Websites Work Overtime for Dealers - Marketing
Construction Equipment Distribution magazine is published by the Associated Equipment Distributors, a nonprofit trade association founded in 1919, whose membership is primarily comprised of the leading equipment dealerships and rental companies in the U.S. and Canada. AED membership also includes equipment manufacturers and industry-service firms. CED magazine has been published continuously since 1920. Associated Equipment Distributors
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Websites Work Overtime for Dealers

By Joanne Costin

Article Date: 12-01-2010
Copyright(C) 2010 Associated Equipment Distributors. All Rights Reserved.

Far from a "one and done," your website should be viewed as one of your branch locations – well managed and ready to serve customers.

Compared to other industries, construction equipment dealers have moved grudgingly into the electronic age, but now the tide has turned. Dealers are increasingly aware that they can no longer afford to ignore their websites.

"It is no longer debatable that customers are online," said Matt DiIorio, general manager of Ditch Witch of Ohio/W.Pa./W.N.Y. Losing deals to Internet competitors in the first quarter of this year provided Di Iorio with the impetus to overhaul the company's website. "We wanted to make sure that it was easy to find equipment on our site," he said.

George Denny, director of sales and marketing for Kirby-Smith Machinery, headquartered in Oklahoma City, Okla., admits he has changed his feelings about online marketing. "I have done a complete 180," said Denny. "All I had to do was look at the numbers." Kirby- Smith's traffic has increased dramatically to approximately 4,000 unique hits per month since the site was redesigned by Equipment Web Services.

Denny was further convinced that their new website was working when he monitored phone calls over a twoweek period. He tracked an average of two new parts customers a day and a dozen new rental customers – all generated through the website. "I don't think distributors can ignore electronic media anymore," said Denny. "If you do, I think you are making a mistake."

From Stagnant to Dynamic
Experts contend that a website alone does not ensure that your site and your products are visible to potential buyers on the Internet. What a dealer can't afford is for a customer to search for a product they sell and not find it on the first page of the search results. Most people never go beyond the first page of results.

"Imagine what a contractor is typing in when he searches," said Bill Hermanek, AED's vice president of technology and e-commerce, "and see where you rank versus your competition. If it's not where you want it to be, you should think about making some changes. If your site traffic is dropping, you need to evaluate why."

Hermanek has been involved in creating websites for AED members since 1996, when most dealers didn't even have websites – today AED designs and maintains more than 40 dealer sites. Industry-specific experience helps dealers get up and running quickly because while each dealer is unique, they share similar challenges. Just by making some tweaks to a site to make it more search-engine friendly, Hermanek recently doubled one client's traffic over a 12-month period.

Jennie Davis, OEM relationship manager for Equipment Web Services, educates dealers on getting over the "build it and they will come" mentality. To do this, she encourages dealers to look at their website as another location of their business.

"A person wouldn't build a physical location and never staff it, never go in it, never update it, never clean the floor, or put up signage," said Davis, "but they [dealers] will spend $10,000, 15,000, $30,000 or more on a website and never have a process for managing it, never update it and never change it." Hermanek concurs that many dealer sites are out of date.

According to Davis, anybody can provide a pretty web design, but if a company does not know what you want to accomplish in your business, it won't ever be more than just a pretty site. Websites today should serve as the central focus of a company's communications and meet specific business objectives.

"Your website should be a lead generation machine," said Hermanek. "It is also a good advertising vehicle for your used equipment and services."

Experts use a variety of methods to ensure search engine success, but according to Hermanek, the starting point for a website is good content, a clean layout and easy navigation.

Before redesigning their website, Kirby-Smith solicited a lot of input from contractors. "We asked them what they liked and disliked and put together a layout that is simple and easy to navigate," said Denny.

The company is also considering adding more educational content to its website and e-mail blasts. Denny wants customers to think of Kirby- Smith as a resource for construction equipment and cranes.

"Dealer content should include customer stories or testimonials – anything that builds trust," said Hermanek. "If you can build trust, customers are more likely to do business with you."

Used Equipment and Other Ways to Drive Traffic
Dealers cited used machinery as the most popular area of their sites and used equipment lends itself well to Internet marketing. Dealers can sell to buyers anywhere in the world and international deals are not uncommon. Internet sales leads within the territory are generally passed along to equipment salespeople, while other requests are usually handled by management or a designated Internet salesperson.

Managing the used equipment inventory online is one way dealers are keeping their sites fresh with new content, something search engines value. AED works with dealers to determine what they want to showcase on their site and then builds custom databases on the backend with interfaces that make it easy for dealers to put in their equipment details and edit them.

In a redesign of Ditch Witch of Ohio's site, used equipment scrolls prominently across the home page. AED designed and hosts the site, so used equipment is automatically updated and placed on Machine Mart, AED's online source for used machines. Online classified advertising and pay-per-click advertising also drives additional website traffic.

The Modern Group, headquartered in Bristol, Pa., had annually updated its site and hosted it themselves, but after restructuring the company they wanted to add some Web 2.0 functionality to the site and sought help from Equipment Web Services. According to President, CEO and Director Dave Griffith, one of the key objectives was driving used equipment sales.

"Our Web traffic is four to five times the traffic that we had previously," said Griffith. "We have a number of transactions we can point to that were sold through the new used site."

