In a way, it’s easy to envy Ken and Kelley Haney. The owners of South Texas Suzuki entered the powersports industry just a few years ago when they purchased their Lytle, Texas, store. The Haneys never knew what the industry was like back in the good old days when bikes sold themselves and customer credit was nearly guaranteed. Instead, they’ve worked hard from the start to build and maintain a loyal customer base despite competing against much larger dealerships. They leverage their smaller store so it provides a more personal service experience to each and every customer while making the most of social media marketing to maximize exposure. This out-of-the-box thinking is part of the reason why the store has earned its Top 100 honors.
“We’ve both come from outside the powersports business,” Ken says. “We’re babes in the woods here, having only been at this for three and a half years. But we bring a fresh perspective. Even in a down economy, we don’t realize that these aren’t good times. For us, we sell happiness and freedom every day, so everyone that leaves here has a huge grin on their face. We came in, worked hard, did our thing, and simply didn’t realize that it was supposed to be a lot easier than it has been in this economy.”
South Texas Suzuki’s small footprint creates an inviting place for customers to shop. The Haneys understand the negative stereotypes found in big dealerships. Ken explains the common issue of how customers get passed from one associate to the next, with a constant feeling of being hustled from the moment they walk in the door. Or worse, customers get the exact opposite: being ignored completely.
“Big stores are at a disadvantage because the sales guy hands the customers to the finance person, who then hands them off to the service guy and so on. They come back three months later and those people aren’t even there anymore. With us being here at the dealership every day, we feel the advantages are numerous,” Ken says. “We are able to give the customer personal attention directly from the owners on the front end, with Kelley managing the sales and finance process and with me on the back end managing the parts and service departments.”
That personal touch with the customers goes a long, long way, he continues. “We have to treat each customer like gold, because we don’t get the same number of people through the door like a big dealer. And we know it works, because we have customers tell us. Recently, we sold a bike over the phone to a customer who was standing, ignored, in another dealership’s showroom.”
Newcomers or not, the staff of South Texas Suzuki has to know its customers and products. The store’s limited brand lineup enables sales staff to learn its inventory intimately, something you might not see in a bigger store with a larger, more transient employee base.
“We are in a large hunting and ranching area, so we do fairly well with our ATV/UTV business both in sales and service. However, we do better with water and street machines than with off-road. Enthusiasts are our core. The guy who has a GSX-R1000 is the same guy who’ll buy a 260 horsepower watercraft,” Ken says. “And we service all makes and models. Even if we can’t sell a popular model side-by-side, we still see those customers. We’ve found that educating customers, taking the time to show the technology and show the safety features — those are things that customers have said specifically brought them back to us to buy.”
While the Haneys may be new to the industry, they certainly didn’t come unprepared. Ken served as the Senior VP of sales for a Fortune 200 computer company, while Kelley was a top-performing finance officer for one the nation’s largest homebuilders. With their respective skill sets and a clear style in mind for how their new dealership would operate, they quickly set out to build a successful store, with the results speaking for themselves.
“The dealership had been here two to three years, but they had no signage on the building. They didn’t advertise. They didn’t have a website,” Kelley says. “We came with my marketing and finance background and Ken’s sales experience. With both of our backgrounds being in the corporate world, we bring professionalism to the customer interface that just can’t be duplicated by your average employee. No employee, no matter how dedicated, can really care about the customer and the long-term image and health of the business more than an active owner.”
While a commitment to customer service and a passion for business provide a great start, South Texas Suzuki needed to get its message out if it was to grow into the business it is today. “The issue here is we don’t get the number of door swings that a large store in the middle of a major city would benefit from. This affects our business,” Ken explains. “Luckily, being in a rural setting allows us to keep our overhead down and expenses in check. The key here started with an extremely loyal and passionate customer base. But add that to the new world of social networking and you get amazing results. Kelley lives with her iPhone glued to her hand updating Facebook, posting on riding sites like Meetup.com and monitoring our sponsorship of motorcycle groups.”
Kelley understood that using social media for marketing was not difficult, nor did it require extensive resources. She asked herself what she could do for free, since their budget lacked funds for large conventional ads. The answer was social media. She updates the store’s social media accounts regularly throughout the day, with simple event updates and trivia contests for service discount coupons and similar minimal cost rewards.
“What I would tell people is that you don’t really need to hire a specific person to run a social media campaign,” Kelley explains. “I think some dealer principals are afraid of things like Facebook, but it’s really not rocket science. We knew a big push on Facebook and other social media sites would help a small store like ours, but we never dreamed it would go viral and produce the results it did.”
Those results speak for themselves. South Texas Suzuki was the No. 2 Can-Am Spyder dealer in Texas last year, the No. 3 Sea-Doo boat dealer in the state and a top 10 percent nationally ranked Suzuki dealer. All from a small shop of seven people. But perhaps the most telling statistic regarding the effective use of social media is how they won the Dealernews Top 100 Consumer’s Choice award. Not only did South Texas Suzuki win this national recognition, it won by miles. A combination of social media and word of mouth resulted in nearly 38,000 votes for the dealership.
“For the Consumer’s Choice, we posted twice a day, and asked people to put it on their Facebook pages,” Kelley says. “Suddenly it went viral, appearing on pages I hadn’t even heard about.
“If you start with extremely loyal, passionate customers, you find your enthusiasm is reflected back a thousand-fold. And enthusiastic customers are outgoing to begin with. Our customers [have been] selling us by word of mouth, asking for stacks of our business cards to give to friends. We are very humbled that our customers worked as hard as they did to help us win this award. We threw a customer appreciation party recently with a live band and lots of activities, and had hundreds of customers attend.”
South Texas Suzuki proves that you don’t need to throw money at many of the problems that powersports dealerships often face. Ken and Kelley Haney successfully built a dealership nearly from scratch, with a simple but hard-working combination of enthusiasm, knowledge and well-targeted marketing. Between social media, personalized service and events such as demo ride days, involvement in the local community and big contests for riding clubs to enter, customers not only connect with South Texas Suzuki online but in the flesh as well.
Ken sums it up nicely: “I got sick of the computer business, and my worst day here is better than my best days back then. I aim for this place to be like “Cheers,” where you can walk in the door and expect that we’ll know you by name.”
This story originally appeared in the Dealernews August 2011 issue.