Car dealerships need to start gathering more customer data earlier in the sales cycle and use the resulting insight to improve customer experience

By Paul Smith, Director, Traka Automotive

The New Year is always a good opportunity to examine the workings of your dealership as a whole: identifying things which are working well and spotting opportunities for further improvement. One area that I’m hearing a lot about right now and which is likely to warrant closer attention in 2017 is improving customer experience.

For many DPs, today, customer experience is all about getting those CSI scores up enough to hit manufacturers’ targets for bonuses. But surely customer experience goes way beyond tick box customer satisfaction levels which is what CSI, NPS and other scoring systems collect? In a homogenous market place, customer experience is a critical differentiator to ensure customers come to you and keep coming back in the future.

It should extend to gathering data from would-be customers at every touchpoint, recognising that this data has value - just as the customer will have value when he buys. For this to work well, it’s important to look at every opportunity to gather data about a customer’s car-related interests and preferences.

So, one example of how this might work is in the online ‘car configurator’ which most manufacturers (but not enough dealerships) now offer online. The data collected here is extremely valuable in that it should indicate price range, make, model, as well as preferred spec, including in-car and finance options being considered.

Once this work is done, it would not be unexpected for the person having completed configuration of their dream car, to want to test drive it for real. To do that today he or she will, in the main, need to go through to a car dealership to book the test drive. But is your dealership well-placed to harvest these leads and can it get access to the associated data that is collected in these configurators?

How many dealerships today even ensure they have access to the configurator data to make sure that the vehicle that is organised for the test drive is set up in the way that the customer seemed to prefer online? If this all sounds tricky, it’s worth considering putting an automated process around the test drive to marry up data from the configurator as closely as possible to available demo stock and offering test drive appointment options to the customer in a more automated way.

Managers could then keep an eye on the process to see how many appointments are going ahead as planned and what percentage of the test drives are putting customers into their preferred vehicle. Here surely is not only a great opportunity to impress the customer, but also a clear opportunity to close more sales?

The agent involved can also input data following the test drive if the customer was satisfied or wanted other options, or to see different models. Again, a digital process could be put in to get feedback from those taking test drives via their channel of choice. This feedback could then help direct the next communication….and so on through the customer journey.

Marketing theorists today talk a lot about the ‘Voice of the Customer’ (VoC) being at the heart of great customer experience or ‘CX’. The idea is that you capture all interactions with the customer regardless of channel (email, Twitter, Facebook, phone, face to face) - using the resulting insight to do a slicker, more joined up job for the customer.

All too often today there are gaps on the car buyer’s customer journey, lay-bys, and opportunities to exit the sales process. 2017’s goal should be to investigate those gaps and close them. Otherwise your manufacturer(s) will progressively start closing your future customers out themselves as more and more aspects of the customer journey happens online through their increasingly sophisticated websites.

One article I read recently, lauded the focus on customer experience by the likes of Elon Musk, founder of Tesla and Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon. A recurring theme from these business superstars is their lightening reaction to customer feedback – particularly if it’s a complaint which can be acted on to improve customer experience.  

Elon Musk, for example, solves customer problems directly by rolling his sleeves up, listening and responding to customer complaints which increasingly come in direct via Social Media channels. This is what happened back in December on Twitter:

Elon Musk Twitter Feed

Within hours Elon Musk has responded direct to the customer and within six days a new system had been put in to stop charging stations being abused for parking by charging car owners $0.40 per minute if their cars were left at these charging bays once the cars were already fully charged (after a short grace period to allow users to get back to their cars after the ‘fully charged’ alerts had come across via their mobile phone).

This surely is a perfect example of customer experience. It is a combination of listening effectively to the customer, prioritisation of customer feedback and taking positive action to improve things.

So as more of the sales process goes online, this does not mean that the dealership needs to lose contact with their prospects. If anything, it is the reverse: there is a clear opportunity to garner more insight into interested prospects long before they reach the dealership.

If car buyers are spending more time harvesting information and getting pricing online, is that because they don’t trust dealership staff to give them the information they need? Do they fear being overloaded with information or being ‘upsold’ into features and options they really do not want? Sadly, the answer to some of these questions is still ‘yes’ and it’s high-time dealers did something to combat this perception and (sometimes) reality.

In short, car buyers want more control over the purchase process and they are getting this control by arming themselves to the teeth with information before they arrive on your forecourt. So surely the best response from dealers is:

  1. Stimulate additional opportunities to gather more customer data
  2. Turn that data into insight which you can act on, closing out gaps in the customer journey, tightening feedback loops to hours not weeks (or not at all)
  3. Simplify the sales process, reducing aggressive sales techniques, and increasing your ability to listen to the customer rather than sell at him/her, or worse - leave him confused and unmotivated to buy.

Furthermore, the value and purpose of that feedback loop does not stop with you selling the car to that happy customer. With improvements in remote diagnostics platforms for new cars, there are now big opportunities for service departments to use data coming back from cars’ usage stats, to push service request messages direct to the customer.  

These systems can now calculate, based on typical mileage usage, when that set of tyres needs replacing or routine maintenance exercise carried out. Offering service date and time options (in line with known availability and preferences) through a new service booking app might be another innovation worth implementing to help close this particular loop out and keep your, now loyal, customers smiling.

Once you begin looking at it the opportunities to turn customer data into knowledge and insight and, by stages, positive customer experiences which enhance your brand(s) and keep them coming back to you forever, you pretty quickly realise they are legion.