Germain Motor Company is embracing the future of automotive by giving customers what they want.

The company, which operates dealerships in Florida, Michigan, and Ohio, places less emphasis on promotion and more on using data to understand customers and then customizing the experience for each one. Tools that provide customer insight, like Clarivoy, AutoHook, 3 Birds Marketing, AutoAlert, Google Analytics, and customer reviews are part of the marketing mix being vetted with a few digital retailing services for its websites.

Sometimes giving the customer what they want means experimenting with not selling cars: the dealership group recently launched Drive Germain, a vehicle subscription service powered by Clutch in Atlanta, Georgia. With Drive Germain, customers pay a one-time set-up fee and then a monthly subscription to participate. The service gives customers the chance to “flip” cars as often as they want to suit their needs. Within the mobile app a customer can request a concierge delivery of a different vehicle to their desired location.

We recently sat down with Shaun “NIFF” Kniffin, Germain Motor Company’s Director of Marketing. Shaun constantly examines customer behavioral data and VDPs to understand customer preferences that lead to creating connections, which build long-term customer relationships. Read on for more from our conversation.

Leads Are Losing Their Luster

“Most of us know, that if a dealer is average or good at best, a 10-percent closing rate means they still have about a 90-percent failure rate with leads. With closing percentages higher on phone calls and showroom visits, we are strategizing with our digital partners about how to increase the number of highly engaged customers in our showrooms where we can give them better shopping experiences and buying choices.  There is much chatter in the industry about how outdated the notion of coming to the dealership has become.  I think there are pockets of these types of shoppers especially in the heavily populated urban areas and with certain brands.  However, we see opportunities to improve the customer experience in all of our stores by using digital retailing technology to eliminate the friction and optimize our marketing efforts.  We also see a hybrid version of using online retailing tools in the showrooms and online with desktop and mobile.

Create more connections and shopper visits, not just leads. Send me fewer online leads and more dealership customers. With tools like the Dealer Command Center, Google Analytics, and our website management tools I can see what shoppers are doing and respond to their behaviors as it relates to inventory. Our managers across the group work very diligently to ensure they have what we refer to as The Right Car at the Right Place in the Right Way. Inventory management directly influences just about every digital metric that we track.

Looking at consumer behavior instead of leads helps us know how to engage with each one individually. I’m OK with tailoring our marketing efforts to match what most customers want especially those who do not want to share their information with a dealership. But if the customer elects to send information to the dealer about themselves, let us customize the experience based on what their needs, wants, and desires are – what they want to do instead of fitting them into our sales process.

I think every dealer in the country is going to be ‘facing the wind of digital retailing’ in coming months, and the phenomenon is going to be disruptive. Several vendors are vying for the business to help dealers improve the customer experience, applying the benefits of these digital tools.”

Customers Are in Control

 “When you examine behavior, you know customer preferences, and you get smarter at building relationships. Customers have their own perception of what car shopping is. Some want the efficiency that they get on Amazon. And then you have traditional shoppers who want to visit five dealerships and negotiate for the best price. But with good data, if we understand their expectations based on what customers are going to share with you, we can close the gap between expectation and deliverables.

The customer is in charge … People are buying more car-related purchases such as insurance and aftermarket products without the help of the dealer. The point is, dealers need to focus on understanding the nuances of customer behavior and focus on giving customers what they want rather than focusing on forcing the customer into an in-store process that they have already admittedly said they do not like.”

VDPs: “Purest Form of Consumer Behavior”

“I constantly look at VDP trends, which is one of the purest forms of online consumer behavior we have. We can control VDP activity to some degree with the right car and mix. We produce more VDPs in a month on than we produce with paid search in a year. The overall digital strategy has not changed much in the past 15-years … get eyeballs on the inventory.”

Redefining Promotion

“We recently did a 60-second spot at our Ann Arbor dealership explaining zero down leasing. The response was off the charts. Why? Because we explained and connected. But unfortunately, the automotive space is still very noisy. I don’t think customers care who the number one seller is in the market when they see a dealer ad bragging that they sell more cars than anyone else in their region. The customer wants to feel like they are Number One.”

The Value of Drive Germain

“We identify Drive Germain as a new business model of the future — it’s not necessarily about buying a car but doing something subscription-based.

The idea behind Drive Germain is sound: customize an experience for people who don’t want to maintain a car. Personally, I’m a great candidate for Drive Germain. I drive about 30,000 miles a year, so a subscription-based service might make sense for me depending on the class of car and maintenance I need.

And I’m happy to say that Drive Germain is exploding in popularity thanks to a team effort led by Austin Germain, as discussed in a new Automotive News article about Drive Germain. It takes a great team to launch an undertaking like this one, and I’m glad to be part of it. But, Drive Germain is not replacing ownership.”

How to Inspire Trust and Build Relationships

“Creating trust and relationships starts with building the right culture, both at the dealership and online through reputation management. The Germain culture puts a strong emphasis on the customer experience.

The best salespeople in the business make a friend in the process. Our best salespeople take care of customers, which inspires trust. Building great, long-standing relationships is also about having quality conversations.

DealerRater is in all our stores. We like the idea that the customer can pick the salesperson ahead of time. Someone finally figured it out: customers want to know who they are working with, and now the salesperson is part of the vehicle consideration set. We look at those reviews to understand the experience customers are having.  It would be really interesting to see if we can improve our VDP conversion rates with this type of online experience and if it would carry over into the showroom experience.”

Advice for Dealerships

“Just embrace what customers want. Don’t try to change it to the way you want it. There is going to be more change in the next few years, and this is a great industry to be in. Where else can you be as influential in a transformational buy as you can be in automotive right now? Where else you can make such a vast difference?

Also, learn people skills. The most successful salespeople know more about people and are constantly working on their own personal development. The business, the technology, and the vehicles are changing so fast that everyone is working hard to keep up with it anyway, and your customer is doing the research to know as much if not more than we do.”