Figuring Out What Really Makes Your Customers Tick
Tire dealers see a variety of customers stream through their doors everyday. Quiet ones, loud ones, demanding ones, meek ones, young ones, old ones. And no matter who comes in, the dealer has to be ready. If he isn’t, business will be lost.
Handling customers is always tricky, and there will be times when no matter what you do, the customer won’t be happy. Think of this: Nearly two-thirds of customers who take their business elsewhere do so because of an employee’s "attitude" – real or perceived. Maybe they felt slighted, belittled, or taken advantage of. Perhaps the salesman seemed to have better things to do, was painfully slow with service, or didn’t have the necessary information.
Today’s tire dealer faces a more diverse and more demanding customer base than at any time in history. But the tools and techniques popularized in the past don’t always hold up anymore.
Four groups now dominate the consumer market: Seniors, women, and Generations X and Y. These divergent genders and generations come into tire dealerships everyday – and bring a lot of disposable income with them – but they each think differently, have different needs and expectations, and have different ways they want to be treated.
It’s still all about getting the business, but having a better understanding of what makes your customer base tick will make the path smoother – and, perhaps, more profitable.
They come in quietly, maybe scanning the place as if walking in for the first time – even if they’ve been in many times before. The women speak slowly, softly and respectfully, while the men tend to be louder, more forthright. They know there’s something wrong with their vehicles, but they can’t diagnose the problem and may not be able to articulate the symptoms.
They are a silver-haired wave: senior citizens.
Every dealer has senior citizen (age 65 or older) customers, some more than others. Seniors make tremendous customers for any business. First, they make up a large part of the population, have vehicles they rely on and will likely keep, and are intensely loyal – especially if they feel they’ve been treated fairly and received good value for the money.
Like everyone, they want their cars fixed quickly, the first time and for a good price. The problem? It’s not easy to treat seniors the same way you’d treat any other demographic.
In this day and age, customer service happens quickly. Everyone is treated in the same, cookie-cutter style, regardless of age or sex. Speed is key – handle it and move quickly to the next person. In many retail arenas, customer service has become faceless, the personal touch discarded in favor of quantity.
Seniors don’t accept this. They remember a time before slow-moving fast food workers and mumbling, uninformed store clerks, when gas stations cleaned windows and checked the oil while actually pumping the gas, when customer service meant individual attention.
Seniors are not always the frail, doting old people they are made out to be – contrary to popular belief. But they do have different needs and expect to be treated with respect. They enjoy interaction with people, think of themselves as self-reliant, and value word-of-mouth recommendations, especially from like-aged friends. They want to understand how their money is being spent. And, most importantly, if they trust a business, they’ll be customers for life.
They grew up during the depression, and some lived through two world wars, so they know what it’s like to do without – and know value when they see it. To them, there is a "right way" to do things, and because they were raised to show respect for their elders, they expect the same treatment. "Sir" or "ma’am" are how they prefer to be addressed. They expect courteous treatment, and don’t want to be hurried along. In short, they want a quality experience É every time.
Seniors demand value, and expect more than some discounted special. They’re willing to pay for a service, but they want to know where their money is going and that the service will be done right the first time, without any hassles. Any special discounts that might be offered are seen purely as a bonus.
When planning any form of advertising, keep seniors in mind. In fact, don’t be afraid to target them specifically. If you do, be straightforward and focus on benefits, not bells and whistles. Think about using older people in the ads, maybe going so far as using testimonials and endorsements from other senior customers.
Don’t advertise on the basis of fear because you’ll scare very few seniors into your shop. And there’s no reason to "dumb it down" for them; they understand what’s happening, and they often know more than you.
A common perception is that seniors have all kinds of money to spend. More often than not, seniors are living on a fixed income funded by whatever pension and retirement savings they were able to accrue. And because of their depression-era experience, most are extremely frugal. Not cheap, just cautious.
Look around your shop and see where you could make life easier for your senior customers. Ramps make access less troublesome than steps. Larger type on your service board or tire displays makes them easier to read. Hand rails in the restrooms make them safer. And a relaxed atmosphere in your shop will put them at ease.
Most seniors are grandparents, and grandkids will likely be riding in their vehicles. So it’s important for the grandparent to feel their car is safe and reliable. And because they’re proud grandparents, they love to show off the kids. Why not give them a bulletin board for them to post pictures of the grandkids? They’ll get a kick out of that, and make them – and other seniors – feel more welcome.
The Fairer Sex
Since the 1950s, tire dealers have been hearing about how women are permeating their customer base. Well, women make up 52% of the U.S. population now, and bring a lot of automotive vbuying power with them.
Dealers know that women are completely different customers than men – not only for tires but for practically everything else. In general, women enjoy shopping, even if they don’t buy anything. For many, shopping is a relaxation tool – except when they have to walk into a tire shop.
