Are you a 'stealer,' or a dealer?

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It’s funny how things converge. I was mind-wrestling, trying to come up with a topic for this column that might be interesting, maybe even enlightening. I’d somehow gotten my mind wrapped around a term I’d never heard or seen before a year or so ago when it started turning up frequently on one of the forums I frequent: “stealer,” when referring to a dealer. Most dealers I know of, even in the fat times, work hard to generate enough revenue to cover their operating costs and turn a small profit. They’re anything but “stealers.”

When I tried to explain the dynamics of a dealership and how little profit was built into some models, I didn’t generate much empathy. Then the other day a copy of Back Roads magazine hit my desk. In it was a short, interesting letter to the editor. The writer told of making three new bike purchases over the past few years. The first two were something less than satisfying — no complaint about the bikes, but once the dealership sold him the motorcycle, that was that. Apparently, no effort was made to follow up, and the dealerships expressed no interest in the customer beyond the initial purchase. I thought to myself, maybe this is what the forum posters mean by “stealer.”

We need to remember that virtually no one needs a motorcycle. Most of us buy motorcycles because we want to, and some of us have to overcome significant marital or financial obstacles in order to do so. Yeah, new cars are nice, but unless it’s something really special, like that ’65 Mustang you couldn’t afford in ’65, it might as well be an appliance. A motorcycle, on the other hand, is usually a lust object, if not a love object, one that you probably spent a lot of money on. You expect your dealer to welcome you as a new and continuing customer — after all, you just joined his brand fraternity.

My most satisfactory vehicle purchase was the Beetle I bought when I returned home from the army in ’68. It was a brand-new Volkswagen, and my first new car. I didn’t shop around; I just needed reliable, inexpensive transportation. I don’t think that in those days you even dickered over the price of a VW anyway. It was what it was, take or leave it. As it turned out, I was very happy with the car and never had any problems with it. The salesman was terrific. He’d call me from time to time to see how everything was going with the car. He sent me birthday, Christmas and Easter cards. If a new model came in, he’d give me an invitation to come over for a test drive. If I left my car for service, he always made an effort to say hello and make sure I was happy with the treatment from the service department. Over the next five years, he sold me an additional two cars.

I never considered going anyplace else.

The point of all this is that a person making a car or motorcycle purchase is buying one of the most expensive items they’ll ever purchase, and the chances are good that at some point they’ll buy another one. Ideally, you want that next purchase to be from your store.

In this day and age, getting new customers is increasingly difficult. It’s not just competitive brands, but competitive dealers, products and services. Once a customer has made a purchase from you, you want to do everything you can to retain that customer and make him want to buy from your store in the future. As we also know, a satisfied customer brings in their pals when they decide that they want a new motorcycle, ATV or PWC.

I know that most of you have established e-mail relationships with your customers. You notify them via the Internet or social networking sites of upcoming sales and events. So does everyone else they’re doing business with. You need to make your dealership stand out. If it’s November, most of your crew is probably just standing around looking for something to do, so how about addressing Christmas cards to your customers, maybe enclosing a little note about your Christmas “deal.” Or on their birthdays, dropping them cards and offering a 10 to 15 percent discount for that week as a little “gift” from you.

The problem today is that yes, we communicate, but it’s so impersonal that I think it loses its impact and meaning.

Take a look at how you’re dealing with your after-sale communication. Are you really in communication? Did you ever call them and tell them how much you appreciated their business? Do you let them know that if they need service, they can call you a week or so in advance and get a one- or two-day turnaround? Motorcycle sales are less than half of what they were four years ago. It’s time to go to extraordinary measures to keep the customers you’ve got, and make them emissaries for your business.

By the way, the guy who wrote the letter finally purchased a bike from a dealer that continued to show interest in him after the sale. The dealership that had sold him the first bike could have been on its third sale (it carried the same brand). The dealers who’ll be around in the next few years are those who go the extra mile to ensure their customers’ satisfaction.

This story originally appeared in the Dealernews June 2010 issue.