With the proliferation of digital and social media, many car dealers feel the need to become digital experts.

Some dealers are doing it on their own, some with consultants’ aid and others with help from the auto makers. Dealership staffs are making it clear they want and need more training in these areas.

Efforts are under way at auto makers to help dealers focus on social media and digital communications.

Brand reputation is at stake when it comes to social media applied to the retail auto space. Misused, the tools can backfire and impair customer relationships, experts say.

“It’s at the core of why we engage in social media (and training),” says Bill Taylor, GM’s manager-local advertising, marketing and dealer digital support in Detroit.

Dealers are recognizing it’s an important way to stay in touch with customers through the likes of Twitter, YouTube and Facebook.

“They’re begging us for more information, because they want to be in this space,” Taylor says of social media. “We want to make sure dealers are aware of and understand how to use social media and the importance of each digital tool.”

Todd Crossley, owner of Crossley Ford in Kansas City, MO, and a third-generation dealer, likens social media to groups chatting in coffee shops. “It’s the digital version of sitting around the coffee house, and it allows you to move into their world.” 

He is referring to potential customers. Except that online, thousands of participants potentially interact. Crossley hopes his 13,000-plus Facebook friends will spread the word about his dealership to their friends.

As Kansas City’s No.1 Ford retailer, Crossley credits much success to understanding the importance of the Internet and social-media tools such as Facebook. 

“The key to the kingdom is relevant data; what’s important to the consumer,” he says. Otherwise, it’s hard to give customers the right information. To get that, Crossley uses an analytic tool created by his customer-relationship management vendor. It tracks online consumer habits and preferences.

Can you measure social-media impact on the bottom line? Not always.

“It’s like TV and radio. You are never able to totally measure it,” Crossley says. “We don’t sell on social media, but it’s the presence of it. It puts you into their world. It’s like general media, you have to be in their face until they need you.”

But Crossley monitors Internet leads-to-sales ratios. Altogether, the dealership has a 7% to 9 % closing of all submitted Internet leads over the first 30 days.

That number increases to 11% to 13% over 60 days.

And 20% to 25% of all show-up appointments buy a car. His customer-relationship center consists of three employees who monitor customer online interactions, starting with an immediate website pop-up that asks if they can assist a customer. From there, leads go to the general sales group.

Crossley provides employee guidelines on social media use, but they are fairly flexible. He doesn’t want anyone getting too wild and crazy in the name of engaging customers.

“I tell employees, ‘When you go out in the community and you have my shirt on, you’re representing me and the Crossley Ford brand.’ I think the whole world will go to a social-media standpoint. It’s the digital version of the world you live in.” 

He foresees online consumers paying more attention to what people like them think about a product or service, and therefore thinks future search engines will be driven by criteria such as race, age, likes and dislikes. 

Most dealers are becoming more accepting of using social-media tools, but there’s still some resistance, says Crossley, who belongs to Ford and AutoTrader advisory groups.

Monitoring a store’s Internet performance shouldn’t be overly complicated, he says. “The key to monitoring is to find a digital tool that’s dealer-friendly and takes less than 10 minutes to use, or it’s not going to happen.”

While a dealership’s social-media initiatives tend to be local, a large auto maker such as General Motors takes a world view.

GM cascades a single corporate policy on social-media use for employees across all its units globally, no matter if it’s Chevrolet in North America or Buick in China. It also shares the guidelines with key stakeholders, such as dealers and contractors.

Its five tenets are:

  • Be honest about who you are.
  • Be clear that the views you express are your own.
  • Use good judgment about what you share and how you share it.
  • Treat everyone with respect.
  • Know that online communications travel fast and usually are not private.

 “Our policy is the cornerstone of all engagement; it’s a transparent policy,” says Annalisa Esposito Bluhm, a Chevrolet spokeswoman. “You always disclose you are with the GM brand.”

Employees and representatives are encouraged to be civil and social, she says. “Engage in discussion relevant to the brand and appropriate to each brand, and know the brand.”

Example: The team member would say, “I am with Chevrolet; the opinions I express are my own, but I represent the brand.”

Just because something is said online in China doesn’t mean it won’t come to the U.S., digital managers say. In fact, Internet communication is decidedly viral, and never private.

“Discourse online is the same as an individual talking at the water cooler – only there are thousands of people listening (or reading). We empower people to talk on behalf of the brand, but they need to know what the brand is about,” Bluhm says.

GM doesn’t foist its corporate policy on dealers. 

“We don’t have a policy per se for dealers. They are independent businesses and use social media as one more way to stay in touch with customers and gain new ones,” says Taylor.

“We can’t tell dealers what to do,” Bluhm adds. “But if they want to be in the social-media space we make it as easy for them as we can. We make a case for engagement. It’s less of a push, more of a pull system.”

The auto maker’s digital team is in place to help dealers use the tools at their disposal, whether it’s tweeting, blogging or using Googling, using Facebook or YouTube.

GM encourages dealers using social-media to react quickly, be upfront and address any customer concerns as quickly as possible, Taylor says.

“When it comes to a problem a customer may have, we want the dealer who has ownership of that customer to take care of the customer’s concerns,” says Taylor.

The auto maker’s customer-care center fields general complaints.  “Social media is an added layer of customer care. It all comes down to monitoring,” says Bluhm, who spends about one-fourth of her day managing online communications.

For those wondering if phone usage is dead, a retail-business environment proves it isn’t as consumers use smartphones throughout their car shopping.

“Telephone usage is very much alive and well,” Taylor says. “After an Internet lead (live chat, mobile or online research), customers are very likely to call or text a dealership.” 

Mobile phone calls to dealerships have increased, he says. “Everybody has different ways to communicate and you need to respect the differences, and stay on top of them.”

Bluhm adds, “Social media is just part and parcel of what we do. We want to be a leader in the space, help bring emerging technology and a level of cachet to other businesses trying to be involved.”

GM provides toolkits and training for dealers to engage customers through social media. But it is not a place to overwhelm customers with hard sales pitches, digital experts caution.   

Recognizing the burgeoning need, GM last year launched e-Summit 4.0 to teach digital skills to dealership users. The first wave was held in 17 major cities nationally between August and November. The sessions attracted more than 3,000 dealership executives, sales managers and Internet staffers.

Trainers make it clear that it’s “important to adhere to certain social-media expectations,” such as transparency and using good judgment, says Tom Henderson, GM spokesman. 

Participants get a list of do's and don'ts in social-media situations, and learn to develop action plans they can apply to situations at work.

“Social-media portions are very popular with dealership staff,” says Taylor.

GM subsidizes most of the training, but dealerships pay a discounted fee of $199 for a 1-day session if registering 10 days in advance ($249 otherwise).

GM plans to launch another digital-marketing conference in summer, with live events and a virtual expo.