At that moment, relaxation is replaced with tension. Instead of being casual, women are on guard and alert. Why? Most women are not comfortable dealing with vehicle service. The common perception is that men know everything about cars, and women know little. In truth, most men know little about cars and tires, but this lack of knowledge of covered over by male confidence. Women, on the other hand, know they don’t have much vehicle knowledge, are afraid of being taken advantage of, and want to be confident in the decisions they make.
If history has taught us anything, it’s that men and women think differently. If a man needs new tires, he’ll probably just head to the dealer he’s used to and trust that he’s getting a fair price.
When a woman needs tires, she’ll research the subject. She’ll find who’s having a good sale, and ask a few friends if there’s a brand or place they’d recommend – word of mouth is a huge factor for women. Then she’ll go to the retailer, with trepidation, and make the purchase.
In 1960, this magazine published a story by Charlotte Montgomery entitled "How to Woo the Ladies." It offered these tips: be warm and inviting; don’t make her feel she’s an automobile imbecile; give her fast attention; keep the shop clean; provide advice and assistance; offer her "extra" services; and make her feel welcome.
Any of this familiar? Forty-two years later, these points remain just as applicable.
Give your female customers your full attention. Get into a conversation with them – nothing long and complex – but something that lets them feel comfortable and not threatened. And interrupting them isn’t a good idea; women find it stifling, especially if it’s a man doing the interrupting.
Learn her name and use it. Women like hearing their own name and it adds a personal touch. Learn her needs and help meet them. Keep in mind that your version of her "needs" and her version might be two different things. If the customer says she just uses the car to "get around town," find out exactly what "get around town" really means. Some moms rack up heavy mileage weekly just taking their kids to various activities, going to and from work, and running errands. But to them, that’s "getting around town."
Let her be an active participant in the learning and decision-making part of the sale. Don’t talk down to a female customer, but take the time to explain things and avoid technical jargon. Don’t just tell her: "This tire has sipes." Try: "The sipes on this tire help improve traction on wet or snow-covered roads."
Women love to create relationships, and trust is critical. They frequent hairdressers and department stores they trust, so it stands to reason they’ll frequent a tire dealer they trust. It takes time to establish these kinds of relationships, but the benefits are enormous. Good service, quality products and reasonable prices are all important.
Many women customers are also moms, and that means, more often than not, the kids will be in your store, too. Now your female customer has added pressure – children to keep happy and entertained while they try to make difficult and important decisions. If you have a lot of female customers, it makes sense to make your place kid friendly. Add some books and games to keep them busy and take some burden off of mom.
Safety is a major concern to moms, and it is a good tool to use in explaining vehicle service or tire issues. Don’t oversell them or take advantage, but you can use safety to help them better understand what needs to be done and how it will benefit them.
Cleanliness is a major issue with women customers, and not just in the restrooms. But you will still be judged by how dirty or inconvenient your bathrooms are for female customers.
Women also want to feel safe, which means easily accessible, well-lit parking lots. They don’t like cramped, disorganized stores. Tire information and prices should be clearly displayed. Avoid using words like "sweetie," "honey" or the like. Even today, there are still plenty of service shops that make that mistake.
Women love it when someone goes the extra mile for them. Refill the washer fluid for free, offer her a ride, clean the car windows, give the dashboard a quick wipe down, show her how to check tire pressures. These little things don’t take much time, but they can mean the world to your customers and your business.
They’re not Baby Boomers, and they’re not teenagers. They’re that generation in between, one that’s been tough to define.
Born between 1961 and 1980, Generation X is just as much a culture as it is a collective group of buyers. In many ways, Gen Xers are the complete opposite of Baby Boomers, who are their parents. They grew up with the "what’s-in-it-for-me" attitude of the 1980s. Events that defined Baby Boomers, Vietnam and the Cold War, ended during their lifetimes. In fact, virtually everything that defined the Baby Boom generation came crashing down while Gen Xers bloomed.
The term "Generation X" comes from a 1991 Douglas Coupland novel, and speaks to the fact that this generation is more diverse and fragmented than any before. Like every generation, Gen X has struggled for credibility and understanding, but the massive differences between it and previous generations have caused more than a few problems. Which makes it harder for tire dealers to figure out exactly how to deal with them.
Gen Xers are more cynical than their cynical parents. They are comfortable with technology because they grew up with it. They hate advertising stereotypes, and they know when they’re being talked down to. Their response to these marketing slights is simple – they don’t spend money.
Xers want value-added extras. They like package deals, buy-one, get-one-type sales. They are not as affluent as older generations, but they think they are. They will spend money – in fact, they have no problem with it, even if they don’t have money – but they want to know what they are getting.
