Auto Service World
Feature   June 1, 2012   by Tom Venetis, Editor

Knowing Your Customer

Email, Social Media are becoming means of knowing, communicating with your customers


uccessful businesses are built on knowing who your customers are and effectively communicating with them. Take the Coca-Cola Company. Everyone probably knows its signature product Coke. But did you know that the Coca-Cola Company is also the world’s largest beverage company, selling nearly 500 sparkling and still brands of beverages around the world, including bottled water, juices and ready-to-drink teas and coffees? Is it surprising to learn then the Coca-Cola Company spends many millions of dollars on knowing who their worldwide customers are and finding unique ways of communicating with them through not just traditional advertising, but with highly-focused social media strategies?

Some of you may be thinking, “Well, that’s Coca-Cola. They sell fizzy drinks. I repair cars.” Before you get too sidetracked with that notion, remember one thing: you are a business just like the Coca-Cola Company and you need to know who your customers are and to embrace new ways of communicating with them so you can stay successful. Selling a fizzy drink is no different than selling your automotive maintenance and repair services. It comes down to knowing who your customers are and communicating effectively with them; and for them to communicate effectively with you.

OK, where do you start? Creating a customer profile and communicating more effectively with them starts with what is, in fact, right at your fingertips. On your desktops and service counters there are databases that are updated each day with customer information: who they are, where they reside, what vehicles they own and what maintenance service and repairs have been done over the years. Your service writers speak to them every day, knowing many by their first names and often adding little notes to their computer records as when their birthdays are, for example, if their kids drive the family car or have scraped together enough money to buy their first vehicle.

“Profiling problems are often not about collecting too little data, but rather about mining it in a way to produce accurate profiles and/or predictive buying patterns,” says Phil Sasso, president of Sasso Marketing, and aftermarket marketing services agency based in Chicago. “Analyzing thousands of customers purchasing thousands of parts in dozens of configurations can be overwhelming to both man and computer. Distilling millions of data points to only the few most relevant points can help bring the customer profile in clarity.”

Timothy F. Bednarz, Ph.D, a well-known author of business books and articles focusing on skill and performance improvement, says business of any kind, but most especially in the automotive aftermarket, should be conducting regular analysis of “who their customers are, what is the average sales value and how profitable is that sale to their business.”

“After the first filtering pass, analysis should be conducted in each major (product) category, to see if there are variations in specific customer groups,” Bednarz adds. “Since each business has a different customer mix, reports can be developed for order patterns, product purchases, average sale and profitability. Analysis should provide insight into customer segments and behaviours, which can be analyzed for more information and perspectives.”

Sasso, who has helped many installer operations understand their customers, says the key to creating a good customer profile is to not fall into the trap of what he called ‘marketing myopia.’ That is, trying to pre-guess what customers are like and ‘trying to read into the data what we expect it say. Sometimes the problem is relying on static algorithms and not human analysis to find buying patterns.” The other thing to avoid is thinking that things don’t change, that who your customers are right now and what they are buying right now is going to remain the same in the future.

Let’s remember what happened to the automotive in the 1970s. When the oil shock hit North American, executives at the Big Three automakers said North Americans would never trade-in their large, fuel-inefficient vehicles for those small, more fuel-efficient Japanese and European vehicles. They knew what their customers wanted: big, gas-guzzling cars, something that would never change, regardless of high fuel prices. We all know what happened and how the automotive landscape looks today.

“I have a bit of a bias,” says Sasso. “I believe relying on historic data alone is a bit like driving by looking at the rear-view mirror. The best data is a blend of buying patterns and customer input from quick surveys and polls.”

Social Media: How your customer tell you about themselves

Change is constant, to rephrase a saying by Heraclitus. Nothing is truer of that dictum than how social media has changed the way businesses do customer profiling and communicate with customers. Social media like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and even that old standby email, are key to building customer profiles and relationships.

What makes them unique is to look at how they affect the way a business gets a message across to customers. Traditional advertising is a one-way street. No one ever talked back to a print ad or television commercial. The only time a business might hear from a customer is if a customer wrote a letter or did not buy the product advertised.

Social media has upended all that. Communications is now two-way. Customers today will often share — sometimes rather obsessively — a wealth of personal information, from what they had for lunch to what their favourite box of cereal is, what movies they like and what companies they deal with and why they patronize them. And all of this is in real time.

Businesses are now investing heavily in social media as a way of both understanding who their customers are and to get real-time feedback on their products and services. Let’s look at the Coca-Cola Company again for a moment. Recently, Coca-Cola did an email-based customer engagement and retention program with Yesmail, an e-marketing firm. Using what it learned from the email surveys, it incorporated the information into its CokeUSA.com web site to improve the relationship between the company and its brands, and enhance communications between the customers and the company. The site let customers use Facebook to connect to others and for Coca-Cola to communicate about the products and the company, and to push promotion campaigns and services. Coca-Cola was able to use all the customer supplied information to update its customer information and to integrate the information into its databases.

The automotive industry has clued into the power of social media as well. Take a look at what one person said about this at Techi.com (http://www.techi.com/2011/02/automotive-new-media-marketing/):

“As dealers invest in digital marketing education, they are starting to understand how search and social work to amplify their brand online,” said Brian Pasch, CEO of PCG Digital Marketing. “This new knowledge is connecting their entrepreneurial nature with the power of new media. When the light bulb goes on, dealers can’t move fast enough to embrace new media opportunities.”

J.D Power and Associates’ 2012 Canadian Manufacturer Website Evaluation Study finds a similar trend with automotive sales. When auto makers have highly effective and engaging web sites, ones that engage the consumer and solicit feedback and provide useful tools to answer questions quickly, people using those sites are much more likely to go to the dealership to test drive a car.

For those who work on automobiles, it goes without saying social media will become a major part of any customer profile and relationship management strategy. The days of just posting a place-page online with your location and phone number are over, just as the Yellow Pages is fading into a dog-eared memory.

A good starting point will be to use social media not only to build up-to-date customer profiles, but to reward them for their loyalty and to engage them in a more direct manner. Use Facebook and Twitter to break news and important announcements, and use social media to offer exclusive information, deals and promotions only available to those who participate in your social media strategies.

Encourage participants to supply user-generated content to the sites, such as videos, testimonials about your products and services. There is no better advertising to prospective new customers than the encouraging testimonials of your existing satisfied customers.

There is no better way to find out about your customers than to give them way to engage with your business.


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