Competition is rife in the automotive industry. Vehicle functionality and price within various vehicle classes are ubiquitous, leaving customers struggling to identify unique features between competing brands.
For years vehicle manufacturers have focused on increasing the quality and performance of motor cars, to the point where these factors have become a requirement, and in no way a competitive difference. The centre of focus was always "selling a car", but this may not be the case for long.
The automotive industry is, in fact, one of the few that can legitimately claim to have been impacted by the "uberisation" of its industry, and now brands not only compete with each other but also with the idea that vehicle ownership is no longer a necessity. For the past century, car buyers viewed a vehicle as something that allowed them to hit the open road and often used their brand of motor car as an expression of individuality and freedom. Modern consumers, however, are driving less and using technology more. They tend to focus on mobility and convenience as concepts that are not necessarily related to vehicle ownership; a car is just another means of transportation. This shift in consumer attitude means that now, more than ever, automotive brands need to provide an experience – not merely during the sale of a vehicle, but in every step of the customer journey to ensure that they offer an unrivaled transportation experience.
In the annual Global Automotive Consumer Study published by Deloitte Touche, consumers under the age of 35 value the customer experience three times as much as vehicle design when it comes to making a final purchase decision. The same research shows that for Gen Y, a winning dealer experience means creating more value and greater convenience across the entire life-cycle.
The challenge for dealers is to keep up with those evolving values—to make sure the experiences they offer remain aligned with the expectations of customers. The automotive customer moves through a sales journey with seven keys moments in which the overall brand experience is judged. These moments should be the focus of both customer feedback programmes and improvement projects to ensure that those seeking out experience-driven vehicle purchases find a home within the automotive brand they seek.
The Digital Experience
When today's consumers begin to consider making a vehicle purchase, the vast majority conduct most of their research online and have almost entirely made their purchase decision based on these facts before even entering a dealership. Furthermore, consumers trust online sources more than they believe dealers—so the online experience needs to live up.
Most dealerships have websites, but few are fully integrated into customers' entire experience. Preferences selected online are not remembered and shared with salespeople, chat-bots are few and far between, and pricing is often a closely guarded secret online.
The online experience should supersede the service given by the best salesperson and should enable the purchase process in its entirety.
From a Voice of the Customer measurement perspective, any online query should be followed up by a feedback survey, so that processes and user experience can be refined. The implementation of chat-bots goes a long way in engaging potential buyers, but these should be rated via feedback in order to use the feedback in machine learning updates to chat-bot functionality.
If the online experience doesn't measure up, as many as 80% of potential buyers will simply abandon the brand, assuming the vehicles themselves mirror the online experience and are not up to scratch.
Entering the dealership
The most significant opportunity for customer delights a dealership has is the space where customers can touch and feel the vehicles. Yet many prospective customers leave disappointed (and without becoming a buyer). They believe the car brand isn't for them—not because of the car, but because of the treatment they receive in the first few minutes within the dealership.
Modern customers expect a low-pressure, personalised omnichannel experience that puts them in control of the process. They receive convenient, personal service from other industries like retail, banking, and insurance; and they bring those expectations to the showroom. The real-life customer journey begins the moment the customer enters the dealership environment—the sensory experience the showroom space delivers before anyone speaks a word. Multiple factors come into play, and something as simple as an uncomfortable chair, a less-than-friendly greeting or bad coffee can ruin the entire purchase experience.
Dealers seeking to create moments of truth within their environments should seek out opportunities to delight customers within the showroom floor space (and gather feedback as to the overall dealership environment).
Talking to salespeople
Consumers see buying a car as a painful task. The popular image of the "car salesperson" has a lot to do with that. Thanks to the approximately 10 hours of research modern consumers conduct online before entering a dealership, more often than not, consumers are as knowledgeable about the vehicle they are interested in as the salesperson. Rather than taking a "hard sell" approach, today's vehicle salespeople should focus on creating the brand experience for the consumer whilst in the dealership.
