DANA POINT, CA –Hunter Swift sounds like he’s conducting a journalism class. “Learn the art of the headline,” he tells a workshop group here. “Be concise. Inform as well as entertain. Make it easy to read.”

But attendees are not aspiring scribes. Instead, they are car dealership people. The topic of discussion: how to craft emails that stir customer interest.

Face-to-face salesmanship and telephone skills still count at dealerships. But online forms of customer contact have moved to the mainstream, says Swift, a sales analyst for DealerSocket, a dealership customer-relationship software provider.

“Five years ago at the National Automobile Dealers Assn. convention, a dealer said, ‘I don’t care about texting; just kids text,’” he recalls. “But those kids are becoming car customers.”

Dealers need to adapt to a customer’s preferred channel of communication, Swift says here at a DealerSocket conference on CRM best practices.

Some dealerships are good at online marketing. Others still are trying to nail the basics. One element of an effective email is a compelling subject line.

“It always comes down to that,” Swift says. “If you are getting low response rates to your emails, maybe you should change the subject line to something more compelling. If you’re offering a coupon and the subject line doesn’t say so, the customer might not read the email.”

Email content must offer value to customers, not blatant advertising, he says. “Customers give dealerships their email addresses and phone numbers, and some dealers in return give them junk email and phone at dinnertime.”

Newer forms of communications haven’t eclipsed email. “Everyone has it,” Swift says. “We’re not past email and on to social media.” Still, social networking is powerful. And sometimes daunting to dealers.

 “Anyone, anywhere can communicate with the rest of the world,” he says. “There is the ability to reach a huge audience, which is good for dealers. A lot of people in the car industry can talk about styling, performance, new models, safety and travel.”

A dealership needn’t give cars away to get Facebook users’ attention. But dealers can spark interest by posting success stories, sponsoring contests, highlighting charitable involvement and building relationships.

Social networking carries the potential of misuse, Swift says. “You can’t have a carefully branded dealership on one side and on the other a 19-year-old kid out of high school handling your social media and communicating in a way customers don’t understand.”

He recommends posting positive online customer reviews on Facebook. “People are thrilled to see their comments there.”

CRM systems notify dealerships whenever a customer review about them is posted on social-media websites. Swift offers this advice to dealers if someone pans them:

  • Contact the person directly. “Sometimes, all they want to know is that they’ve been heard and the dealership cares.”
  • Avoid getting drawn into a fight.
  • Acknowledge a mistake. “If you can resolve an issue publicly, it is a good thing. If a customer is not upset anymore, ask them to revise the review.”

Both auto makers and dealerships send satisfaction surveys to customers. Another group should be added to the list, Swift says.

“Why not email a questionnaire to lost customers, too? Find out why they didn’t buy from you. Was it an issue with customer service or how they were treated? What they say can help improve an operation.”

DealerSocket Co-CEO Jonathan Ord weighs in with his own executive-level advice.

Seizing opportunity means “to act and not be acted upon,” he tells the gathering. “Allow people in your organization to act, learn and grow.”

To Ord, success is unlike lightening that proverbially only strikes once in one spot. 

He tells of a dealership executing a great marketing effort leading to the sale of 100 vehicles but then inexplicitly not trying the same thing again.

“They’ll say, ‘Oh, remember when we had that great marketing plan?’” he says. “Find out what you do right and then keep doing it.”

sfinlay@wardsauto.com