Smartphone apps have been available for more than 10 years, but dealer groups are starting to explore whether they can help boost consumer interaction and data.
Both Stoneacre Motor Group and TrustFord have launched apps for consumers to install on their phone, believing they offer enough benefits to make them worthwhile.
These apps are breaking new ground for automotive retail. While dealer staff have adopted apps to help them with their job roles and customer interaction, the majority of dealer groups have not looked to develop consumer-facing apps.
Apadmi, an app developer that has worked with Jaguar Land Rover and Lexus, has not seen major demand from dealer groups to create dedicated customer apps and advised any business to take time to properly research whether an app is the best way to go.
Nick Black, Apadmi chief executive, said: “An app isn’t a replacement for a website, it has to be a utility.
“An app has to solve a problem. Dealers should look at the underlying process of the customer journey to determine what an app could help with.”
Black said a bespoke app can cost upwards of £100,000. There are large dealer groups in the UK that will have marketing budgets that dwarf that, but would it be better spent on website development instead?
Nick King, Auto Trader insight director, believes so: “Apps, which require a committed consumer to narrow their search to just one dealer, are unlikely to play an important enough role in the car-buying process to warrant investment over the primary digital channels.
“So while an innovative app could perhaps complement a dealer’s website or digital marketing, a great website that is engaging and vibrant, offer lots of images and videos, and one that stocks the right cars priced according to the live retail market, will always be far more effective in driving sales.”
Some dealers may argue that it is better for manufacturers to swallow the development costs for apps.
Volkswagen has already launched an app for iOS and Android. It allows customers to add their vehicle details to make service bookings, track progress of their new car order, view their service history, track a service while it’s in the workshop, approve amber or red work and have access to their car’s manual and handbook.
The app was created by VW’s sales, marketing and aftersales departments and integrates into the back-end systems of the VW dealer network.
But does this mean the dealer is surrendering that customer relationship to the manufacturer? Who owns that data is a contentious issue for dealers, particularly with more factory-fit connected car technology coming.
Penny Searles, Smartdriverclub chief executive, believes manufacturer apps are looking to control the conversation with new car customers and perhaps dealers should be looking to enter that space to make use of their brand and reputation.
Searles acknowledged that the motor retail sector is not as well developed for apps as other sectors.
She said: “I think the reasoning behind this is the length of time between purchases or interaction.
“You’re probably interacting with Tesco once a week. Banking apps are probably used once a day. At the dealership, that time between interaction might be a lot longer.”
That is why a dealer app that offers useful weekly information to a customer could benefit the business.
Smartdriverclub offers dealers a white-label app product and Stoneacre Motor Group was one of the first dealer groups to sign up.
Stoneacre Connect works by plugging a telematics device into the on-board diagnostics (OBD) port on the group’s used vehicles. Data from the customer’s car is fed to the owner’s smartphone and to the dealership. It offers functionality to consumers that fleet drivers have seen for a while from telematics suppliers.
The device provides mileage information, fault alerts, low battery, collision and stolen vehicle alerts so dealers can proactively contact customers to offer personalised services, repairs and replacement vehicles.
Stoneacre Connect customers get 24/7 emergency assistance in the case of an accident, ‘Where’s My Car’ to help locate their vehicle if they have forgotten where it’s parked, business mileage information, theft tracking that can speed up police recovery and up to a 40% insurance discount if they want to use telematics-style insurance.
In addition, they will be able to view special deals on tyres and MOTs from Stoneacre. Dealers can interact with data from the app through an online portal.
Gerry George, Stoneacre aftersales director, said the app was developed to address a specific challenge of generating aftersales revenue from used car customers.
He said: “You can only really do that if you give your customers a very good reason to come back to you again and again.
“The beauty of Stoneacre Connect is that it benefits our customers on a number of levels – it not only makes their lives easier by helping us to be proactive in offering our services when they need them, but offers a whole range of useful additional services that currently only new car buyers can enjoy.”
Dealers using an off-the-shelf product such as Smartdriverclub can help reduce the risks associated with development costs. Dealers pay £5 a month for each customer vehicle using the app.
While Stoneacre offers the app for free, Searles said some dealers charge customers £5 a month to make it cost-neutral, with others offering to roll it into service plans as an optional extra.
Searles said a dealer can introduce a branded app in about eight weeks.
Developed from scratch
TrustFord, Ford’s retail group, developed a dedicated app with supplier App Creative from scratch in about six months.
The app can be set to remind customers of their insurance and tax renewal dates, as well as when their vehicle is scheduled for its MOT and service.
By entering the vehicle’s registration (including non-Ford vehicles), the app can provide information on recommended tyre pressure and oil type, dimensions, engine size, MPG and performance.
Users can also locate the nearest TrustFord dealership or car park, search for used car stock, and check TrustFord’s latest new car offers. The app also provides advice videos on maintenance and technology on specific models.
Julia Greenhough, TrustFord head of marketing, said the decision to develop an app wasn’t from requests by customers, but realising there was an opportunity to reinforce customer loyalty.
TrustFord’s head of product management evaluated the idea using customer research to highlight areas where customers would be interested in using app functionality.
It came up with ideas for functionality through some in-house brainstorming on what they wanted it to offer consumers and achieve for the business.
Once TrustFord had agreed what the app would do, it hired a user experience agency to research how consumers interacted with and used a rudimentary prototype.
Greenhough believes the real differentiator between the app and TrustFord’s website is the ability to use a smartphone’s native features for things such as location and navigation to show elements such as local dealership details and stock.
Greenhough said convenience is also a key benefit for app users, with the ability to book a service within three touches.
The app is introduced during the handover process. Service advisers also introduce the app to customers and outbound communications contain links to the app.
TrustFord is able to track usage through registration data and services used.
Greenhough said the app has had “thousands” of downloads since it launched in August and that TrustFord plans to add features in due course.
“We continue to see genuine advantage from an app that continues to offer customers convenience, immediacy and relevant ongoing support for their vehicle.”
The market is ready for innovators
When looking for customer service inspiration, the motor retail industry often glances across the Atlantic.
However, automotive retail apps in the US appear to have similar functionality to what Stoneacre and TrustFord have already introduced.
Additional features could include the ability to manage and track outstanding finance payments for vehicles and to store insurance documents in a dedicated place within apps. Dealers could also add an instant message-style text-to-chat function, the ability to book test drives and allow customers to request a part-exchange quote.
Nick Black, Apadmi chief executive, suggested functionality that could highlight specific models on the forecourt using GPS features, for example, leading customers directly to all automatics.
He also suggested being able to project any paint or specification combination onto a model using augmented reality on a smartphone. Volvo is already using this technology to demonstrate safety features.