State of Automotive Dealer-Panel: 5 Key Takeaways + 19 Tips To Come Out Ahead

Company and Events, Industry News

Last week, 5 auto dealerships and 3 industry experts served as panelists on our State of Automotive March 2020 webinar, co-hosted by Facebook Automotive, IHS Markit, and Dealers United.

The event was geared around how dealerships are tackling the effects of Coronavirus on their business processes, consumer messaging, and plans for Q2.

The 8 panelists were:

  • Matt Sneed, Director of Marketing – Power Ford in Albuquerque, NM
  • Michael Renaud, VP – Leader In Cars Auto Group in the greater NY area
  • Bobby Sight, Director of Operations – Rob Sight Ford in Kansas City, MO
  • Stu Berkley, General Manager – Middletown Honda in Scotchtown, NY
  • Chris Beaton, General Manager – Steele Valley Chevrolet, New Minas, Nova Scotia, Canada
  • Brent Parres, Partner Manager – Facebook Automotive
  • Drew Cameron, Tier III Automotive Marketing – IHS Markit
  • Pete Petersen, CEO – Dealers United

Miss the webinar? Catch the replay at

While each dealer-panelist has been impacted differently based on their own local ordinances, they all share one thing in common: sales are declining, if not shut down altogether.

A poll during the webinar found that 81% of attendees have had their sales department impacted in some way.

Here are 5 key topics that the panelists discussed, and 19 tips for how dealers can maintain business and branding, and can come out ahead:

Key Takeaway: Truly support the customer during this time.

    • Tip #1: Make the Customer Feel Safe. Share pictures and videos of your safety and sanitization practices to make the customer aware that “these are the steps that we are taking because we care and we are aware of what is going on.” Show your team putting plastic on the steering wheel, wearing gloves, etc.
    • Tip #2: Play the “Supporting Role.” Try calling your consumers proactively to check on them. Take the stance of “We’re checking on you, we’re here to help” and “How can we accommodate you” instead of “Buy, Buy, Buy.” 

“We’ve taken the time to scrub all of our advertising, asking ourselves, ‘What’s the perception on this?’ We’ve even removed all hard offers on our website and are really trying to communicate the stance ‘We’re here; we’re here to help you’ and ‘What can we do to accommodate you in this time?’ I think playing the supporting role is the role to play right now. By playing that role, people will find you and will come to you either way.”

—Chris Beaton, Steele Valley Chevrolet

  • Tip #3: Put Real People Behind Your Messaging Platforms. Many shoppers will have specific questions that your chatbot or typical FAQ may not be able to answer in these times. Establish real live communication between members of your team and the consumer.
  • Tip #4: Make a Short-Term Shift from Performance to Branding. Now is the time to build value and earn a customer’s future business. Shift away from driving leads and focus on brand awareness, video views, and engagement. Don’t just run a single ad about your latest incentives. Create an entire library of ads that stack value every time they log in, and then hit a sales conversation once in a while when the time is right.

Key Takeaway: Overcommunicate with your team.

    • Tip #5: Follow CDC and Local Guidelines. From making sure employees stay home when they are sick, to ensuring technicians work every other service bay, be sure you’re following your OSHA guidelines and CDC guidelines to a T. Make sure that the entire team is aware of changes and business process changes you’ve made to help keep both them and your customers safe.
    • Tip #6: Distribute Resources. Check with your Chambers of Commerce and Economic Development Centers often for grant and loan information, not only for your dealership but also to send to your employees to help them. If you have unfortunately had to furlough or reduce staff, give them a checklist and a list of resources to help guide their next steps. 
    • Tip #7: Discover and Share Dealership Strategies. In addition to keeping up with latest updates from NADA as well as your own local Auto Dealer Associations, be sure you’re talking to other dealers! Join a Facebook Group, or simply pick up the phone and call to other dealers in your area to share strategies. We are all in this together. 
    • Tip #8: Send Internal Videos for Leadership Updates Often. Have your GM or other members of your Leadership Team send video updates to your team whenever there’s a new development, or at least 2x a week for internal communication.
    • Tip #9: Make it Easy for Your Team to Stay in Touch. With many employees working remote or less hours, help them coordinate and stay connected through chat sites like Group Me, Facebook Groups and Messenger, WhatsApp, InteractiveTel, or Zoom Meetings.

“We’ve got to use care and compassion with our teams. I just encourage you: stay proactive. The more you stay positive, the more you help them with resources, with information, it calms anxiety. Try not to promise and over-deliver. You want to be truthful, and honest, and keep people in the loop. Tough decisions may be needed throughout this time but the things you do now to build your team are going to make you come out of this stronger. How do we want to be perceived as a dealership, of us as leaders, when this is over?”

—Pete Petersen, CEO of Dealers United

Key Takeaway: Quickly and proactively adapt to changing consumer needs.

