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By Jack Simmons


To win today’s car shopper, it takes more than your sales team to be on its “A” game. The reputation of the entire dealership plays an important role in each car sale. More and more, the service department influences whether a shopper purchases a car from you or another dealer.

Increasingly, consumers learn about your dealership’s reputation online, which is why it’s important to leverage your online presence to build and maintain long-term customer relationships. For dealers wrestling with this strategy, the big question is: How are today’s shoppers navigating the path to purchase?


It’s become clear that much of what we used to know about how consumers shopped for cars no longer applies. But that doesn’t mean the Internet has eliminated long-term customer relationships. If anything, consumers crave it more than ever. That’s why dealers must get in front of consumers early in the game to provide the information they demand.

Forget the Funnel

For years, dealers have clung to the notion of the car shopping journey as a funnel and aligned their marketing strategies to its various stages. According to this theory, consumers start with a wide consideration set, gradually eliminating vehicles from consideration until they narrow their choices down to the single correct fit at the end. In reality, consumers take a much less linear path from consideration to purchase.

That’s because shoppers rely heavily on a variety of research sources throughout the journey. In this early stage, shoppers utilize several inputs to shape their initial consideration set, including personal networks, previous experience, and online and offline resources to populate, hone and refresh their consideration set.

Rather than a funnel that narrows down the large consideration set to a final car, car shopping is a dynamic process in which shoppers sift through the available options, adding and eliminating cars as they go. Even after consumers have gathered enough information to narrow their consideration set and visit a dealership, the process continues. Armed with mobile devices, more consumers are conducting research during the dealership visit as a way to evaluate new information and make sure they are getting a fair deal.

Among other things, shoppers check dealership reviews, where they examine reports on both the sales staff and the service department. Consumers want to balance the short-term logistics of the sale with their long-term expectations for service and repair.

Service Drives Sales

The service department is a much more important influence on the buying decision than you might expect. According to a Harris poll commissioned by, nearly two-thirds of in-market car shoppers indicate that a service department’s reputation is a factor when choosing where to purchase a vehicle. That means not only are dealers losing out on service revenue, they could be missing out on potential sales as well if their online reputation is not a priority.

While national chains are using digital marketing effectively and making it easy for customers to find pricing information online, dealerships have underutilized these platforms. But price transparency isn’t the only factor customers consider for vehicle service information.

The majority of car shoppers won’t visit a dealership without conducting research, and they don’t always trust the information they get from dealers. That’s why consumers rely heavily on third-party websites for an unbiased perspective on the dealership and its service department, typically through first-hand experiences from other customers.

Online consumer reviews, which recount a customer’s first-hand experience in the dealership, rank as one of the top three most important factors that shoppers consider when choosing a service provider (technician certification level and warranties are the other two). In the Harris poll, 57 percent of in-market car shoppers indicate they would seek out service department reviews before purchasing a vehicle, while only 10 percent of in-market buyers said they would not consider service reviews before buying from your dealership. Clearly, this is an important factor in cultivating long-term relationships with your customers.

It’s also important to note that dealers have the initial advantage over national chains for providing service. At a dealership, consumers feel they’re getting service from a technician that’s an expert on their particular make and model. That’s especially important for out-of-warranty vehicles. That trust factor isn’t as high when a car owner visits a national chain or local independent shop.

In fact, according to a report conducted by GfK Research, consumers are willing to spend 10 to 15 percent more for service at a dealership, especially for specialized repairs where dealership expertise is at a premium. That’s why when it comes to developing long-term customer relationships, it’s crucial for dealers to promote their reputation online for providing quality service.

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