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Dealerships re-evaluate how best to interact with customers

AM contributor Debbie Kirlew at Jemca ToyotaThe global pandemic has changed how business is conducted in every sector across the world. But for automotive retailers, where face-to-face has maintained its potency even in the digital age, it has resulted in a huge transformation.

Traditionally, car buyers would be invited on site for a test drive as soon as possible, even if the bulk of the research and enquiry journey had taken place digitally.

Key to strengthening relationships during the ownership cycle, service customers were always encouraged to come in, but now we have to keep our distance.

In fact, as I write, I am sat in my own pod in Jemca Toyota’s Edgware Road service centre.

Previously, my car would have been parked for me and I would be shown into a communal waiting area. Today, I parked the car myself and was shown to a service advisor ensconced in his own booth via a one-way system with my place to stand marked out and my facemask in place. A very different experience.

However, staggered and specific appointments mean my car will be completed within a set timeframe, limiting my time in the centre so I can better plan my day.

Toyota Edgware Road is part of the Jemca Car Group with 11 Toyota and Lexus centres in and around London. Delighting customers in the coronavirus era has been delivered both physically and digitally.

AM contributor Debbie Kirlew in a social distanced customer pod at Jemca ToyotaOpening from 7am until 8pm helps spread appointment times, giving customers confidence to visit but is also alleviating staffing issues.

General manager Diana Mackinnon said: “Following reopening, we were sending customers away because we didn’t have enough sales people. Now we have recruited additional team members and introduced four shift patterns to cover the extended opening and weekends.

“Coronavirus gave us the opportunity to press the restart button. We have done away with the fixed day off during the week which for a sales team of our size was causing problems before the pandemic. Together with sickness, holidays and training, having a fifth of sales executives on their fixed day off meant we could be operating at less than a third of the team. The new shift pattern means we can deliver a higher level of customer service because we are better managing our resources.”

The sales team has also embraced the virtual appointment. Utilising Microsoft Teams on their iPads already in use, sales executives are providing vehicle walk-rounds without the need for a site visit.

Mackinnon added: “Retail was moving in that direction, anyway, but the pandemic has moved it along at a rate of knots. Around 75% of virtual appointments result in a physical visit so they haven’t been replaced, but it is helping to move people along the sales process at a distance.”

Group-wide, the digital marketing team has enhanced the business’ online presence including hosting the Toyota network’s first virtual unveil. A sophisticated, high-tech 3D virtual rendering of the newly launched Yaris was created, allowing browsers to explore the car from all angles and focus on specific design details otherwise only achievable through a full video shoot. A targeted Facebook campaign yielded 191,558 impressions with a reach of 102,222, netting 1,298 link clicks.

Group digital and social media manager Thomas Gilpin said: “The model has been put in front of an incredible number of people who may otherwise have not taken a look.”

At Luscombe’s Suzuki, Mitsubishi and MG dealership, video calls are made via Whats App, Facetime and Zoom on a grander scale. Part-exchange appraisals and option discussions are still face-to-face, but by video which is proving better than email. Other initiatives include a pre-visit video for service customers explaining where to drop the car off and the measures taken to keep customers and staff safe.

A technician’s appraisal video for used cars has also been introduced, providing additional confidence in the car under consideration. 

Managing director Robin Luscombe said: “We have had great feedback from these and it has significantly improved contactless sales. We mix the new digital bit with the old fashioned, friendly people bit. It is still very much led by the people in the business, but utilising digital. Digital car retailers can’t do that because they are sat in an office and they can’t show someone around the car digitally nor can they appraise a car. 

“If the customer is having a video conversation with the salesperson and they ask specific questions, the sales person can show them as part of the call. It’s a blend of both worlds and it will be here to stay.”

At Devonshire Motors, managing director Nathan Tomlinson and his team have adapted its personal and bespoke customer care resulting in an even more individualistic approach where employees really listen to a customer’s needs.

Tomlinson said: “At the end of March everything we took for granted in terms of providing a hosted customer experience changed. But what absolutely didn’t change, and, in fact, has become even more important, is familiarity, trust and empathy.

Nathan Tomlinson, owner and dealer principal, Devonshire Motors“Almost every customer is different – in terms of their expectations and also in terms of their requirements. By continuing to be personal and tailoring everything we do to suit each individual, rather than implementing an across the board approach, we have seen exceptional customer feedback and built stronger relationships than ever.

“Digital has played a huge part in providing a great customer experience and we have been keen to prove that digital can be personal and bespoke too.”

The business has not introduced full end-to-end solutions since its customers found fully automated online processes uncomfortable and difficult to trust. Instead, consumers are provided with all the tools and information online with full transparency and the ability to go as far along the process digitally as they like with the option to switch at any time.

Digitally, Devonshire Motors is available up to 10pm every night of the week to provide bespoke quotes, offers and guidance while home or work test drives are available seven days a week. The enquiry and order stages are further supported by Marketing Delivery, enabling automated communications to blend seamlessly with the personal touch which has proved invaluable in bolstering its contactless customer experience.

John Clark Motor Group has ramped up its use of CitNOW’s suite of video products to enhance its contactless customer experience, including preparing customers for unaccompanied test drives by showing the car’s controls and features and responding to queries without physical contact.

Colin McAllister, group training and development manager, said: “With Live (CitNOW’s live chat video tool), salespeople can really show their true personality and connect with customers as they would in the showroom.

“The whole sales process is shortened and sped up, arriving at the final stages of a transaction far more quickly.”

The first time sales manager Craig Oliver used Live at Volvo Edinburgh, the customer placed the deposit on a £45k car in the showroom on the call.

He said: “I performed a walkaround, explained a few key features and benefits and handled any objections on the spot.”

The group is about to pilot CitNOW’s new desktop application which allows a sales executive to go through vehicle details with a customer remotely, sharing on screen the vehicle configurator and specifications, as well as finance options.

McAllister added: “We have lots of customers who live a two-or-three-hour drive away, so it makes a huge difference being able to do all this at a distance.”

This article first appeared in the September issue of AM magazine, which is available to read for free here in digital format.

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