Since 1990, Acton Lincoln-Mercury in Acton, Mass., has been successful in attracting and keeping customers for life.
“We try to make the experience for a present customer one that’s very, very good, so that the customer then goes out and shares that good experience with others,” says Bill Cunningham, Acton’s general manager of fleet sales.
Acton attracts new customers by running regular print advertising, participating in tradeshows, supporting the local New England Livery Association and its continued membership in the National Limousine Association. This not only contributes to potential new business, but also underscores long-term business associations and friendships.
In today’s challenging economy, Cunningham advises employing additional marketing techniques to find new business and entice customers. “We’re doing things a little bit differently,” he says. “We’re actively calling customers over the phones, putting salespeople out on the road to visit customers, and trying to solicit business from rental car accounts. We also go out and knock on doors of funeral homes. Even though those people don’t buy a car as often as a livery operator, they’re still buyers for cars. The problem is that no one ever goes out and visits those people. I find, to my surprise, that people in this business don’t even go out and visit livery operators, whose business revolves around the car.”
Cunningham’s philosophy is that those people committed to being successful in this industry should put themselves in front of the people and have a presence. “Eventually, if you’re doing it right, that customer is going to give you an opportunity, at least once, to sell them something,” he says. “Once you get that opportunity, then it’s up to you and your support staff within the company to keep the customer’s business.”
Cunningham adds that if you have consistently had an advertising strategy, the time to cut it is not when business starts slowing down. “I think when you do that, you sometimes end up hurting yourself in that you’re not getting as much exposure,” he says. “Therefore, you don’t earn all of the business that the ad may have generated.”
Educating the Customer
Acton forges relationships with customers by educating them. An example is when a customer wants to finance a vehicle for a 60 month period. “That’s the worst thing a livery operator can do,” Cunningham says. “Most livery operators want to buy a car with as little money as possible. Add five years of finance interest, and it will usually take a customer about 42 months to hit a break-even point on that purchase.”
After three and a half years, the average livery operator will have well over 200,000 miles on the vehicle. “Now he’s going out and his company is being represented by a car that’s starting to show signs of wear and tear,” Cunningham says. “So when a customer comes to us and wants to extend the term, we say, ‘let’s not — and let me show you why.’ If we were to let that happen, we would never get that customer back. Because when he needs to trade in the car, he’s going to owe so much money, more than the car is worth, and all he’s going to remember is, ‘Acton did that to me.’ So another way we try to control bad times in the economy is to not let customers make foolish decisions that will hurt them down the road.”
Growing the Business
Cunningham is always on the lookout for ways to increase Acton’s business. “I’m the type of manager who is never happy with the business that we have,” Cunningham says. “I always think we can get more, but I try to do it in very, very small steps.” Cunningham explains this rationale with his fear that if Acton grows too fast, the odds increase of a bad experience for a customer. “As good as I think we are, there’s always going to be a chance that we drop the ball,” he says. “I think the key to it is if we do drop the ball, we need to recognize that we did it and then remedy the problem. Take a bad experience and flip it back to a good one.”
Cunningham says that good customer relationships are a priority at Acton, and they can even cut across brands. Because of his longstanding friendship with an operator who now exclusively runs Cadillacs, Cunningham says that he receives referrals from that owner if a potential customer inquires about purchasing a Lincoln. “When somebody switches to Cadillac, there may be, at some point in time, a chance to get their business back,” Cunningham says. “Rather than turn your shoulder and refuse to help them with a service concern because they’re not buying Lincolns any longer, you have to be smart. You have to continue to be there for the customer and hope that at some point it will come back your way.”
Cunningham is looking forward to the upcoming opening of Acton’s new freestanding facility. The 6,000-square-foot building will be centrally located between Acton’s two dealerships and will house approximately 150 to 200 vehicles.
Cunningham and his eight-person fleet sales staff will be located at the new facility. “We’re really excited,” he said. “Once we move in,we’ll probably crank it up a little bit more and pursue more of the rental business.”