LOS ANGELES – Making people happy comes at a price, as California dealer Shaun Del Grande has discovered. He’s willing to pay it, seeing a return on investment.

“Do we get extorted?” he says, referring to customers who may take advantage of dealer niceness. “Absolutely. But happy customers are vital to us. It can’t be lip service. You’ve got to make it happen.”

The second-generation dealer discusses ways to do that during a presentation at the Automotive Social Media Summit here.

His marketing message to potential customers of the Del Grande Dealer Group in the San Francisco Bay area: “Don’t just be a car buyer, be a happy car buyer. If you are going to spend 30 or 40 grand on a vehicle, you might as well be happy.”

The group uses social media and storytelling videos to get across that buying a car should be joyful. It distributes “Be Happy” license plate holders. “If nothing else, we’re trying to reduce road rage,” Del Grande quips.

It also seems to increase sales for the 15-brand, 14-store group. It delivered 25,000 vehicles last year. It expects to sell 30,000 this year, says Del Grande. In contrast, he recalls the killer year of 2009 when recession-affected sales fell to 5,575 units.

Despite being big on social networking to reach customers, Del Grande confesses he’s no social-media guru. “We have 900 employees and a lot of them are Millennials. They’re teaching me.”

The group tries to integrate social-media channels into every part of the operation. It’s not an immediate payoff, which can turn off some dealers.

“In the car business, we tend to think in days and months, not quarters and years,” Del Grande says. “But it’s a marathon, not a sprint. It’s a long-time strategy and a new mindset.”

As far as another time-related issue in the car business today, Del Grande is not a proponent of an effort in some circles to get customers in and out of the dealership in 60 minutes.

“I’m not a believer in the 1-hour theory," he says. "To have a proper experience, buying a car is not done in an hour.” 

Of course, the antithesis of a happy customer is an unhappy buyer. Either type can make their feelings known using the reach of social media and its outlets such as Facebook and Twitter.

One way to displease customers is to say one thing but do another. “Nothing is worse in marketing than to say we are this and someone comes in to find you are that,” Del Grande says.

Many consumers like getting a new vehicle but dislike the car-buying process, he acknowledges. “That’s unfortunate. It is time to realize how the customer is thinking. We need to adjust our models to how they want to do business.”

That includes valuing customers’ time. “There is nothing worse than waiting 90 minutes for F&I. We need to work on moving things along at a brisker pace.” 

Social media is particularly important in attracting young buyers, he says noting that about 80% of Generation Y, ages 18 to 34, use some form of online social networking.

“Millennials can be pains in the butt, but if we learn to deal with them, we can deal with anyone,” Del Grande quips. “And they are going to be the biggest car-buying generation soon.”

A young person’s social-media community serves as the No.1 validator of a big purchase decision, he says.

A good social-media effort connects with an immediate community with relevant content, he says. “Content is king.”

The group uses three videographers and 11 photographers to provide quality visual content, but Del Grande says he’s seen some great photos and videos shot with a smartphone. “As long as it’s engaging and shareable, it works.”

Popular videos include service technicians introducing themselves and doing how-to car-care clips.

He takes online reviews seriously, especially if they’re critical. “We all make mistakes. But be fast and proactive to fix them.”

He offers these tips for dealerships that want to jump into social media:

  • “Plan but don’t overthink it. If you make a mistake, you are not going to jail for it.”
  • “Don’t make it overwhelming.”
  • “Focus on what your dealership already does, like contests.
  • “Seek outside help and help inside your store. High school interns can pitch in.”
  • “Build a community of raving fans.”

Different dealerships might try different things, he says. “There are all sorts of ways to run a dealership.”

Social media has made the Del Grande group “way better,” says its dealer principal. “And it’s fun.”

sfinlay@wardsauto.com