Communication from your dealership is just static if you’re not sharing information your customers need. Knowing what they need starts with knowing who they are. The tool to get you there: A current, comprehensive customer database.

“It’s a challenge for dealers to overcome the overwhelming feeling when they hear the term ‘database,’ “ says Alexa Ganos, group leader for relationship marketing at Milwaukee-based Bader Rutter & Associates, an integrated marketing services agency that serves the agriculture industry and others.

Alexa Ganos

"A basic question should be, 'Am I getting the information I want to know about my customers? Am I able to generate the types of reports to help me better serve my customers?'"

- Alexa Ganos,
Bader Rutter & Associates

You’re probably already gathering customer details in some form, but can you use the data to grow your dealership?

“A basic question should be, ‘Am I getting the information I want to know about my customers? Am I able to generate the types of reports to help me better serve my customers?’“ Ganos says.

If not, it may be time to make a transition. Ganos says there are many options for customer relationship management (CRM) software – and many are simple to use. Or, you may choose to build your own, using a spreadsheet. Regardless of the direction, these steps can help you build and maintain a valuable customer records.

1. Think about what you need to know

At the very least, your database should contain customer names, addresses, emails, phone numbers and mobile phone numbers. Then, add in any other information to help your communication be more targeted. For example, note how each prefers to be communicated with; track purchase history and demographic information, such as acreage for property owners and number of employees for contractors; rate their business potential; note what marketing information they received; and include comments from the customer service or the sales team.

“A database can come in all different shapes and sizes. However, the most important quality is that it contains accurate data. A highly sophisticated database is no good if the information inside is not kept up to date or doesn’t contain fields of information that are most important for the business,” Ganos says.

2. Designate a leader

Designate someone to take the lead to ensure your database stays current and accurate. This could be you, as the owner, or your top administrative team member. There may be nuances to entering data or tracking status, so one owner brings efficiency, says Ganos. This is true whether you use an Excel spreadsheet or a solution from a CRM vendor.

Ganos advises that other key team members pitch in when it comes to gathering information, especially those who deal directly with customers.

3. Consider how your team will use the data

Think about the information your teams need to do their jobs better. For example, the sales team needs to view customer data and have the capability to add notes. Other members may just need to generate reports. You or another key employee should have administrative privileges to add members and adjust their access. Also, if you’re building your own database, consider how your different locations can best access the information, such as through the internet.

4. Research options

Now that you have a good idea of who and what, it’s time to consider how to get it accomplished. What solution is best for your dealership, long term?

“Price may be one of the first considerations. Recently, however, sophisticated databases have become more economical than ever, and many have standardized reporting tools that can easily be adapted for your business,” says Ganos. “Depending on the number of people that actually need to access the data, the price can fluctuate a great deal, so only get what you think you will need.”

She says most databases have prices that are based on the number of users (or “seats”) or portals. There are different prices for those who need to view the data and those who need to manipulate it.

Ganos recommends putting together a “wish list” of how you might use the database and then share it with vendors. Consider how you might want the database to integrate with other aspects of your business. Demonstrations of any products are a must-do and take advantage of free trials. Ganos says to ask for case studies for how similar companies used the database to address a challenge. And, talk with other dealers at industry events about the systems they use.

Are you wary of making the wrong choice with an outside vendor?

“There is a lot of competition and vendors don’t want a bad name. They’ll work with you,” says Ganos. For instance, based on the system, you may be able to turn off or add functionality as your needs change.

5. Build the data

Once you have a system in place, commit yourself to making it valuable. Ganos offers several ways to start or maintain your database. For instance, have one of your team members reach out to customers to validate information. You can also work with your direct mail firm to verify addresses with the U.S. Postal Service’s National Change of Address registry. There’s a nominal fee.

To gather new information, create a newsletter, promotion, survey or sweepstakes that encourages customers to share contact details.

A reminder: Be sure to offer your customers a way to opt out of future communication if they’re not interested.

6. Safeguard confidentiality

Safeguarding your database is as important as building it – both in respecting your customers’ trust and your dealership’s future. Take the time to develop confidentiality policies for those who have access to the data.

“Sometimes, it’s more of a handshake with employees, but it’s good to have an agreement on file,” says Ganos.

A current, comprehensive database is a good way to kick off your communication and marketing efforts. And, Ganos says it’s a great time to connect with your customers.

“Mobile marketing, email marketing – there are so many more ways to reach someone,” Ganos says, “Just make it as personal and relevant as you can.”