The company was particularly interested in ramping up social media efforts along with their website redesign as a way to drive traffic to their sites, and the results have been impressive. Driven by the need to get lean, Griffith sought alternatives to market the business and likes the immediacy of social media to get the word out. "If we have a storm coming we can do a hurricane special," said Griffith. "And that has driven some pretty good success."

E-mail marketing can be another tool to boost website traffic. Kirby-Smith e-mails customers regularly to drive traffic to the site. And while initially focused on used equipment and products, Denny is considering more educational content to engage customers.

Online Parts Ordering and Customer Portals
Online parts ordering is another feature of leading dealer websites. Solutions vary among dealers but range from an online order form for parts, followed up by a phone call from sales, to a customer portal where customers can view a variety of parts catalogs and can track shipments of parts that have been ordered.

The Modern Group chose not to go completely online with parts sales for a variety of reasons. "The opportunity for mistakes is huge, so we really want a customer interaction on parts," explained Griffith. The company is in the forklift business as well as construction, where approximately 70 percent of parts are commodity parts. Griffith would rather avoid customer price-shopping on parts and doesn't want to miss out on opportunities to sell additional parts based on the salesperson's knowledge about the repair.

In contrast, Kirby-Smith's system allows purchases of online parts 24/7 through a customer portal that can be accessed by all customers. Denny believes it offers several benefits for customers. "Sometimes we get so busy in our parts department that customers have to stand in line, and they have to fight traffic. Time-wise it is more efficient online. And they can track the parts order to see where it is in the shipping process. All of a customer's machines are on their portal, so they can quickly search to find the most current parts information. Nothing is out of date."

Best Line Equipment, headquartered in State College, Pa., recently launched its new website and will soon have a portal available to all customers. According to Adam Houseknecht, who manages the company's website, Best Line customers will be able to access their accounts, see current invoices,and make adjustment to who can make purchases or rent equipment. Online purchasing or bill paying is something the company will add in the future.

The Dealer/Manufacturer Divide
The needs of dealers and manufacturers are often in conflict when designing a website. The dealer, in most cases representing multiple brands, wants to promote the dealership, while manufacturers want to promote their own brands. At Equipment Web Services, both Davis and General Manager Ricardo Porter hold strong opinions about how dealers present equipment information on their sites.

"If someone came to your store and had a question about a product, would you send them to the manufacturer for an answer?" asks Davis. "No you would probably answer it," she contends. Davis believes the same thought process should apply to your website. "There has to be a level of information on the website about those products and what they represent," said Davis.

According to Davis, dealers are going to sell the machines, and the dealer website is where the buyer needs to engage with the dealer.

For many dealers, keeping manufacturer information up-to-date on a website is a time-intensive task, but Equipment Web Services has a solution that takes that burden away.

Equipment Web Services automatically populates the dealer's site with the manufacturer's product data as well as current promotions. "That is a lot for a small company to handle," said Houseknecht, "That's a big deal."

Equipment Web Services believes it has an effective solution to the manufacturer/ dealer divide. Manufacturers are provided with dedicated real estate on the dealer's website that meets their guidelines and criteria, without impinging on the dealer's promotion of their own brand.

"I wish manufacturers had a better understanding of the value of electronic marketing," said Denny, who would like to see more co-op dollars for e-mail marketing. In the last few years Bobcat and Doosan have utilized Equipment Web Services to educate and encourage dealers, such as Best Line, to improve their presence online.

Analytics: A Window into Customer Interests
Dealers have more information than ever before to help identify customer needs and interests, but many don't take full advantage of the information provided by their staff or IT consultants. But for those who do analyze the data, it provides a window into their customers' needs. Tracking is becoming even more sophisticated and programs are now able to identify who is looking and clicking on your website in real time.

"It gives you a good feeling to know where your business is coming from and how people are finding you," said Houseknecht.

Denny at Kirby-Smith devours the website analytics he receives. "When you see those kind of numbers, you had better pay attention," said Denny. While website traffic stats are insightful, experts say dealers need to look beyond technology to convert website leads into sales. "You get a report and you end up with data-overload if you don't know what to do with it," said Porter." It must become a human transaction. That will turn into sales and revenue."

Porter believes a website is not much different than a buyer walking through your door. "At the end of the day, it is not the quantity of the page views and visitors – it's the quality of the dialogue that generates revenue and sales."

Five Website Fixes
  1. Find out who's in charge.
    It sounds simple but with downsizing, it could be that responsibilities relating to your website are unclear. Find out who is managing what and what areas have been neglected.
  2. Don't crowd the home page.
    "Don't put all your stuff in the front of the store," said Ricardo Porter, general manager of Equipment Web Services. The design should be clean and easy to follow. Allow the visitor to explore deeper, but minimize the clicks they will need to purchase or move to the next stage of the buying process.
  3. Build your in-bound links.
    The more valid sites that link to you, the more valid search engines will find your site. Links from associations such as AED or a manufacturer's site will improve the credibility of your site.
  4. Post your used equipment inventory both on classified sites and your website.
    Updating your site is one way to raise search engine rankings. Keeping your available used equipment inventory updated is essential.
  5. Focus on content that educates, rather than sells.
    Is your website about you or about the buyer? Focus on how you can help buyers with the equipment selection process. What kind of information can you provide that would help customers improve their safety record? Think of the most interesting questions that customers ask and find a way to answer them on your website. Consider using video to engage buyers.

Joanne Costin is a freelance writer and marketing consultant focusing on the construction industry. She can be reached at (847) 358-1413.
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