Editor’s Note: It’s widely accepted that many innovations birthed in the auto dealer model world make their way to farm equipment dealers over time. What auto dealers have been doing in customer intelligence and targeted, predictive marketing have intrigued our staff for some time. And with a slowdown expected in demand for farm equipment sales, the time was right to shine the light on opportunities that already exist in a dealers’ customer databases.

Farm Equipment set out on a first-ever project to highlight what’s coming tomorrow by sharing what’s possible today. To do so, the perspective of a dealer with first-hand daily knowledge of current state of affairs in operations behaviors and computer systems was needed. So instead of assigning this project to one of our staff reporters, Farm Equipment sent a dealer veteran (Mike Wiles, with 10 years of experience as a farm equipment store manager at S&H Farm Supply) to attend the 2014 Digital Dealer Conference. Held in Las Vegas last fall, the event is the leading conference for digital strategy marketing for auto dealers. He was likely the only farm equipment marketer in a crowd of automotive digital marketing and IT talent.

Wiles attended the Customer Relationship Management (CRM) sessions track at the multi-day conference to research the subject. What you see on the following pages is a digest of what he learned and then running it through his own filter of dealership operations in practice. While some of what you read is not yet available to the farm equipment world, simply considering the possibilities is sure to enhance your current data-collection process and help you better use the systems that exist in today’s computer systems.

Consolidation of equipment retailers as well as their customer base is creating a heightened urgency to nurture customer relationships: fewer dealers are pursuing fewer customers. Combined with the emergence of new customer purchasing patterns, especially with the use of the Internet in the past decade, farm equipment dealers can learn a few things by observing the approach their counterparts in the automobile industry are taking toward customer development and retention.

Covering the automotive world’s premier marketing event, the 2014 Digital Dealer Conference in Las Vegas for Farm Equipment, made it clear that Customer Relationship Management, or CRM, is at the top of automotive dealers’ efforts to cultivate deeper customer relationships. My assignment was to witness first-hand where an industry on the forefront of using the latest technology is headed in its sales and marketing efforts, and how it could apply to the agricultural equipment business.

It’s no secret that consumers’ Internet shopping is generating a staggering amount of information or “big data” for retailers today. This fact is not lost on the car industry, which is attracting the greatest minds to adapt and utilize that information to retain customers and increase sales. The conference presented a wide range of cutting-edge approaches to “mine” that massive amount of information and convert it into usable and effective marketing approaches to reach out to new and existing buyers.

Like ag equipment dealers, but on a much larger scale, automotive retailers have to determine where to invest marketing and advertising dollars, while the shopping and buying habits of their customers continue to rapidly evolve. In fact, they’re shooting at a target that’s moving so fast, even the experts are having trouble keeping up with it.

What’s Changed?

Three primary buying behaviors have fundamentally evolved in recent years. The way consumers shop for cars — and nearly everything else for that matter — is radically different from pre-Internet days.

The first change has been with communication between the car buying public and their chosen dealer. Buyers willingly share their contact information in return for receiving relevant marketing information. If they receive offers that don’t pertain to their preferred products, the unwritten agreement is broken and they tend to ignore future correspondence. Or, in a worse case scenario, they feel betrayed.

Second, before online shopping hit the mainstream, car buyers did their research by visiting multiple dealerships. That’s no longer the case. The average car buyer today appears at the dealer’s lot knowing what he or she wants and is ready to buy it and drive it home. Only a bad experience during the process will change the outcome.

Finally, the customer service expectation of the buying public is the highest it’s ever been. They demand that their emails requesting more information be answered almost immediately and that websites be easy to navigate and stocked with product photos and up-to-date information. They expect the buying experience to be pleasant, expedient and largely on their own terms. Failure anywhere along the entire buying experience will likely send them to a competitor.