support. Both are traits likely to be remembered and respected when it’s time for those individuals to come out from quarantine.
Preparing for the Dam to Burst
Dealership owners and managers are taking advantage of the decreased foot traffic to reorganize and declutter. While people are at home using their required downtime to clean out their closets and put a fresh coat of paint on spare bedroom walls, businesses in every industry are doing the same. Consider using reorganization projects in the office or within your departments, as a way to keep employees engaged. Staff members at home can be strategizing for the post-coronavirus marketing campaigns or revisiting analysis and operational data. Parts and service departments can be preparing for the mass influx of customers who may not be able to venture out now but will, as soon as lockdowns are lifted. If you were considering new software or process implementations, now might be the perfect time to get them up and running. Affording staff the slow times to learn new procedures, even if they’re working remotely, means your teams will be efficient and prepared to handle the busy season to come. For sales teams, now is a great time to engage brand specific certifications and online training efforts. Sharpening their knowledge and skills is always a savvy investment of time and money.
Times may be hard now, but remember, even your competition is facing the same concerns. The car-buying playing field has changed, and so have the rules of engagement. However, the speed of the leader determines the pace of the pack. Be nimble, be available, and be creative. Despite the nationwide pause in commerce, Americans will still need their cars and their dealerships. Make the most of your local opportunities now, and be ready for them when the dams burst.