Auto dealers build loyalty with parties for their buyers

Buy a Honda with Bill Pearce Courtesy Honda, and an invitation arrives in the mail just a few weeks later printed on fine paper stock, complete with RSVP, offering an evening out just for new owners.

Also, door prizes, gift certificates.

And a meet and greet with the service and parts staff.

It's called the new owner's clinic, and it's a marketing concept dreamed up at least a decade ago by the Honda folks, says Sandy Rafaelli, owner of Bill Pearce Motors.

Bill Pearce Honda, a division of Bill Pearce Motors in Reno, has been offering the clinics ever since.And people come.

Reno Toyota puts on a similar event, the Toyota-thank-you-new-owner event, says Ivy Gentolizo, customer relations and business development manager for the dealership.

It includes a buffet dinner catered by Los Campadres Restaurant and served by General Manager Steve Katzman.

And why? Dealership loyalty.

One Honda customer, says Rafaelli, has attended the event at least 10 times, each time with a new car.

But even more, the goal is customer comfort." So the customer feels comfortable calling the dealership," says Rafaelli.

Adds Michael Hohl, service manager for Michael Hohl Automotive in Carson City, the events are a service retention tool.And his firm uses them chiefly for customer satisfaction.

Hohl's been doing a lunch event since about 2000, he says, and currently is running it as a combination event for its Honda and Subaru customers.

Talk at all of the events circles the hot topics of the day warranties, tires, oil changes, air filters, dashboard button how-to's,maintenance schedules.

With margins slim and competition stiff in the car sales end of the dealership business, most firms look to make a good portion of their profits in parts, service, after-market products, says Rafaelli.

Even there, dealerships face stiff competition from mechanics all across the region.And improvements in the cars themselves nibble away at profits, improvements such as lengthened periods between required oil changes.

The new owner clinic brings buyers back into the showroom, providing a chance for the dealership to make a second sale for future maintenance, tire purchases, repairs.

Reno Toyota, which sells close to 150-175 new cars per month, puts on four dinner events per year, says Gentolizo.

It's in its second year, he adds, and he's seeing a 70 percent positive response on invitations sent out.And then about 75 percent of those RSVPs show up.

And bottom line more people lining up for maintenance at the service bays? "We see more people coming into service," says Gentolizo.

Toyota has not yet tracked the correlation between thank-you event attendees and service customers.

"But I know for sure that they are coming in because they say hello,"he says.

"My gut feeling is that it's another important tool," says Rafaelli a marketing tool.

"The more people feel comfortable, the more they will come back to us."

Honda buyers, especially, are premium customers for the event, adds Rafaelli.Honda buyers are different, she adds."They have Honda loyalty."The dealership taps into that with its club-like event.

At Toyota, adds Gentolizo, the attendees tend to span all Toyota price levels, from the Echo to the Land Cruiser.And they span age demographics, too.

This quarter's new buyer event was dominated by older car buyers, he says.And the last one was full of the younger set.


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