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Jared Hamilton
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What Is Virtual Customer Engagement and Why Does it Matter?


What Is Virtual Customer Engagement and Why Does it Matter?

For a few years now, you have been hearing that the way to build loyalty for dealerships and brands is to create real Customer Engagement. Now you are starting to hear that Customer Engagement might not be enough. Today we need Virtual Customer Engagement.

What is Virtual Customer Engagement? Is it just another buzz phrase that marketers invented to make their normal marketing seem more relevant? All worthy topics. One can make the case about why both Customer Engagement and Virtual Customer Engagement matter to dealerships.

Customer Engagement – What Does It Mean?

Loyalty to a dealer is not a transaction. It is not a discount structure. It is not a reward program where the 10th oil change is free. Transactional loyalty is a coincidence. It means a retailer got lucky when a customer needed to buy or service something.

Carl Sewell once said of creating loyalty and engagement that, “The easiest way to set the right tone is to think of your business as your home. You are inviting friends and neighbors in. You want them to feel comfortable.” 

How do you engage with your friends? You share stories. You get together with them with no agenda. You help them when you can, because you can. Your relationship has been built on mutual engagement. Engagement – sharing of important, relevant information and experiences among different parties – that has built a mutual sense of trust.

How do you build engagement with customers in a dealership? The same way you build a friendship. You share relevant, timely information that helps your customers enjoy their vehicle more. You provide services when they are needed, sometimes even before the customer knows they need them. You take actions, make recommendations, and provide tools and information that are in the best interest of your customers, trusting that they will also be in the dealerships’ best interest.

This engagement in turn builds loyalty in both sales and service.

A 2019 study that Outsell conducted with RXA and Experian looked at the results of increased engagement across thousands of dealerships and millions of transactions. The study showed that more engagement through consumer lifecycle marketing results in more OEM brand loyalty, more repurchases from the dealership, more service transactions, and more gross profit over a three-year time period. Building engagement leads to better business performance – just like Mr. Sewell wrote about 20 years ago.

Virtual Customer Engagement – Why the Pivot?

We are told that now we need to move to “Virtual” Customer Engagement. What is it and why the pivot? In the past, dealerships and other retailers have been able to demonstrate their character and trustworthiness in person, through face-to-face, direct 1:1 communication. Kind words, a ride home, help with pairing your mom’s cell phone to your mom’s car are all examples of how trust is built through live engagement. A satisfactory sales experience that shows you how to upgrade for the same payment or a service repair that prevents a big breakdown are all examples of useful, proactive personal engagement that help to build trust.

As we have moved to less 1:1 engagement and are taking advantage of more remote processes and transactions, retailers and dealerships are challenged to build engagement in a different way, a more “virtual” way.

Virtual Customer Engagement means that dealerships need to build affinity, trust, and the resulting loyalty by demonstrating their character and integrity without depending on face-to-face contact. This does not mean that there is no face-to-face contact, but it does suggest there is less of it. It means that information, the currency of trust, must be provided clearly, openly, and immediately, even proactively when possible, wherever a consumer might glean it.

Gone should be the days or circling a C-130 over a 10-mile radius around the dealership and dumping leaflets with a scratch off or a special key. Gone should be the days of advertising and marketing messages that give enough information to be compliant with the law but are largely deceptive with “mouse type” that basically invalidates the offer. Gone should be the hooks that ask customers to give up something to get basic, readily available data like price or trade value.

These tactics do not build engagement. The personal contact that sometimes (although not very often) helped counter the damage done by these tactics are less frequent and cannot be depended on to create loyalty and retention.

Dealers need to look at their message system and ask: If this is the only way someone judged my trustworthiness, would I trust me?

Look critically at communications, considering frequency and offers, and use your own experience as a guide. Consolidate your communication on platforms that use Artificial Intelligence (AI) to guide what to say to whom and when. Consolidate your marketing communication solutions to focus on building engagement virtually, in addition to your face-to-face contacts, and through partners that recognize one channel is not enough. Omnichannel marketing is as essential today as Virtual Customer Engagement is essential to retaining today’s customers and attracting tomorrow’s.

Martins Ville

I was just one of many people back in 1999 that took on virtual customer engagement you talk about, when we started telling cars on the internet. This is definitely nothing new. And for about the past 20 years that's all anyone I've known who does internet has been involved with. And yes I was one of those guys that drove tens of thousands of people to the dealership, by doing a very good job of virtual customer engagement.

The fact of the matter is that most of you dealers can't measure your engagement currently with all the prospects in your system and there's only a few companies that actually measure that. 

And most dealers build on that program because they went with the big guys. That was a mistake.

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