As newspaper ads and other forms of traditional marketing lose their grip, dealers are trying to connect with customers through clinics that explain complicated gadgets and other vehicle features.
Some luxury dealers have used the technique for years. Now dealers of mass-market brands are picking it up.
"The more comfortable [customers] are with the products we sell them, the more apt they are to come back and buy a product from us again," says Kim Winkler, new-car sales manager at Dan Pfeiffer Lincoln-Mercury in Grand Rapids, Mich.
Since January, Pfeiffer's staff has been staying late on the second Wednesday of every other month to hold a customer clinic to explain Lincoln Mercury's navigation system and Sync, Ford Motor Co.'s in-car communications and entertainment system.
"I thought, 'This isn't going to work,' " Winkler recalls.
But gradually, more customers came, up to a dozen or more at each clinic.
The clinic starts at 7 p.m. and runs about 90 minutes. Customers sit facing a large overhead screen. A salesman gets in a vehicle and uses a video camera to project the instrument panel onto the screen. A sales expert explains the technology as the salesman on camera demonstrates it.
Vincent Portelli, 78, attended a clinic on voice-activated navigation after he bought a Lincoln MKZ sedan at Pfeiffer in April. He found it useful.
"They went from the beginning, as to how to activate the system, and walked us through it," Portelli says. "It gives an almost hands-on feel with the camera in the car and the large screen."
Portelli plans to attend the next clinic, in June, to learn about Sync. He also would recommend the dealership to friends looking to buy new vehicles.
Ford offers up to $500 in merchandise materials -- brochures, banners and balloons -- to dealers who conduct a clinic every two or three months, says Stacy Spragg, Ford's retail communication and growth specialist.
Ford initiated the incentive last summer. Now about one-third of its 3,513 U.S. dealerships hold periodic clinics, Spragg says.
After the Ford Edge crossover won an award for pet safety from bark buckleup.com, some dealers hosted "pet clinics" to teach owners how to transport Fido safely, Spragg says.
Dealers, she says, "have to step out of the comfort zone of what used to work and look for new ways to get customers to come into the dealership."
In January, Chrysler Group put a requirement in its dealer standards that stores host periodic clinics for customers. Topics typically cover service and safety technology, says Kathy Graham, a Chrysler spokeswoman. In the first quarter, about a third of Chrysler's 2,320 U.S. dealerships held such clinics.
Life of luxury
The luxury brand Lexus has encouraged dealers to host customer clinics for four years. Lexus of Orlando in Winter Park, Fla., has hosted the clinics since January 2008. About 800 to 1,000 customers have passed through the clinics since then.
"It's investing in the future with our customers," says Rachel Webb, customer relations director at Lexus of Orlando.
The dealership has partnered with a fine-dining restaurant to cater the clinics. Webb buys fresh flowers. Customers arrive at 6 p.m. for cocktails, and the program starts at 6:30.
She admits the clinics are costly, to keep staff late and cater food, but says the benefits outweigh the costs and the personal touch is now necessary to attract customers.
"The old days are gone," Webb says. "If we don't do these events, somebody else will."