When customers enter the service lane at one of Bill McDaniels' six dealerships, a service adviser greets them, walks around their vehicle, reviews the work to be done, and shows them to the waiting area.
Then the "concierge service" takes over: A salesperson offers a bottle of water, presents a business card and discusses the customer's transportation needs. The salesperson checks back in 15 minutes to see whether the guest needs anything.
And he or she may casually ask: "If we could get you into a new car for what you're paying now, would you be interested?"
"It's a very soft approach," says McDaniels, owner of McDaniels Auto Group in South Carolina. "We don't want [customers] to get out of the car and start pouncing."
As new-vehicle buyers increasingly shop online, dealerships are relying more on their existing customer base to boost sales. Service visits offer a great opportunity to get to know these customers, and plenty of sales tools identify likely candidates to purchase a new car or truck.
But selling out of the service lane requires an approach tailored individually to each customer, dealers and analysts say.
So-called equity mining in the service lane is "a great idea," says Lee Harkins, president of M5 Management Services Inc., a dealership consultancy in Pelham, Ala., that specializes in fixed operations. But a hard-sell pitch isn't the best way to approach service customers, he warns.
Service departments "are trying to fight for customer retention, to get them to come back," Harkins told Fixed Ops Journal. Rather than put the pressure on, he advises, "just bring [the possibility of buying a new vehicle] to the customer's attention with a comment in passing. Then you have to follow up."
At the McDaniels dealerships, the initial concierge contact is followed by a note left in the service customer's vehicle saying the group would like to buy it.
The service lane has become a crucial source of business beyond repairs, McDaniels says, because walk-in dealership traffic has vanished. He estimates that 85 percent of his vehicle sales emerge from appointments made online. Only in the service lane, he says, can a dealership really talk to any customer.
"We are working the service lane really hard to get as many customers back as possible," says McDaniels. He says he sells as many as a dozen new vehicles each month out of the service lane.