By Ian Halstead
Outsourcing of dealership communications is a growth sector and it’s easy to understand why – mobile media and the demands of an age in which no one wants to wait for anything have transformed all business sectors.
A customer whose vehicle develops a problem increasingly expects something more than the once-traditional “Our working hours are from…” message, and potential buyers may well look elsewhere if they get the engaged tone too often.
Equally, dealing with an array of inquiries, and subtly extracting contact info and future requirements is a specialist skill and not something to be shoehorned into the daily duties of already pressured dealership staff.
Manufacturers and dealer groups even mystery shop their own franchises, to test response times and judge if the ‘messages’ are correct.
Armchair Answering is one of the long-time leaders in the call management market, via its Armchair Motor arm.
The Andover-based business offers both inbound and outbound services; including ‘virtual’ reception desks, service bookings, overflow call monitoring, sales promotions and MOT reminders.
Founded in 2000, it has 250 dealerships on its books, and handles about 100,000 calls on their behalf each month, according to operations director Connie Barrow, who joined the fledgling company in 2001.
“The last 12-18 months have gone very well for us,” she said. “Offering overflow services, so dealers never miss a call, have become very important, and it’s often the case that a customer asks for one service, perhaps MOT reminders, and then outsources more as they see the benefits.
“In many cases the quality of data is very poor because the sales guys are rubbish at getting all the right data and updating it” Connie Barrow, Armchair Answering
“We don’t do any cold-calling, though. We integrate into a customer’s database or their CRM system, but to be honest, in many cases the quality of data is very poor because the sales guys are rubbish at getting all the right data and updating it.”
Armchair Answering was a pioneer of remote switchboard services, originally only for sole traders who wanted to create a professional impression, even if they couldn’t get to the phone.
“We went into automotive by chance, because our previous owner could never get through to his Mercedes-Benz dealership as it was always engaged. Now a significant number of clients are AM100 dealers, because of the pressure they are under to deliver high-quality services,” said Barrow.
“We took on one dealer this year as a sales promotion trial, got 300 leads for them and they sold 40 cars, which was the best campaign we’ve ever done. It was a very strong brand, and they did have a lot of good offers, but even so, it does show what might be achieved.
“Two years ago, we opened a 24/7 call centre, and although there hasn’t been a huge demand, some dealerships want their customers to always have an immediate response. We’ve also just started offering ‘live chat’ and that is being very well received.
“We are very competitive on price, but I think delivery is equally important. If a dealership is losing potential business or customers, it needs to do something different, and when they start outsourcing calls, they very quickly realise what value we can add.”
Burgess Hill-based BDM Voice has specialised in automotive call management since being established in 2002.
Major accounts manager Tony Pinnick, who has spent more than 30 years in telecoms, says it has almost 100 dealership clients across the UK, which he reckons places it in the top three.
It works with several AM100 top 25 dealer groups, and has had a long-term relationship with one volume manufacturer, supporting its entire dealer network.
“We started looking at dealer principals, sales managers and executives, and how their staff answered phone calls,” said Pinnick.
“It was clear that most people didn’t like this aspect of work, it wasn’t their core expertise, and no one would claim it was supposed to be.
“Staff answering calls were under real pressure to convert inquiries into genuine prospects, but the results were mixed. Some used their own call centres, with a degree of success, but across the industry, we identified a need for a specialist outsourced service.
“It’s been very popular; the cost is known in advance, customers can easily judge how successful we have been and our staff are also trained to acquire data from callers. We always aim to get mobile contact numbers, for example, so we can then pass on ‘warm and qualified’ leads.
Pinnick also believes dealerships appreciate the flexibility that outsourced call services can offer at times of peak demand, so they don’t have to ask more from their own staff.
“It could be new plate time, a product launch, or any kind of dealer event which requires outbound calls, and again, this is a core skill for our people, and it’s a task taken away from under-pressure dealership staff,” he said.
“We integrate our software into a dealership’s CRM system, and also deploy our staff on a customer’s site initially, so they learn about that particular business, and acquire local knowledge.
“It could be something as basic as knowing the local bus routes, so that when staff at our call centre are talking to a dealer’s customers, they feel like a genuine extension of that business.
”Often, franchises come to us for specific support; perhaps a sales drive, a need to have their own data analysed, or an assessment of how they capture that data. Looking ahead, I expect that trend to be strengthened, but some major dealers will also constantly enhance how their own call centres operate too.”
The newest player in the sector is Wrexham-based Moneypenny, named after James Bond’s devoted and long-suffering, but always reliable, secretary.
It has been trading since 2000, and currently handles about 9.5 million calls a year for almost 8,000 UK customers, but only recently targeted the motor industry. It recruited business development manager Joanne McKeown, who has spent 17 years in the sector, including a decade with Ford, to spearhead its new business drive.
“We’re the largest call management provider in the UK, and quite possibly in Europe, but we’ve only got 13 automotive brands as customers at the moment,” said managing director Glenn Jackson. “We’re working hard to prove that we can deliver the ROI which dealerships need, but it’s still relatively early days.
“However, we work successfully across a wide range of sectors, and we are confident our offer will be appealing in automotive. We’ve been going through dealer councils, and giving people a free trial to see what we can do.
“Looking ahead, we think automotive can become one of our major sectors. We understand that each brand is different, but in general, are finding that automotive has been behind the game with regard to what value call management providers can add.
“At the moment, we are not making outbound calls for automotive clients, because our forte has always been handling inbound calls. We specialise in recording details from customers, and prospective ones, and then gradually building up that data.
“It might be, for example, that a customer mentions they are starting a family. That information would be saved, so in the future, the dealership might suggest they consider a larger vehicle, or a 4x4 model.
“It doesn’t matter what sector you are in, capturing and retaining data which helps you retain customers and develop new ones is absolutely critical. We’ve already done better than expected, after such a short time in automotive, so we are very confident about our ability to attract more dealerships.”