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Customer Retention for an Online Market


How do you build retention with customers who buy from you, but never set foot in the dealership or meet an employee face to face? It’s an important question for all online retailers, and it should be part of the marketing discussions with your staff and agencies.

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Unlike many online retailers, you don’t sell consumables that require frequent purchases. Most buyers won’t purchase again for years — not even service work if you can’t keep them post-warranty.

It won’t be long until a growing segment of the market will be buying vehicles and aftermarket products online — some say as early as 2019. Experts in e-contracting and F&I technology platforms say the technology’s ready now to sell aftermarket products online, if only state legislators would vote it in place.

How does a dealership initiate and foster a relationship with online customers? The purpose of building customer relationships, whether engaging them first online or in-store, is to retain their business into the future.


Retention is more than loyalty or even customer satisfaction. Those are nice attributes to earn from customers, but studies show that neither truly translates into those loyal and satisfied customers doing further business with you. Retention is measurable, in percentages of repeat customer business growth and in dollars from increased service turn and upsell per customer.

So how does a dealership build retention if an increasing percentage of new business originates online and 15 percent or more of those prospects simply don’t want to walk into the dealership to conclude any part of that transaction? You must begin retention efforts well up-funnel, introducing and promoting your retention-generating programs earlier in the shopping journey. Even while they’re searching third-party sites and then your Website, use some of that online real estate to proactively introduce them to services and programs designed to help them get more value from their vehicle investment.


The white-label, online car buying service conducted a survey in 2015 of 500 consumers, and the responses offer compelling confidence in consumer online shopping preference for F&I products. It speaks of retention opportunities. Key findings of the survey include:
72 percent of shoppers want to learn about F&I products and services, and 71 percent would prefer to research these products from the comfort of their home — or anywhere but the dealership
Most would look at third-party sites or dealership Websites for information
64 percent would more likely purchase F&I products once at the dealership if they’d had the opportunity to research choices earlier online


The data suggest that if you want to sell more F&I, go up-funnel and promote your products earlier in the customer’s shopping cycle. Make sure one or more of those products you are promoting online are designed to connect the customers to the dealership in ways that keep them returning frequently during their first year of ownership, to build a habit of servicing their vehicle there.

One product that promotes valuable services to potential buyers, and when used keeps them connected to the dealership for ongoing purchases, is the dealer-branded prepaid maintenance (PPM) program. These programs offer customers discount-priced, prepaid routine maintenance services. Because these services include oil changes and other routine maintenance, such as tire rotations or alignments, these customers build a habit of servicing with you.


One East Coast group recently reported its use of such plans has resulted in lease customers using the dealership for routine maintenance services for at least two years, and finance customers’ routine maintenance services for up to five years. They report being at the top of their zone for customer retention.

Inform early shoppers why it is to their benefit to buy from you. Market aftermarket products like PPMs on your Website, third-party listings and by targeted Web ads to reach customers earlier in their shopping cycle to interest them early about the products you sell. The goal is to predispose them to say “yes” when offered these products online — and when in the F&I office.


Retention begins when customers are engaged through a seamless online-to-store experience. Shoppers are looking for well-trained, product-articulate sales staff when they engage with your dealership, whether via email, text or phone. Provide your staff the tools and training to be as product articulate, presentation polished and sales professional as possible. Educate all customer-facing staff, which includes advisors, cashiers, receptionists, greeters and salespeople, about the importance of customer retention, what it is, how it is earned — and how it can be so quickly lost. Don’t miss out on engaging, and retaining every prospect and customer.

Ryan Williams

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