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ORLANDO, Fla.—The days of simply telling customers something has morphed into more of a discussion with them, thanks to the growing use of social media by businesses.

And there's nothing wrong with shedding the old and embracing the new, according to participants in a panel discussion in Orlando during the recent International Tire Exhibition & Conference (ITEC) for independent tire dealers and auto service operators.

Members of the panel included: Kelley O'Reilly, Ph.D., assistant professor of sales and business marketing, Haworth College of Business, Western Michigan University; Mark Gillard, marketing and advertising manager, Sullivan Tire and Auto Service; Dale Donovan, president, Donovan's Auto & Tire Center of Cincinnati; Mike Upton, president, Madison, Miss.-based Upton Tire Pros and John Adams, president, Grease Monkey International.

Engaging customers online—whether through a company's website or social media sites—was the major focus of the discussion, although the group of retail tire dealers also addressed a number of other key issues that affect how a business operates and can reach out to customers.

From a business perspective, the key concept to grasp is that unlike a newspaper, TV or radio ad—where the purpose is to tell the audience about a product or service—”with social media, what you are really doing is trying to engage customers in that conversation,” according to Ms. O'Reilly.

“So instead of telling you something, we're talking together.”

This can be a strange concept for business owners to comprehend with social media. Ms. O'Reilly said it is referred to academically as a customer being the “co-creator of meaning.” It is basically asking yourself what your brand means to your customers and understanding that your customers control the content and they control the accuracy online, she said. They can post whatever they want about the business.

“If you can get comfortable with that, you're in the right spot,” said Ms. O'Reilly, who kicked off the panel session, giving an academic perspective on the topic of online and social media.

Ultimately, businesses want to build their brands online because they want to sell more.

The reason why a company wants to build its brand, she said, is because it believes “a more powerful brand will be a better magnet for customers.... The more customers you have, the more you're going to sell.”

The goal is to create “consumer-based brand empathy” because the more brand empathy your business has, the more favorable your customers will respond to your advertising, Ms. O'Reilly said.

Social media marketing is a great place to start because it is affordable, she added, but the business owner has to figure out how to get that exposure.

“Social media marketing is not one thing,” Ms. O'Reilly pointed out.

There are many different social media sites and each appeals to different customers, just like a newspaper ad would appeal to different demographics than a radio ad. How- ever, if the business starts interacting online and creating engagement, then it will be creating that dialog directly with customers.

To create that engagement, Ms. O'Reilly said to avoid just posting what is on sale that week and instead speak about things consumers care about. That can mean what your company has that is worth engaging about with the customer. This will generate loyal fans, she said, and “they become the new storytellers.”

Ms. O'Reilly added, “Those storytellers and that influence—for every customer that you influence, that you pull into the dialogue—they have, on average, about 34 other people they have that pass along effect to.”

Once a tire dealer creates a conversation with the audience and customers get to the company's website, what can a deal- er do to keep them interested in the business?

Mr. Gillard tackled this issue during the ITEC panel. He said Sullivan Tire launched the current version of its website in late 2009 with one goal in mind: to make the process more convenient for people. Nobody wants to buy tires, so the tire dealer needs to make it easier for the consumer, he said.

The website's tire search aspect has become one of its assets.

“You can get pricing online now, so we wanted to show our pricing,” Mr. Gillard added.

Mr. Upton, of Upton Tire Pros, said his company's website also has been a great resource for customers. It receives good responses and a lot of hits, and he surmises about 60 percent of people are coming in through searching “Tire Pros” rather than Googling “tires” or Madison, Miss., etc.

“We've got a real good brand name out there,” Mr. Upton said.

Having that unification has helped his business, he added.

Mr. Donovan, of Donovan's Auto & Tire, said to remember that as a business, the goal is to get people to go to its website. “You want to drive them to your shop,” he said.

Donovan's recently revamped its website and simplified it, he said. Having the company's phone number and the ability to schedule an appointment easily can draw people in.

