When it comes to new in-car tech capabilities, the auto industry has been getting rapidly up to speed. Touchscreen displays are becoming feature-rich (and getting bigger too), with haptic feedback3D touch surface display and AR screens for hazard warnings. Voice tech is set to transform the way we interact with our vehicles – BMW, for example, are integrating Alexa into their newest models right now. Parking cameras and lane assist technologies are becoming commonplace, taking the pain out of the least pleasurable moments of driving. And, given the level of press coverage and hype, even autonomous cars almost sound like old news.

The wider auto industry customer service touchpoints, however, lag behind. In particular, when it comes to the purchasing process. Dealerships and auto brands’ own websites haven’t caught up with changing behaviour amongst car buyers. In the UK, as little as 17 per cent of customers think car brands websites are useful, but as much as 40 per cent expect to buy a car online in the near future. And in the US, a recent Temkin Customer Experience Ratings survey of 20 different industries saw auto dealers dropping more than any other, to rank in 12th place overall.

With customers no longer considering dealerships to be the main source of knowledge, and online car buying becoming increasingly popular, will physical car dealerships become obsolete? We’re seeing the number of vehicle purchases falling each year —in September 2017 new car sales dropped by 9%. Political and economic uncertainty, the advent of the experience economy, and the growth of ride-sharing apps like Uber or Lyft are all playing a role. Although car sales are slowly gaining strength this year, auto brands need to try harder than ever to be first choice for future car buyers.

How can auto brands and dealerships remain competitive?

Flexibility is key

Short answer – be flexible. Consumer behaviour has changed rapidly in recent years (learn more about the changing needs of car buyers in our auto booklet The Future of Auto: Engaging Tomorrow’s Car Buyers in the Experience-led Economy), and this will continue in response to new tech advancement and societal changes. Which is why flexibility is key – not only when it comes to how quickly you can react to evolving customer needs, but the capabilities and potential to implement new solutions. To avoid costly redevelopment, it’s imperative that any new technology need to be implemented in a way that allows for quick, easy and low budget changes in the future.

It’s a reviewer’s world.

Reviewers might rule the world, but it’s time to start looking at them as an opportunity to build trust through transparency. Technologies such as CarGurus’ Instant Market Value (IMV) or NADA help consumers find the best deal based on their specific criteria. Powerful search with relevant filtering options, location-based prices, and notifications on new listings have all contributed to their success. It’s not always the lowest price car buyers seek, quality and trustworthiness are vital too. 62% of CarGurus shoppers said that knowing that a [used] car really works makes them more confident to buy it. Incorporating user reviews and price comparison into both digital and physical environments will help to put customer needs first, while building trust and loyalty.

Be Personal

‘Personalisation is king’ may be one of those marketing buzz phrases no one wants to hear anymore, but it holds a lot of truth. Customer relationships that last are build on the foundational principles of contextuality and relevancy. Whether through website content, in-app notifications, customer service assistance or sales people at a dealership – data-led personalisation can empower auto brands and car dealership to deliver exactly what a customer needs – when (and where) it matters most. But personalisation is not just about delivering the right offers and communication at the right time – it’s also about the right tone of voice that speaks to the consumers. As Nick King, Auto Trader’s Insight Director, said:

“(...) at a time when car buyers have so much choice, creating a rich, jargon-free digital experience is vital in not only standing out in an increasingly competitive market, but also converting a visit to a sale.”

Drive the convergence of the digital and physical environments

Gone are the times when dealerships were the main source of car information. We do the majority of our pre-purchase research online, which massively changes the roles dealerships play.

Auto brands need to adapt to changing pre-purchase needs. Enhancing physical spaces with knowledge-led digital solutions is one way forward. On the flipside, developing an improved online car buying experience, with easy transitions between devices and environments, will help too. Industry leaders like Tesla, Audi or Seat are already reinventing the showroom experience to merge digital and physical experiences. In the UK, Seat recently opened a small space in White City’s Westfield shopping centre. With just four cars on show, it’s relying on a web strategy and its self-declared in-house ‘product experts’ instead of sales people to ship a new Seat.

It’s a sign that industry investment is moving in a new direction, one where detailed product knowledge comes above conventional selling tactics, and physical product is not necessarily vital in order to provide a rich, exploratory experience.

Taking customer service to the next level

Lexus’s Service Connect system gives car owners a monthly health report, providing answers to questions like “What does that light mean?” or “When should my next tire rotation be?”. But the potential is bigger. Anticipating the needs of customers and providing personalised experience from the moment customer makes the first contact, up until the next purchase should be on top of any auto brand’s priority list.

From personalisation to the smart use of machine learning or AI-enabled chatbots, the opportunities to build a more compelling customer journey are huge. Predictive analytics could help to anticipate the need for repairs before the car breaks, and personalisation could ensure the relationship stays relevant and contextual throughout the customer lifecycle.

As customers, we increasingly expect seamless omnichannel experiences at every stage of our journey. Digitalising some of our traditionally physical experiences – in user-centred, effective ways – is a must, and accessible solutions to help people manage their car driving experience with minimal effort is high on the list. Although some auto brands have already taken a big step towards enhancing their customer experience beyond manufacturing and in-car innovations, more can be done to deliver the best-in-class experiences customers increasingly demand at every step of their journey.

Interested to learn more about innovating the auto experience? We have a series of articles that will help you learn more about the future of the auto sector:

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