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Terry Massey, general manager of Ken Stoepel Ford-Lincoln in Kerrville, Texas, can remember the incident like it was yesterday.
The nightmare started with a miscommunication between his staff and a customer over which month her first $460 payment for her new vehicle was due. Instead of complaining directly, the customer posted a message on Google accusing the dealership of misleading her.
“We had a slight misunderstanding between a business manager and a salesman. The lady thought we had lied to her about her car payment. It went viral within a matter of days. She’s got our reputation right in the palm of her hand,” Massey recalls. “Here we are a President’s Award winner.”
Ken Stoepel Ford-Lincoln tried to settle the issue by giving the customer a free payment, but the scars endured. The incident helped lead the dealership to seek outside help managing its social media reputation.
‘We need some help’
“As the car dealer, we’re guilty until proven innocent. We need some help to manage our reputation,” says Massey, 42.
So this fall, Ken Stoepel Ford-Lincoln signed with the FordDirect Social Media and Reputation Management Service. FordDirect began offering the service in July and has signed about 150 paying dealerships, says Ryan Soffa, senior vice president of product development at FordDirect, a joint venture between Ford and its dealers to help them establish a more effective online presence.
For Ken Stoepel Ford-Lincoln, subscribing to a prepackaged reputation management service had another big benefit. It freed ace Internet salesman Michael Rodriguez to spend more time selling cars.
Before coming to Ken Stoepel Ford-Lincoln, Rodriguez, 33, had been on a very different sales and marketing career path: working on big corporate accounts for such computer companies as Dell and Cisco Systems. After he was hired at the dealership in 2007, he blossomed as a car salesman.
Rodriguez’s tech skills served him well at the dealership. But he was almost too good at handling an array of tech-related tasks — from making sure his colleagues were following sales leads to taking digital photos of cars and posting them to the dealership Web site to composing monthly e-mail blasts to customers. For a while, Rodriguez was even the go-to guy for computer troubleshooting and repairs.
After the workday, Rodriguez spent many evenings on his home computer tending Ken Stoepel Ford-Lincoln’s social media sites, responding to customer posts and posting notices to the community about events at the dealership.
In short, many of the tasks Rodriguez had performed were just what FordDirect’s service now will do for the dealership.
Says Massey: “It was too much. He’s the kind of guy who has that kind of passion and commitment. He was spread kind of thin.”
Massey wanted Rodriguez to spend more time at his original specialty: selling cars via the Internet. Now, Rodriguez can hand the social-media duties over to FordDirect.
“It’s such a refreshing relief not to have to do that,” said Rodriguez. With more than 10 social-media channels out there, FordDirect is “hitting a lot of media channels you just can’t keep up with.”
Says Todd Smith, a former Chevrolet dealer who now is CEO of ActivEngage Inc., a provider of online chat services for car dealers: “For a lot of dealerships, selling cars and running a dealership is a difficult business in itself. Marketing has changed so much and changed at such a rate that the average dealer struggles with what to do. The dealer doesn’t want to make a mistake. Mistakes cost money and dealers don’t operate on such a margin they can afford to make a mistake.”
So they’re turning to services such as the FordDirect Social Media and Reputation Management Service or General Motors’ GM Primary Reputation Management, Smith says. Those services have vetted myriad service providers and packaged them for dealers.
FordDirect, for instance, contracted with Digital Air Strike, a Sunnyvale, Calif., company, to handle the social-media chores under its new program after a nine-month bidding process that included two other providers, a FordDirect spokeswoman said. She did not identify the other bidders.
For the $399 monthly Premier-level fee, dealers get an adviser assigned by Digital Air Strike. That adviser will engage with customers and provide content. For the $799 Elite-level fee, the adviser will respond to every customer posting.
Says FordDirect’s Soffa: “On the reputation side, there are 20 different sites we’ll manage for reputation and social media” including Facebook, Twitter, Google and YouTube.
“Every dealer has more satisfied customers than unsatisfied customers,” says Massey. “One thing the Ford program does is helps us get the happy people up there.”
The FordDirect program has paid big dividends in that department, he says. “We’ve doubled our friends and fans in one short month. Our impressions have gone through the roof.”
Says Massey: “Everybody is looking at your Yelp ratings” these days. “You have to have a solution. It’s going to make you more accountable and make your people more accountable. The better reputation you have, the more likely your customers are to come back.”
You can reach Bradford Wernle at email@example.com.