Mr. Donovan advised that if you do not have a website, you need to get that done. Additionally, “make sure your website is mobile-ready.”

Mr. Gillard said one area on a website that can really cater to customers is a live chat function. This allows people to connect in real time via the Internet.

“That's a big differentiator for us in our market,” he said.

Sullivan's live chat function is hugely popular, Mr. Gillard added, and he would recommend it if a business has the resources to do it. A customer can reach a live chat representative all through different pages within the website and, although Sullivan does not have it 24/7, it does have extended hours.

Additionally, Mr. Gillard said if the live chat is not active, the customer can email through that portal so that assistance can be provided in the morning.

Besides having a live chat feature, various panelists agreed that having online appointments has worked well for businesses.

Mr. Gillard said at Sullivan Tire, once customers fill out the online form, they can choose which store they want to use and then a work order gets started at that location right away.

“That's been our biggest success story,” Mr. Upton said about online appointments.

In 2010, he was in a restaurant that had online appointments and thought it was unique and wanted to bring it into his own business.

“This is a big part of our business,...a big part of our branding,” he said.

“We don't want it to be like a doctor's office where you have an appointment at 8 o'clock and the doctor comes in at 8:30.”

Finding a way to make it work is important. When Upton Tire Pros first started using online appointments, Mr. Upton said the dealership would guarantee it could get vehicles in within 10 minutes. This, however, did not work at first.

It's now advertised as “next up” so that the company is able to maintain its promise. He said this system is working well and, if it doesn't, he has his phone number posted in all the stores for customers to call with complaints. Mr. Upton said he does not get many calls.

One way Upton Tire Pros is making this work is by giving customers a $10 coupon every time they schedule an appointment online. That way, the company does not have to advertise a $19 oil change, he said. It can be $39.99. If they did not make the appointment online, they will know about the benefits for next time.

Mr. Donovan said online appointments also have been working well in his shop. Donovan's Auto uses DemandForce Inc., an automated marketing and communications software, to help maintain the shop's efforts. He said about 25-30 percent of appointments are now being made online. DemandForce sends out reminders automatically to the customer when it is time for a service, which helps increase this aspect of the business.

If customers need to reschedule, Mr. Donovan said the shop will send him or her an email and it “takes literally less than 30 seconds” to get the appointment rescheduled.

When an audience member said he had started online appointments for his business, but it was not picking up, Mr. Donovan asked how the service was being communicated.

Getting customers' email addresses and sending them reminders are a good way to let them know about the service, he said.

“After a service is provided at my store, we get the email address during the billing process,” Mr. Donovan said.

“That night the customer gets an email from me thanking (them).”

Mr. Upton said he grew his online appointments through word-of-mouth advertising at his store.

For instance, if a customer arrives at 7 a.m. and another customer comes in after but gets pushed through because of an appointment, there is an opportunity to tell the first customer about online appointments.

Explaining them in this manner also ensures that patrons know they are not being skipped for any other reason. Mr. Upton said he has never had a problem with this.

Promoting it is a huge key in the success of online appointments. Put it on everything you do, he suggested.

Mr. Gillard advised the audience to look at the traffic of their company's website.

If the site is not getting much traffic, than that could be part of the problem because people are not seeing it.

Social media is another way to reach out to customers. Mr. Donovan said his customers can even schedule appointments through the Donovan's Auto Facebook page.

Mr. Upton agreed that while he is not as active on social media as others, he works with a third-party company that handles its presence, so he can “see that it's had an effect.”

He said the company monitors its social presence every day and although he does not post directly, he does throw his own ideas out and make it known what he's looking for to the website company he uses. Mr. Upton said the response has been positive, with a lot of likes and comments on posts.

Sullivan Tire also has an active presence on social media.

“I'm pretty passionate about social media. I think it's a phenomenal, phenomenal, phenomenal way to build and brand your company,” Mr. Gillard said.

Social media is great, he emphasized, because it can be a big differentiator—especially for a smaller company—to compete against bigger stores.

