It’s often compared to a dance, a conversation or a delicate rapport.

Regardless of the analogy, customer relationship management is a highly strategic, multi-faceted – and typically challenging – endeavor for those charged with making it work.

For an automotive company, the complexities can be even greater and the stakes even higher.

Customers can develop intense – and often life-long – relationships with their chosen car brands. They expect these brands will speak to them in voices that are both familiar and personalized to address their greatest needs and deepest desires. They anticipate that such communications will be delivered in the modes and frequencies of their choosing.

Let’s look at five key strategies for creating a solid CRM program that meets the specialized needs of today’s automotive customer.

Make robust customer-relationship management a corporate precedent.

It’s a question of priorities, and most companies are hard-wired to focus on mass advertising initiatives designed for the acquisition of new customers, often at the expense of keeping the customers they already have.

It’s also a question of resource allocation, and a lesson in opportunity cost. The more effort your brand invests in non-CRM marketing related activities, the less will be left for you to work with.

It’s tempting to tilt the allocation of your resources in favor of high-profile mass-media initiatives because they’re more visible and more likely to win recognition. But will they win you more revenue?

It’s been shown that increasing customer retention by just a small percentage can significantly increase profits.

Cutting (or not allocating ample dollars to CRM spending) represents the loosening of ties with the people you can least afford to lose – people who’ve identified themselves with your brand. Few other marketing efforts can offer the same levels of personalization and relevance, providing one-to-one connections that speak more directly to end consumers, whether you’re generating awareness or fostering long-term loyalty.

Collect and leverage solid data.

The advent of database technology perhaps has been the greatest factor in the evolution of customer service management within the automotive industry.

Technology has made it more time- and cost-efficient to collect business intelligence ranging from the most basic (email addresses and phone numbers) to the more complex (make, model and number of cars owned).

It also has allowed car brands to communicate to their customers with more immediacy. The consumer who uses an iPad to sign up for a test drive may receive an email from the car dealership by the time he returns home.

Data, however, is only useful when it’s leveraged strategically with timely and topical customer touch points. Collecting and analyzing solid information makes it possible to anticipate what car the customer will buy next.

From the initial welcome kit to sales-event invites, the vast majority of CRM should be aimed at nurturing a personal relationship that results in opportunities for up-selling. After all, a car is one of the most important purchases a consumer makes every four to five years.

Understandably, the vast universe of new-customer prospects can appear more promising than the finite number of names on your current-customer list, and that typically makes sinking greater dollars into customer acquisition feel like a fairly safe investment.

Again, however, numbers reveal the whole story. Attracting a new customer actually can cost up to five times as much as keeping one, according to Lee Resource. And, who is more likely to invest the most in your brand than a satisfied customer? 

Build brand advocates and create social currency.

Beyond the more obvious facts and figures, there’s another big benefit to investing in CRMmarketing that often goes unnoticed: the building of brand advocates.

Many Americans have love affairs with their cars, and when they’re shown a little love, these passionate customers will go on to become proud, loyal and vocal brand apostles. They’ll spread the word about your brand with personal endorsements that carry more influence than any advertisement or marketing ploy.

Never has this been truer than with the advent of social media, which plays a major role in fueling the impact, speed and reach of word-of-mouth advertising, making it easy to recognize the value in promoting loyalty among your current customer base via these channels.

The popularity of social media also has dramatically changed the buying path for car customers. A typical consumer no longer is uneducated upon entering an automotive dealership. He’s studied online reviews from both friends and strangers and knows what he wants and what he expects to pay.

Considering the growing penetration of social media exposure, leveraging Facebook, Twitter and YouTube (among others) as part of your CRM program is crucial. One study suggests 77% of consumers who engage with a brand’s social media channels do so for the purpose of getting special incentives, and 46% use social media for customer services.

Speak in a voice that’s consistent with your brand values and personality.

While digital communications are a huge part of modern life, not all CRM touch points should be electronic.

There’s still nothing to equal the tangible experience of flipping through a colorful brochure promoting the car of your dreams. And not all car brands benefit from speaking in a “techy” voice.

For instance, while the typical Volvo customer may be a digital native, the Jaguar or Land Rover demographics are a bit more “old school” in their communications preferences.

The challenge is not to get completely caught up in technology and to be flexible with your methods of communication. Creating a balance between the digital and the physical is crucial, as is creating a balance between nurturing relationships and selling cars.

A key component of any successful CRM program is to get your customers to tell you how they want to be engaged. This will allow you to talk to them when and where they’re most comfortable, engendering even greater brand loyalty and making the process comfortable and fluid.

When CRM is done right, it’s an opportunity for a customer to be drawn into a brand and experience shared values. Whether it’s Volvo’s “Designed Around You” campaign or Mercedes’ “Unlike Any Other,” all effective CRM communications must ladder back up to core brand attributes.

Hire an experienced CRM marketing agency that puts you ahead of the game.

The best CRM firms will help you not only to be relevant, but also to create a cadence of communications that revolves around where the customer is in the purchase cycle and what he needs. They’ll work with you to find the customers most committed to your brand and develop – hopefully life-long – relationships.

Seek out a partner agency that from the beginning of the working relationship you can count on to turn your data into strategic creative work that’s executed with aplomb. They already will have traversed the complicated world of database segmentation, list optimization, contact strategy development and the like, all critical pieces of the CRM puzzle.

A skilled firm also will help you to integrate and synthesize your customer communications on multiple levels, from corporate to regional and individual dealers.

A strong CRM marketing campaign will make your customer relationships more intimate, more personal and more meaningful.

Rebecca Herwitt is Automotive Group account director and CRM specialist for Plan B, a next-generation marketing and advertising agency based in Chicago. With more than 12 years of agency experience, Herwitt has worked with social media, interactive and direct marketing, as well as managed events and sponsorships and engaged in mobile and print/collateral advertising for brands such as Volvo, Jaguar and Land Rover.