|Dealership: Ryan Ford|
Where: Sealy, Texas
Dealer principal: Ryan Kirkpatrick, 53
2013 retail sales: 1,380 new and used, up 25% from 2012
Tip: Use 140-character e-mail blasts to win back lost customers
For Ford dealer Ryan Kirkpatrick, 140 simple characters are rescuing potential sales that otherwise might have gone elsewhere.
Three times a month since April 2013, Kirkpatrick's Ryan Ford store in Sealy, Texas, has sent out short e-mail blasts to its so-called "lost" customers, people who shopped for new or used vehicles but didn't buy. They carry direct subject lines such as "Do you want to reprice?" and contain no more than 140 characters.
The first time the dealership sent one of the blasts, it went to about 6,000 customers. About 300 people opened the e-mail, and 10 people bought cars. The best result has been 14 sales from a single e-mail blast to about 3,000 shoppers. Today the store sends the blasts out to about 1,200 customers each time.
The beauty of the approach? It's basically free, Kirkpatrick said.
"These were people we thought we'd never, ever sell them a vehicle," said Kirkpatrick, who bought the Ford store just outside of Houston in 2006. "It kind of blew our minds. It was eye opening for us."
The idea for the blasts originated with Ford Motor Co.'s digital team that trains dealerships to use technology more effectively, Kirkpatrick said. People land on a lost-customer list after the dealership makes five unsuccessful attempts to contact them. Ryan Ford had been reaching out to these customers prior to last April, but previous messages were much longer.
Short and direct
By shortening the messages to a length more typical of a text or a tweet, the dealership was able to catch the attention of some of those people. Kirkpatrick says he knows he can't waste people's time with long pitches. Busy car shoppers will just tune out.
"People talk in text now, 140 characters or less," Kirkpatrick said. "And that's why the subject line is so important on these e-mails."
By starting with a question, Ryan Ford's new e-mails are designed to get those people talking with the dealership again, said Chancy Pierce, the store's general sales manager.
"Instead of long-winded e-mails, they're direct and to the point," said Pierce. "We're just trying to initiate conversation."
If the dealership can re-engage with the customer, it might be able to make a sale.
E-mail open rates have proved much higher with a question in the subject line, Kirkpatrick said. "Do you want to reprice?" is the most successful of the three monthly blasts. The subject lines of the other two blasts focus on payments and trade-ins.
The approach requires very little time. The blasts are programmed into the dealership's customer relationship management software. An employee has to make a few manual commands, but that takes fewer than 10 minutes per blast, Kirkpatrick said.
After nearly a year using the new approach, the dealership links 25 sales a month to the program. That amounts to just over 20 percent of monthly retail volume, Kirkpatrick said.
The sales that result are "aggressive deals," he said.
"Usually these people haven't bought for a reason," Kirkpatrick said. "You're trying to throw your line out and snag something, and you're trying to do it through price or payment or trade."
While the deals may be less profitable, they build volume for the store. Ryan Ford is now selling more than 100 vehicles a month consistently. Though the Houston economy is strong and Ford's product is good, Kirkpatrick attributes much of the store's gains to the focus on lost customers.
"To us, it's free, and it's no time," he said. "If we re-engage these people and sell more, that's good for us."
In 2013, Ryan Ford posted its best performance in the eight years since Kirkpatrick purchased it.
It's quite a turnaround. In 2006, when Kirkpatrick and his team arrived, the dealership carried inventory of about 20 vehicles and had been selling about 20 a month. Last year the store averaged retail sales of 115 vehicles per month and typically had 350 vehicles on the ground.
It's the culmination of a dream for Kirkpatrick, 53. The Houston native grew up spending time at his neighborhood Cadillac dealership, David Taylor Cadillac, a large store owned by the father of a friend. He began working in the parts department at age 14 and fell in love with the business. He always liked cars, but the buzz of the dealership, with music playing and talkative sales reps, proved alluring.
"It was where I wanted to be," Kirkpatrick recalled.
Kirkpatrick went to Northwood University and worked at a large dealership in Florida with a goal of owning his own store someday. He eventually went to work for Iowa dealer Pat McGrath, who offered to help Kirkpatrick buy his own dealership. When they found the store in Sealy, McGrath invested in it. Kirkpatrick's brother-in-law later bought out McGrath's interest.
Even though it was a small store in a small town on a highway just outside of Houston, Kirkpatrick figured the location gave him the opportunity to grow in a big way. The store began marketing heavily to customers in the state's largest city.
"We came in with our guns drawn" and decided, "Dang it, we're going to kick some butts," Kirkpatrick said.
With the help of Ford's improving product and Houston's resilient economy, the strategy has worked, he said. "We're now a player in our market."
You can reach Amy Wilson at email@example.com