“The big chains try, but they cannot build a community like you can. You know your community as a smaller dealer,” he said.

The smaller location knows its customers and what they are looking for. One thing Sullivan likes to do is relate to sports.

“Boston is a big sports city so we do a lot of sports marketing,” he said.

The company engages people that way and uses social media as a customer service tool. He advised small businesses to reach out to different social media influencers in their area and become part of the conversation.

Mr. Donovan explained that using social media is a great way to brand a company. He has a radio show as well that helps brand his business. However, he said one of the best ways to engage on social media is by posting visual content.

“Take videos of some of the things your employees are doing. Take videos and post them. That's huge,” he said

Mr. Gillard said Sullivan Tire monitors what people are saying about the dealership.

For instance, if they come across someone posting about being at a location and being worried about the wait time, they can call up that location and have them address that directly with the customer.

Ms. O'Reilly also addressed the need for “customers to be able to make sense of what other customers are saying.”

This will give the business and its products credibility. For instance, if someone is looking up a product that no one has reviewed, she said, people will naturally either think it's a brand new product or that it isn't any good.

Building credibility is important. For instance, Ms. O'Reilly referenced Sullivan Tire's website because it has a meter count of Facebook likes on its homepage. If a big company has only a few likes, what does that say about the company? she asked, then answering that it is not good.

Having both good and bad reviews can benefit a business, Ms. O'Reilly said, because research shows “having comments across the board are more powerful than simply having good (ones).”

She said that customers are now used to reading reviews. Additionally, while having an overly negative comment on a website can be scary, hardly anyone gives it any weight except for the original poster. However, it builds credibility because it shows the business is real and not just posting its positive reviews.

Mr. Gillard agreed, noting it is important to respond to online reviews because even if the original commenter never responds back—and more often than not, they won't—everyone else can see that the business made an effort to reply.

“It just looks really good for your brand,” he said.

Panelists agreed that if there is a really negative review, try to take that conversation with the commenter offline. Mr. Donovan said to respond online and have them either call you or you call them.

For instance, he recalled a time when he responded to a negative review immediately. The poster said Donovan's Auto did not address a needed service, so Mr. Donovan told him to bring the vehicle back in and it was taken care of quickly.

Mr. Adams said one way to look at reviews online or on social media is that unhappy people are still going to be there, talking about you, whether your business is there or not.

You can't be an ostrich with its head in the sand, he said.

Mr. Donovan added that by addressing the issue, a business can take an unhappy person and turn the situation around, making them happy with the service they received—and the business that initially displeased them.

On the flip side, a business also is able to look at competitors' reviews online. It's a way to see what the competition is doing while maybe adding to areas where the others are lacking.

Mr. Donovan said one of the best business practices is being part of a 20 Group. The group in which he participates meets a few times a year and shares best practices.

“That has really lifted us and brought us to the forefront,” he told the seminar audience, noting that some of the different ideas Donovan's Auto is trying have come from this group.

“Sometimes we don't reinvent the wheel, we just borrow it,” he added.

Panelists also discussed email specials to get customers in the door. Another way of using email is to ask customers if they would prefer an emailed receipt. This option may be more convenient for them and also saves the business money on ink and paper costs.

Having those online appointments and engaging with customers on social media can help a business reach customers who may not want to call to schedule an appointment or ask for more information.

While some panelists said they believed some customers head online because they don't want to speak to store personnel, Mr. Gill-ard said he disagreed.

“To me, I look at it (social media) as a gigantic networking event,” he said, perhaps similar to attending a Chamber of Commerce meeting to build relationships.

“I've met a lot of people who follow Sullivan Tire. I've met them in person. So it's not just online,” Mr. Gillard said.

Having an online presence seemed to be a consensus of the panel of experts—along with businesses learning how to leverage that and social media to reach consumers.

To reach this reporter: jkarpus@; 330-865-6143; Twitter: @jenniferkarpus
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