    • Tip #10: Listen to the Customer. Ensure the customer feels that their safety is your top priority. Listen and be empathetic to which way the customer wants to shop and service; make it as painless and easy as possible for them to be able to get the job done.
    • Tip #11: Digital retailing is HERE. Offer “Touch-less” Valet and At-Home Services to make your customer experience more convenient during this time. Whether you’re focused more on Service or on Sales, it’s important to remove all friction points in your online and offline buying processes. Be willing to let go of more information and provide more convenience.
    • Tip #12: Set Realistic Expectations and Communicate Proactively. Be transparent and forthcoming with new processes. Set realistic expectations for what customers can expect both online and offline. If a service is going to take 2-3 days to deliver, let them know that!
    • Tip #13: Over-Communicate and Post Daily. You may have to pivot your communication style to be more proactive and touch your customers more often to keep them more informed. This is a time when more people are on Facebook and Instagram than ever. Post Instagram and Facebook Stories daily that you’re open and practicing safe sanitization procedures and update your Page cover photo, showing that you’re open.

“We’ve been showing pictures of mechanics putting plastic over the steering wheel; making the consumer feel safe and still come in. We’re trying to give them offers that are service related. Most of my budget is going to service right now. Sales is closed. I haven’t abandoned [sales], but most of our budget, especially on Facebook and Instagram, is all directed right now in service and the customer, how we’re going to take care of them.”

—Stu Berkley, Middletown Honda

“This is becoming like a freight train to change the way we do business. There’s been a reluctance to change to the pace that our clients and consumers want. This is what they’ve been asking for for years. I think once this is all over that this is going to make us all better. Once we have ‘valet at home test drives’ and easier flow of information from a digital retailing point of view, why would we go back? Consumers are not going to want to. People find there to be too much friction. Internally we’ve let off the reins as far as trying to hold onto information; we’re giving it up more easily; we’re letting the consumer be more behind the steering wheel.”

—Chris Beaton, Steele Valley Chevrolet

Key Takeaway: Stretch your advertising dollars.

  • Tip #14: Target Smarter. As you cut down on our ad spend, invest into platforms where you can target specific audiences or use 3rd party data to reach Owners, Brand Loyalists, Recalls, Expiring Leases, and Service Buyers in your area. Deliver them value and your brand’s message.
  • Tip #15: Focus on Your Lowest Hanging Fruit. While search volume and website traffic is down, it’s more important than ever to focus on your lowest hanging fruit by retargeting existing traffic. These are the audiences where you can be a little more sales-driven in your conversations.
  • Tip #16: Maximize OEM Incentives and Show You Can Help With Payments. Communicating incentives and payment deferments from your OEM will help you control the conversation with your customer and help positively position your brand.

Key Takeaway: Plan to be “standing” when this is over.

  • Tip #17: Help Rebuild. If there’s an opportunity for you to be involved in your community and help rebuild your local market, take that opportunity.
  • Tip #18: Continue Removing Friction. If you haven’t been focusing on digital retailing and online communication, use this time to set yourself up for sustainability and success in the digital world. Facebook Messenger is a great area to invest and train your team for long-term enhancements.
  • Tip #19: Play the Long Game and Rebound. Use this time to focus on customer and consumer communication and to learn how we can do better at the dealership. Plan like this will be happening until May 1st, and that when this is over, you’ll come out on top. Work with your team to prepare marketing plans and operations for a recovery path.

“We need to show the community [we care], but I wouldn’t say totally abandon your inventory ads. Because at the end of the day, we are who we are. We’re auto dealerships: we sell cars! And now some OEM’s are supporting more heavily with incentives…we can still be the guide and supporter and say, ‘If you’re hurting in a financial crisis, you can have a newer vehicle with no payments for 6 months’ and that can bridge the gap. If you do it in a classy way, you don’t come across as sleazy.”

—Matt Sneed, Marketing Director at Power Ford

“My objective, my business plan, and everything since this all started has been under the premise that when this is over, we need to be standing. We can’t be down on our knees, cant have our face in the ground because when this is over, we’re going. It’s going to be gangbusters for the entire industry: Service, Sales, Parts, everything.”

—Michael Renaud, Leader In Cars Auto Group

As the situation continues around Coronavirus, we must continue to work together to propel our industry, our dealerships, and our communities forward during this unprecedented time.

Please help us spearhead more ideas and solutions for our dealership community! Feel free to share your questions, comments, strategies, and ideas below.

Request the State of Automotive Replay here. 

Grab more COVID-19 resources for your dealership here. 

Stay healthy and safe, from our team to yours.

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Blog Author - Brooke Jensen

Written By Brooke Jensen
Brooke handles all of Dealers United’s digital marketing. In addition to her love for design and copy, Brooke also adores her two dog-like kittens, playing the electric violin, and walking barefoot around the office.

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