The 2020 Q1 State of Automotive webinar, co-hosted by Facebook Automotive, IHS Markit and Dealers United, addressed how dealerships are handling the impact of COVID-19.
Panelists provided five key takeaways automotive businesses should be incorporating into their business plans to ensure they come out on the other side of this, and some of their shared tips may be beneficial for collision repair shops.
The webinar featured eight panelists: Matt Sneed, director of marketing for Power Ford in Albuquerque, NM; Michael Renaud, vice president of Leader In Cars Auto Group in NY; Bobby Sight, director of operations for Rob Sight Ford in Kansas City, MO; Stu Berkley, general manager of Middletown Honda in Scotchtown, NY; Chris Beaton, general manager at Steele Valley Chevrolet in Nova Scotia, Canada; Brent Parres, partner manager at Facebook Automotive; Drew Cameron, tier III automotive marketing for IHS Markit, and Pete Petersen, CEO of Dealers United.
Sales have declined in dealerships across the country, as well as collision repair shops. Of the polled attendees, 81% of those dealerships had experienced an impact on their sales department as a result of COVID-19.
Ensuring success during this trying time begins with communicating with employees. It’s imperative that shop and dealership owners are taking care of their people, listening to them and making them feel as safe as possible. Shops must follow guidelines issued by the CDC as well as local agencies, including social distancing and encouraging sick associates to stay home, and these efforts should be explained to the associates.
“It’s all about knowledge," Cameron said.
Panelists also recommended sending internal leadership videos at least twice each week and more frequently if there’s a new development. It’s also important to use technology, such as Facebook Groups and Zoom meetings, to make it easy for the team to stay in touch, particularly if any remote working arrangements have been implemented.
Leaders are responsible for “taking in information, building a plan, being ethical and above all, treating their team with respect,” according to Petersen.
Industry leaders should also communicate with one another to determine strategies and share with their teams, and in addition to exploring programs to support the business, such as government grants and loans, owners should be aware of the resources employees may need in the event of a furlough, which can be provided to aid them in the unfortunate event.
“We’ve got to use care and compassion with our teams,” Petersen stressed. “I encourage you to be proactive and positive. The more you stay positive, help them with resources and information, it calms anxiety.
"You want to be truthful, honest and keep people in the loop. Tough decisions may be needed during this time, but the things you do now to build your team are going to help you come out of this stronger. How do we want to be perceived when this is over?”
Compassion and controlling the perception of your business is important when it comes to interacting with customers who are also apprehensive. Make the customer feel safe entrusting their vehicle by sharing pictures and videos on social media demonstrating the safety measures and sanitization practices implemented.
Making sure customers have access to communicate with members of the team in real time when they reach out with a question and calling consumers to proactively check in also conveys the message they are appreciated and cared for.
Customer needs are changing quickly in response to the pandemic, and businesses that hope to continue earning business need to proactively adapt to those new needs.
Listen to the customer to ensure their needs are understood and met. Offer valet and at-home services to add convenience and value to customers’ lives, and set realistic expectations for how long a vehicle may be in the shop.
“Continue marketing, but adapt your communication style to be more proactive and empathetic," Parres encouraged.
Parres also recommended updating the business page and profile with current hours, implementing a new cover photo that reflects current processes and which departments are open, and pinning an FAQ post.
Social media is an invaluable means of communicating with clients. Post videos showing sanitization practices and reminding customers the shop is open. Videos should primarily focus on brand awareness, safety and security, rather than a sales pitch.
One suggested method for doing this is to identify customers whose vehicles have a recall and contact them for that service.
“This is the time to earn the customer’s loyalty," Renaud said. "Show the customer you’re there for them and that you deserve their business.”
Although limited funds may make it necessary to reduce advertising budgets, it’s counterproductive to eliminate marketing altogether. Instead, invest in platforms that target specific audiences.
“Most of our budget right now is going to service," Berkley said. "It’s all directed to service and the customer, how we’re going to take care of them.”
“We’ve taken the time to scrub all of our advertising, asking ourselves, ‘What’s the perception on this?’ We’ve even removed all hard offers on our website and are really trying to communicate the stance ‘We’re here; we’re here to help you’ and ‘What can we do to accommodate you in this time?’" Beaton added. "I think playing the supporting role is the role to play right now. By playing that role, people will find you and will come to you either way.”
Conversations with current customers can be a little more sales-driven, and communicating incentives and specials can help create a positive brand image.
“We need to show the community [we care], but I wouldn’t say totally abandon your inventory ads," Sneed suggested. "Because at the end of the day, we are who we are. We’re auto dealerships: we sell cars! And now some OEMs are supporting more heavily with incentives…we can still be the guide and supporter and say, ‘If you’re hurting in a financial crisis, you can have a newer vehicle with no payments for six months’ and that can bridge the gap. If you do it in a classy way, you don’t come across as sleazy.”
“This is the time to innovate, to adapt and to really think about your customers’ needs,” Petersen contributed. “This will set you apart when we come out of this.”
Finally, shops need to play the long game to ensure they are still viable when this crisis passes. Building brand recognition through community involvement, especially in this time of need, can go a long way to cultivating customer loyalty, because they will remember who stepped up when times were tough.
Parres recommended proactively thanking essential workers on social media platforms.
“Show you care about the local community as much as you care about your business. Recognize the key people in the community who are helping us get through this,” he said.
Focus on improving customer communication and process enhancements, and start to prepare marketing plans for recovery once the market shifts. Focus on business continuity in the short term, but make changes that are needed to establish sustainability.
“When this is over, we need to be standing," Renaud pointed out.
“This is about getting our business through this, together as a team, and being able to reassemble together,” Sight added.
Parres urged business owners to focus on the bounce-back.
“Display you care, be empathetic and support the community," Parres said. "Prepare your business operations and your marketing plans for a recovery path. Look at driving structural enhancement for the long-term. What can we adopt today that will also benefit us in the future?”
As the webinar concluded, Petersen added a final thought.
“Focus on your people, both employees and customers. This isn’t about business-to-business marketing or consumer marketing; this is about human-to-human marketing, and that’s what this industry is built on," Petersen said. "Let’s get back to what things are really about, our people.”
To watch the webinar replay, visit stateofautomotive.com.