Research conducted in the USA showed that less than half of all automotive customers trusted salespeople, feeling that salespeople prioritised making a sale over their best interests. Training sales employees to engage with consumers in an empathetic and professional manner that emphasises the customer experience will go a long way in improving the overall customer journey and is also likely to improve sales in the long run.
Using customer satisfaction metrics as part of salespeople's performance indicators helps balance the pursuit of targets with a healthy dose of customer-centricity. When seeking to do this, feedback must reflect the sales experience specifically, and not generalised feedback on the brand overall.
The test drive
This is the opportunity to impress a customer and make the sale. The sales channel may have been digital and remoter until this point, but here is where the sales journey becomes hands-on. Yet so often this critical moment in the customer journey is not well crafted and leaves the customer feeling let down.
For example, how much better experience is created when the drive includes a trip through a drive-thru to purchase a customer's favourite beverage, playing their preferred song.? Or when the route is customised to the customer's daily driving patterns rather than the rote "around the block" track that bears no resemblance to the customer's normal driving experience.
Customers should walk away from a test drive feeling as if the car is already theirs, having experienced the full power of both the brand and the vehicle. If the test drive fails to do so, it will roadblock the customer's purchase with more certainty than a failure in any other part of the journey.
Negotiation and purchase
All around town, customers interact with other industries that have invested in ways to make transactions more efficient. Making a vehicle purchase is no different, with research showing that customer expects this to take no longer than 30 -40 minutes. So, why then does it still take so long to go through the negotiations, paperwork, and finance department? Encouraging customers to complete paperwork online in advance is one solution, but the onus to create a seamless sale shouldn't be on them.
The challenge lies in reviewing and revamping traditional processes with a customer-centric eye and finding ways to integrate information on the customer along each prior step of the journey so that by the time a purchase decision is made, the experience from the customer's point of view becomes seamless.
Gathering feedback from customers after a successful sale (and even after an unsuccessful sale) is the ideal opportunity to get insight into the entire journey, and into specifics around the purchasing experience. This will unveil bottlenecks in process or inefficiencies that are most often causing customer dissatisfaction.
No matter how many cars a customer has purchased before, the moment of handover overshadows the sales process and is both a triumph for the retailer and a potential lifetime memory for the customer. Handing over a vehicle is the dealership's chance to do something memorable and meaningful. What's important during this experience is to step outside the more formal approach with a dash of humanity and empathy that communicates "We know this is important for you, and it's important for us too."
Not only is the vehicle delivery a singularly important moment of truth, but it is also the opportunity to secure repeat visits and future purchases. This experience doesn't end once the customer drives the vehicle off the showroom floor. During the course of the initial honeymoon continue to leverage omnichannel ways of welcoming the customer to the new car, the dealer and the brand; to get the customer engaged and adopt after-sales services, in order to drive lifetime value.
Service and the ongoing relationship
The smile and wave isn't the end of a relationship between the customer and automotive brand—it's the beginning of a service relationship. The way a dealership handles that ongoing commitment to the long-term relationship is where true customer value is created.
The long-term relationship beyond the "sale" may split into several channels, including traditional nuts-and-bolts service and an increasing online relationship. Capabilities already exist for the service department to start hearing about repair needs not from people, but directly from their cars. Personalisation is a huge driver of customer experience (and indeed the ability to upsell). Once dealerships start storing, analysing, and using customer data differently, not only will they gain a competitive advantage, but they will delight customers at every stage of the journey. For example, consider the experience created in the mind of the customer if a dealership retained the data that a customer reviewed and tested an SUV before buying their current sedan. Using this information, the dealership then offers an SUV to the customer as a service loaner during their next service. Firstly, such personalised memory from a brand creates a deep sense of connection within the customer, and secondly, the likelihood of the customer purchasing that SUV increases dramatically.
Gathering Voice of the Customer feedback along all seven stages of the automotive customer journey not only lets brands know what they are doing but also provides insight into the consumers themselves. This insight can be used to enhance the entire experience if used wisely. The habit of seeing the relationship through the customer's eyes and making the customer journey as memorable and delightful as possible is a habit that will follow automotive brands into whatever future the automotive retail industry holds in store.