July 8, 2019

Digital By Design

Last fall, Feldman Automotive Group in suburban Detroit substantially increased the service-related content on seven of its 10 dealerships' websites. They now offer more than 20 pages, up from just one or two previously.

The Web pages address items such as oil changes, tire rotations, wheel alignments and brake inspections.

After the upgrade, customer-pay revenue at the seven dealerships jumped 32 percent in the first three months of 2019 compared with the year-ago period. (Feldman did not provide dollar figures.) Viewer traffic for fixed ops on the dealerships' websites has risen 60 percent since last fall, says Matt Grimes, Feldman's fixed operations manager.

"Without a strong online presence, customers can't find your services," Grimes told Fixed Ops Journal. "On most dealership websites, 95 percent of the content is sales-oriented. We're trying to restore a little balance."

Adding service-related pages to dealership websites, accessible to Internet search engines, is among the ways that fixed ops managers are using digital technology to build business as new-vehicle sales and profits stall. From new text-messaging services to videos posted on YouTube, service and parts departments are focusing more on engaging customers in their preferred digital spaces.

"In the years ahead, the market will favor dealerships that adapt to digital marketing technologies," predicts Denise Chudy, general manager of LivePerson, a messaging platform provider. "Dealerships that lean in will win the business, and those that don't will be left behind."

Content is King

The Feldman group worked with Fixed Ops Digital, a Denver-based marketing group that creates customized, service-related content for dealership websites. The firm has about 200 dealership clients, says co-founder Kevin Kulma. He would not discuss what the company charges dealerships.

"About 50 percent of dealership revenue comes from fixed operations, yet on average, only about 10 percent of dealerships' website content is specific to fixed ops," Kulma says. "Most OEMs don't mandate any service-related content, so dealerships more often than not put up a bare minimum of pages and then let it be."

But if dealerships don't create pages to sell new tires, brake pads and wheel alignments, Kulma says, Google's search algorithms bypass them in favor of aftermarket retailers whose websites include the content that consumers seek.

"If dealerships invested just a fraction of their overall marketing budget toward building content," he says, "they'd capture a lot of search traffic that otherwise goes to those large independents," Kulma says.

Erica Danford, vice president of managed services at Dealer.com, a digital marketing arm of Cox Automotive, concurs.

"The more pages devoted to fixed ops, the better," she says. "The better the information is portrayed on the website, the more likely dealerships are to convert shoppers to customers and develop brand loyalty to the dealership. This concept is pretty new to fixed ops service managers. We need to bring that part of the dealership up to speed."

Dealer.com's managed services team creates fixed ops website content for more than 4,000 dealerships. For $599 a month, a dealership gets eight newpages of fixed ops content monthly, Danford says.

Dealerships' websites must be transparent about service pricing, Kulma says. Many consumers don't go to dealerships for maintenance and repairs because they fear they'll get gouged, he warns.

"Would you buy something from Amazon if the price wasn't shown?" he says. "Almost every dealership has a menu pricing board hung in their service drive. It only makes sense to do it on websites, too. And you need to emphasize that dealerships offer OEM-certified parts and technicians, which independents can't match."

Because a Google search's algorithm treats prices as highly relevant data, adding price information boosts a dealership's search rankings, he adds.

Text Me, Please

Dealerships' digital service marketing also should include text messaging with customers, says David Foutz, vice president of sales for Xtime, Dealertrack and Kelley Blue Book, brands owned by Cox Automotive.

A customer service survey conducted by J.D. Power in 2017 found that 67 percent of respondents said they would return to a dealership for service if they got text updates about the vehicle's repair status. That figure dropped to 55 percent when the service department communicated by phone, Foutz says.

"Only 3 percent of consumers who get their car serviced receive text updates," he notes. "Imagine the financial impact of a 12 percent increase in customer retention, just by using texts instead of phone calls."

An Xtime platform called Spectrum, used by more than 7,200 North American dealerships, applies digital technology to service lane efficiency. A Spectrum module called Invite can help develop digital marketing campaigns aimed at filling service bays during cyclical business lulls, Foutz says.

"Maybe you offer 20 percent off any kind of service on Thursday afternoons, targeted to people who came in once but haven't returned for 12 months," he says. "That way, you're not stealing away full-price work on Saturday mornings when you're already too busy to serve walk-in customers."

Rapid Response

Another module, Engage, helps service advisers manage the check-in process via a tablet computer, allowing customers to review repair histories and other data with advisers. The software also allows advisers to text service updates and photos to customers and obtain prompt service approvals, Foutz says.

Quick approvals are also a goal of LivePerson Automotive's service texting platform. On average, fixed ops departments that use the platform get customer approvals within four minutes, and phone calls between the service department and customers drop by 30 percent, Chudy says.

The monthly fee for the text service ranges from $495 to $995 a month, depending on the size of the dealership. LivePerson's Chudy declined to say how many dealerships subscribe to the platform.

Texting also helps dealerships increase consumer satisfaction scores and boost customer retention, Chudy says.

"When you communicate with and make it convenient for customers, they're more likely to stay with you three or four years down the road when their [factory warranties] expire, because you've built relationships," she says.

LivePerson's texting platform enables customers to get their vehicle appraised during a service visit. The feature generates 10 to 60 additional appraisal requests at a typical dealership each month, she says.

D.J. McMahon, service director at Mercedes-Benz of Tuscaloosa in Alabama, says he initially was skeptical about using texting to communicate with customers.

"I didn't think it would make that much of a difference, but it definitely has," he says. "It's been amazing to see. I honestly don't know where we'd be without it."The service department has used a texting program developed by myKaarma for four years at a cost of around $2,000 a month, McMahon says. Customer approval of additional service work recommended by the dealership is about 25 to 30 percent higher than before it adopted the texting technology. McMahon cites the ability to text customers photos of, say, worn brake pads or tires."That gives customers confidence about making a decision, and we get approvals faster, too," he says. "Before, when we'd call people to get approval for recommended service, they'd often say, 'Well, I'll think about it.' That usually means they're going to call someone else to see if they can get a better price. Texting changes the whole dynamic."McMahon notes that his service department posted record sales and gross profits in seven months last year. "That wasn't totally from texting, but it certainly had a big influence," he says.

Video Value

The digital marketing push at Cable Dahmer Automotive Group, which operates six new-vehicle stores in metropolitan Kansas City, Mo., includes posting dozens of online service videos, says Jeff Vaughn, the group's chief marketing officer.

"A lot of dealerships try to be everywhere [in service marketing efforts] and they do a poor job," Vaughn says. "We narrowed our focus to a larger website presence and using YouTube and Facebook."

Cable Dahmer's YouTube channel features more than 30 service-related videos that are more educational than sales-oriented. Topics range from the benefits of wheel alignments and cabin filter replacements to how to check tires for tread wear.

"The videos are effective, and there's no cost," Vaughn says. "They do more than just advertise a cheap oil change. It all goes back to building relationships with consumers."

Vaughn recommends selecting a service technician with a "goofy" personality who enjoys being on camera to star in a service department's videos. At Cable Dahmer, the star is Marc Miller, shop foreman at Cable Dahmer Buick-GMC of Kansas City.

"At first he was the only one brave enough to help us create this content," Vaughn says of Miller, who exudes a good-humored, high-energy vibe in the videos. "Now other techs and advisers do it, too, thanks to his example."Someone like that puts a better face on a dealership than a general manager in a fancy suit, wearing a fancy watch."


-Previously printed in Automotive News by Ken Wysocky on June 16th, 2019. You can reach Ken at foj@autonews.com.