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Top of Mind Awareness, or “TOMA,” as referred to by marketers, is that product or service which a consumer thinks of first when considering a purchase. For dealers andmanufacturers alike, TOMA is on the top of their minds relative to their business and theircustomers.

It is no secret that over the last decade, both domestic and import manufacturers and dealers have suffered a loss in market share to mainstays like Honda, Toyota and Nissan, and are continuing to do so especially since we have been experiencing $3/gallon gasoline prices. Consumers are flocking to downsize or seek out a more economical ride when it comes to fuel costs.

We all know that these struggling manufacturers recognize that the products that they have to offer must be capable of being competitive in fuel efficiency, quality, style, and safety in order to be on the consumer’s checklist when car shopping. We also acknowledge that hey are now taking the steps necessary to correct this. But what happens to their owner base in the meantime? Or, more importantly, what happens to Your Owner Base while you are waiting for the right product mix to arrive that will motivate buyers to come back to your showrooms? More than likely, they will be lulled away from you or your manufacturer’s brand into the arms of one of these very formidable competitors.

For dealers faced with this challenge, the ultimate consequence will be continued loss of market share, customer base, and profits unless they decide to do something about it NOW!

Traditional advertising will not keep your customers loyal to you. One of the most incredible assertions dealers make to me every day is that when they are referring to their owner base, or their list of customers who have purchased vehicles or have had service performed at their dealerships, is that they assume they are “theirs.”

I am often compelled to challenge them on that assumption, since that was also the mindset of those Motor City manufacturers who churned out products each year knowing that “their customers” would be back to grace their dealer’s showrooms regardless of the products that they presented. Dealers seem to be anesthetized by the illusion that just because they sold or serviced a customer once, that their customers are then locked to them for life. My argument is that those customers are you customers for only as long as they are on your lot, in your showroom, or in your customer lounge. Beyond that, they are anybody’s customer. Toyota and Honda proved it.

On a smaller scale, but more importantly, let’s look at your business. What are you doing to retain the customers that you have previously sold or serviced? Do you even know who they are? Are you even maintaining a current data base of customers? Is it cleansed, merged, and purged regularly? Do you even know who they are? Are you even maintaining a current data base of previous customers sorted by sales or service, new or used? Are you tracking your customer visits? Frequency of visits and the amount of revenue each spends with you per visit?

This is your book of business and you need to nourish, cultivate, and protect this book as it you were the premier stockbroker on Wall Street. Once you have done this dirty work and have really spend the time and money necessary to get this data into a manageable format, you need to develop a strategy that will enable you to maintain constant contact through a series of “touch points” with your customers. I am not referring to the warm and fuzzy stuff you do while your customer is in your service lounge or in the showroom.

I am talking about keeping your dealership’s TOMA to your customers when they are not at your dealership. In order to keep a hold on your customers you need to be in constant contact with them. Develop a multi-channel marketing strategy that incorporates what you know about your customers into what you talk to your customers about when you do contact them. The most efficient method of staying in contact with your customers is through direct marketing. Direct marketing includes several forms of marketing media, including direct mail, internet, social media, and telemarketing. Sophisticated marketers know that the traditional media cannot reach customers with the level of personalization that is necessary to stay in contact with your customers. By employing direct mail, a dealer builds his own brand, and it is not as imposing as telemarketing can sometimes be.

Research indicates that Auto Buyers are turning to the Web to communicate with dealers via e-mail and they use search engines to acquire information about a prospective make, model, or dealer. The most effective choice for a retail dealer to stay in contact with their previous customers is direct mail. According to a recent study performed by Cap Gemini, consumers polled on whether they like to receive or if they would respond to a direct mail offer from an auto dealer told marketers that over 80 percent would prefer to receive and be “more than likely” to open and respond to an offer from an auto dealer. This percentage is much higher when the offer comes from the manufacturer or dealer pertinent to or known by the consumer. How a dealer chooses to use the power of direct mail is very important, too. Most dealers turn to direct mail as the “quick fix” that is going to get them through the month.

Direct mail has been a great source for providing the needed boost when sales lagged. Dealers love it because they can track its performance on an hour-by-hour or day-by-day basis. Employing direct mail in this way has been the cornerstone of the medium in the retail auto industry for the past 30 years. It has been proven over and over again to be an effective medium in driving traffic and sales in dealerships. What dealers might not see is that the medium has evolved as the auto industry has changed. It has matured into what should now be the foundation of a sound marketing strategy. Dealers must recognize the value of their customer database and the power of this medium that will get into the home when the salesperson can’t. It is the face of your dealership, your products, and your services, and you use it can help you or it can hurt you.

Many dealers look for the next new “hook” in their direct mail. A flashy new direct mail salesperson gets a dealer on the phone or in-person and lays out the latest and greatest gimmick that can “catch” the most uninformed prospect with an offer of “incredulous believability”. Some of these ads are violations of the Deceptive Trade Practices Act and dealers end up paying fines to their state attorney general’s office because the flash-in-the-pan direct mail company is insolvent.

Dealers use mail to target a beacon scores or FICO score range to prospects regardless of their affinity to your dealership or your manufacturer offering credit to those who can’t otherwise get credit. Buy using direct mail in this way does not help you hold onto your most valued possession — your former customers, as it may in some cases even alienate them.

If you run a newspaper, radio or TV ad, every dealer in the state knows what you are doing. If you mail your offer, no one knows your deal besides you and your prospective customer. Unfortunately, the opposite scenario holds true, also. When you least expect it, your former customers are receiving a personal invitation to test drive the latest new gas saver from your closest competitor. An, what do they think? “Hey, why didn’t my dealer invite me to his dealership? Maybe I will give Dealer X or Brand Y a try.” If you don’t keep in touch, I promise you, your competition will.

A dealer needs to touch their customer on a preplanned, regular basis, offering reasons for them to come back to your dealership for their vehicle needs. Each time you contact them, a dealer must give the buyer the warm fuzzy, show of appreciation. This can be accomplished by developing a VIP program, Preferred Coupons, discounts, test drive incentives, and savings offers. Give them a reason to come in and see your sales staff or service team. Your customers are just like you and me; we love to be appreciated and we love to be loved. Show the love. You’ll keep that TOMA with your customer base.

- Anthony J. TaCito, CEO

Original version appeared in the January 15, 2007, issue of Dealer Magazine.

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