Pushy salespeople and hard-sell tactics turn a Gen Xer off. They walk into a dealership fully expecting to be talked down to, to be treated as though they have no idea what going on or what’s best for their vehicle. A straightforward, tell-it-like-it-is approach will work wonders. Salespeople, technicians, virtually anyone in your dealership, needs to be an information source. The more input Xers can get before making a purchase, the better.
Marketing to this age group is critical. Traditional tactics don’t work because Xers are savvy enough to see through the fluff. Advertise right to them, appeal honestly to the things Xers care about. Don’t worry about trendy, just be honest.
Internet marketing is a viable option. Gen X buys a lot over the Internet – even cars. Make sure you have an easy-to-remember Web address, your site loads quickly, is visually interesting, and has contact information for your brick-and-mortar location. Even if someone buys tires over the ÔNet, Xers will still come to your shop to have them installed. Make it easy for them to get there.
And, because Generation X is starting to have families of their own, their perspectives and priorities are changing. Vehicle safety is replacing performance. They aren’t the slackers they were thought to be when they were teens. They’ve become responsible adults – with a difference.
The Changing Customer Base At a Glance
Information courtesy of the U.S. Census Bureau; Pew Internet & America Life; and New Media Communications Survey Spring & Fall 2000.
Teenagers. The word alone is enough to make you want to pull your hair out. They speak in a different language, wear clothes you wouldn’t know where to buy, and have a completely different perspective on things.
Of course, that’s what your parents thought about you.
But today’s teens are completely different than any group that came before. Known as Generation Y – the millions born after 1980 – these kids grew up in the digital age. They were practically born online. Inundated with more than 3,000 marketing messages a day, they still demand as much information as they can get their hands on.
Confident, self-reliant and savvy, they don’t feel the need to prove themselves, to climb the proverbial ladder. Gen Y is here and they demand respect, whether they’ve earned it or not. Trendy like their Baby Boomer parents once were, if you don’t take them seriously, they won’t bring their money to you.
The good news is tire dealers don’t have to deal with the entire generation at one time, just those who are 16 and older with disposable income and a vehicle. Of course, the next wave is just a birthday or two away.
How do you handle a potential customer that you would have trouble handling if they were your kid? Education. Because of the world they were brought up in, Gen Yers have completely different buying habits than previous generations. They are so connected to the world through the Internet, cell phones and pagers that making purchases isn’t limited by time or space. The rules just don’t apply.
Two more Gen Y traits: very, very short attention spans and a craving for information. Easily bored, they seek instant gratification and immediate results once they make a buying decision. They want every bit of data they can get their hands on, plus everything else.
Waiting for Gen Y to grow up isn’t the best move. They have more disposable income than their parents did at the same age, and more places to spend money. If they aren’t happy with the retailer, they just move on to the next. Best not to burn a bridge before it can even be constructed.
Keep this fact in mind: By 2010, Gen Y will be the largest generation on the planet. Baby-Boomers will be senior citizens, Gen Xers will hit their 30s, and both will be in the minority.
To succeed with Generation Y, dealers need to do a few things differently. First, market your business – not necessarily the tires – as a brand. If they see shop as a brand, then you’ve made a key connection with this brand-driven audience. They’re so brand-oriented, 75% of teens urge their parents to buy specific brands.
Yes, Gen Y is brand loyal. Once they settle on something they like – which might take a while – they stick with it and aren’t likely to try something different.
As with Gen Xers, this generation also likes to shop online. Make sure your Web site – you have one, don’t you? – is easily accessible, has a wide appeal for teens, and provide piles of information.
Even though you may think Gen Y isn’t paying attention, they are. Not only paying attention, but absorbing. To Gen Yers, knowledge is real power, and it’s cool to know more than their friends and parents. And information is vital in any buying decision, especially for things such as tires or brakes.
On the dangerous side, Gen Yers love credit. According to the American Savings Education Council, 55% of all college students and 7% of high school students have a major credit card. Many also have a debit card. They have the tools and aren’t afraid of going into debt.
Extending credit to a Gen Y customer would certainly curry their favor, but make sure to cover yourself. While more of them have access to credit, more are defaulting, too. Don’t be afraid to offer them credit, just be aware of the risks.
Any tire dealer who’s been in business for even a few years has witnessed a flux in his customer base, while older dealers have seen even greater changes.
A customer who frequented a dealer in the 1970s as a Baby Boomer returns today as a senior. It’s the same customer, but now with entirely different needs.
As the customer base shifts – new ones phased in, old ones phased out – so must a dealer. Wants and needs change. Adaptation to the market and your customers is crucial, especially now when true customer service is at a premium and consumers have varying expectations of value and performance.
But those dealers who continue to play by all the old rules and cater to the old expectations might find themselves getting phased out.