As consumers change their research habits before making a car purchase, the pressure is mounting on dealer groups to exploit new technology to the full.
Manufacturers are making it possible to configure and buy a car online or even examine, test drive and purchase a vehicle during a trip to a shopping mall, making the internet a key battleground in a dealer’s attempt to make the most of potential customers’ first point of contact.
With some industry experts warning that an unattractive or poorly functioning website will prompt consumers to simply search for an alternative outlet, many are acknowledging that the time has come to make shrewd decisions about their online presence.
An attractive homepage is one thing, but with innovations such as user-friendly finance calculators, service booking, click-and-collect services and live chat all becoming key website components, what functions are truly essential to attract and engage a customer, while fulfilling their buying or research requirements, to ensure your dealership is the destination where their online journey ends?
Lauren Cooke, marketing manager at Bluesky Interactive, the dealer digital marketing specialist, said the ability to tailor searches to suit a customer’s lifestyle was key to the effectiveness of a website as a lead management tool.
She said: “Searches need to be more flexible and more intelligent. It is important to facilitate your customers’ behaviours, rather than dictate how they should search.
“Lifestyle search is likely to grow as people become more focused on needs rather than specific cars” Lauren Cooke, Bluesky Interactive
“While customers are very familiar with Auto Trader-style search, we think dealers should pay attention to making it even better, such as by adding the ability to search for multiple makes and models at the same time.
“Lifestyle search is likely to grow as people become more focused on needs rather than specific cars.
However, Cooke warned, that the search function must be “actually useful and not just gimmicky”.
She added: “Intelligence will play a big role throughout websites in 2016. Lead-profiling tools like Autochart will help dealers know what their customers searched for and looked at before they enquired in the showroom.
Cooke said Bluesky is advising dealers to “digitally empower” their sales teams.
“Equip them with iPads and in-dealership screens, let them communicate with customers by sending car details to their mobile phones, and also encourage them to research leads online via social media and LinkedIn.
“It may sound creepy, but having an insight into the profile of an enquirer when dealing with them can really help to facilitate a sale.”
Jaguar Land Rover’s 208 UK dealers are among those adopting iPad-based technology pioneered by developer EnquiryMAX, which allows sales staff to access details of customers’ website activity, including searches, via a tablet, on the forecourt.
They can also log customer details from anywhere in the dealership in a less formal fashion than the traditional desk-based data input.
More than 60 of Marshall Motor Group’s dealerships will soon be using the web-linked lead management tool, with RRG Group, Stoneacre and Harwoods planned to follow.
Vee24 is another business aiming to fully exploit online customer contact points to generate leads for sales staff. It has worked with Sytner, Swansway Group, Peter Vardy and Halliwell Jones to develop a live video chat function.
“If you know that you can afford £250 to £300 per month, it makes sense for this to be the basis of your search”
James Tew, iVendi
Expanding on the increasingly popular text chat facilities available on many websites, Vee24’s system offers customers the option of being guided through a car configurator, finance application, or guided to the dealership via an on-screen chat with a trained operator.
Operators can see what the customer is looking at online, but cannot see them, avoiding potential privacy concerns.
The application was first used in retail by high street brands including Schuh, Wickes and Kurt Geiger.
Nigel Thomas, Vee24’s vice president of sales, claimed that one in three people who click on the live chat option will go on to visit the dealership for a test drive.
Thomas, who was previously behind the Portfolio Europe business sold to Manheim in 2004, said: “We consider ourselves more of a lead-generating concierge service than anything else. Our call centre staff have some training, but are more facilitators to guide customers through a website, help with searches and put them in touch with the dealer.
“It’s a customer-focused approach that produces results and with most people now making just 1.4 visits to a showroom before buying a car, on average, we provide the initial hook that can ensure they follow up their online enquiry.”
With reduced dealership footfall becoming commonplace as customers do much of their research at home, Autoweb Design director Peter Fairfield believes using the internet to boost aftersales is becoming a key feature for many of its clients.
Fairfield said dealers should consider adding online booking functionality for servicing or hire cars and tyre search functionality, which can boost aftersales by providing customers with real-time information about the appropriate tyres for their vehicle. Customers should also be able to book fitting online.
Finance integration “delivering real-time finance quotes and options” and an online car valuation functionality linked to CAP data, were also key functional components for customers researching a new car purchase.
Fairfield believes fresh content, such as blogs or multimedia offerings, are a good idea for dealers.
“Manufacturers don’t want innovation and competition online. The internet is the perfect place for a price war and that’s
the last thing they want” Julian Perry, Denison Automotive
“Areas enabling a regular stream of fresh content benefit organic search rankings. Multimedia content – demonstrating the desirability of vehicles – will again benefit SEO,” he said.
According to James Tew, chief executive at iVendi, the ability to easily search cars in terms of their possible monthly cost is rapidly becoming the most essential part of any dealer website.
He said the technology now exists to make it available across searches covering thousands of dealers.
Based on usage of iVendi’s Quoteware online finance calculator, Tew said about two thirds of consumers will opt for monthly payments as their key search criteria where it is available.
“If you know that you can afford £250 to £300 per month, it makes sense for this to be the basis of your search. We very much live in a pay-monthly society and this is how many consumers think today when purchasing a car.
“The use of payments search has until now been effectively limited to individual dealer or dealer group websites. Soon, this picture will change when Quoteware becomes available on a major car portal for the first time.”
Tew said the move towards PCP financing has made such a search facility more relevant to customers, and despite “some major technical challenges for the team here at iVendi”, he believes the results “will potentially be extremely impressive”.
Julian Perry, managing director of Denison Automotive, a web design and digital marketing specialist, is not sure a “killer app” exists for car dealers’ websites and believes a lack of desire for genuine innovation and concerns over the potential for an “online price war” have left the automotive sector lagging behind other industries.
He said: “The industry is controlled by the manufacturers and they want things to stay largely as they are. They don’t want innovation and competition online. The internet is the perfect place for a price war and that’s the last thing they want.
“Live chat and video content are prevalent on dealer websites, but, ultimately, the best way for dealers to establish contact with their local community may still be through social media.
“That way, they maintain control of their identity, do their own thing, and really create their own community away from the controls of a manufacturer.”
Denison Automotive believes customer service has to be at the core of any online offering, which means a variety of services must be available in one place.
If a dealership’s site is to maintain the attention of a customer, it must be able to offer the services expected by anyone walking through the showroom door, including stock searches, service booking and finance offers.
After Autotrader reported that 41% of consumer interactions across automotive websites were made using a smartphone – compared with just 5% three years ago – the need for website optimisation is just as important.
Perry said: “The problem is that all these functions have their own hurdles in terms of system integration and a fully smartphone-compatible new site might take four years to develop, so many dealers still don’t have sites that work well on a range of platforms.”