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The changing nature of the automotive customer service

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According to the professional services firm Deloitte, the basic expectations people are bringing to automobile are being rewritten by forces like shared mobility and autonomous driving. It is even possible, the firm says, that in the future, people could purchase mobility, to which buying a car has always been a means, without ever having to buy a car at all.

“In time, adapting and surviving in this new environment will require dealers to revisit their entire business models,” Deloitte says in a paper titled “Automotive customer service becomes a relationship-based consumer experience.” But the firm notes that the future vision for today is the direct-to-consumer sale.

“The seven key moments in a customer’s sales journey are the foundations of that new strategy. Once those moments are defined, companies need to think about the processes, environment, and people involved in each one, so each element adds value that customers appreciate instead of turning them away,” the firm explains.

Those key moments begin with the digital experience of learning about vehicles by brand, feature and price. And yet, Deloitte says, even though dealerships have websites, only a few of these sites are integrated into the entire experience.

“As a result, consumers’ research actions taken on the OEM or a third-party site are not learned, remembered, nor used to make for a seamless transition,” the firm says. What’s more, the websites need to be mobile-friendly. And Deloitte says having a dedicated app is no longer a “wishful extravagance” but a “business necessity” that must link to the overall omni-channel experience.

The next key moment is coming into the dealership, and Deloitte notes that the biggest point of differentiation that a dealership has is the space where customers touch, feel and drive the vehicles. It can be easy to mess this process up, though.

“An indifferent receptionist, a pushy salesperson, or a poorly maintained environment signals to the prospective customer that a dealership isn’t for them,” the firm says. “Customers expect a low-pressure, personalized omni-channel experience that puts them in control of the process.” A customer’s first visit to a dealership has to be good, and in ensuring that, it is useful to ask this question: “Will visiting the dealership be the most hectic part of the day, or an oasis of calm that promotes decision-making?”

Deloitte says the need for a positive environment applies to the digital realm as well. “The first impression of the dealer environment is often established online, so it is critical that the digital and physical environments are in sync and focused on delivering a great experience.”

When it comes to talking to the salespeople, making the conversation less awkward and painful should be the goal. “It can help if the first people customers interact with aren’t necessarily salespeople,” Deloitte says.

The firm continues: “Greeters who introduce the dealership and help customers find their way can be friendly, knowledgeable — and not incentivized to sell. Personality and attitude trumps automotive experience in hiring these people.”

The fourth moment in the sales journey — test drive — is a great opportunity to make a positive impression on a customer and, ultimately, make the sale. Deloitte says that even though sales channel may have been digital and the nature of ownership may evolve, the test drive is always the “hands-on tipping point.”

Nevertheless, getting something wrong in this critical moment is possible “Out of the gate, the customer experience can suffer if the salesperson tries to qualify buying ability before handing over the keys,” Deloitte says.

But the test drive process can always be improved, and Deloitte notes that several of the leading practices it has observed include taking customers through a drive-thru to purchase their drinks, playing their preferred songs and customizing the test drive route based on their daily driving patterns. The firm points out, “Customers should walk away from a test drive feeling as if the car is already theirs. That can keep them from looking elsewhere.”

In terms of negotiation and purchase, Deloitte has found that Gen Y consumers, people born between 1977 and 1994, want an efficient purchase process. It is only imperative then to keep the paperwork to a minimum. “Encouraging customers to complete paperwork online in advance is one solution, but the onus shouldn’t be on them,” Deloitte says.

The firm has observed retailers moving to a consultative selling model: from start to finish, a customer interacts with just one person, an arrangement that can add efficiency for both parties. It also notes that some are testing the one-price approach. “No negotiation, no haggling. The intent is to let customers know they are getting the best deal. It also saves a lot of time. But for customers to trust the price, they must first trust the person who is offering it,” Deloitte says.

Vehicle delivery is the second to the last moment in a customer’s sales journey. “The moment that crowns the sales process is a triumph for the retailer and a potential lifetime memory for the customer,” Deloitte says. But the handing over of a vehicle also presents a chance for a dealership to do something memorable and meaningful.

Some of the things a dealership can do: tweet its congratulations, send the buyer a token gift or take a photo of the moment. “What’s important is to step outside the business frame of mind with a little artistry that says, I know this is important for you, and it’s important for us too,” Deloitte says.

“The retailer will want to see these people again — and in a future colored by car-sharing and other changes to the ownership tradition, it will want to see them more often,” it adds.

The firm says a smile and a wave do not signal the end of a sales relationship, only the beginning of a service relationship, the seventh critical moment. “The way a retailer handles that ongoing commitment is a rehearsal for the more flexible, long-term relationships that will mark the future of the industry,” it says.

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