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Six ways car dealers can excel in customer service

customer headshots

Treating your customers in a way that will keep them coming back is a non-stop process, so we solicited some advice for dealers.


1: Concentrate on the journey, not the destination

The first and most important step to delivering excellent customer service is to realise that it is a never-ending  process of continuous improvement.

Everyone who has bought goods or services, online or offline, knows the feel-good factor of encountering a business model that really works in their favour… and the dispiriting sensation of using one that doesn’t.

In the digital world, most customers are footloose, and if they don’t feel comfortable with the environment in a dealership, they are likely to walk.

Equally, progress isn’t achieved by reciting the latest buzz-words (transparency, digital parity, peer-to-peer service techniques, etc.) – but then failing to ensure that the concepts are both fully understood and correctly implemented.

A dealer principal may have a burning desire to introduce free-flowing conversations between sales staff and would-be buyers, but the impact will be diluted if less committed individuals default to their traditional scripts.

When service enhancements are delivered correctly, they must also be regularly monitored by either internal or external assessors, and fine-tuned to suit the changing preferences of customers.

This is true even at the micro-level. Installing a coffee machine by the reception desk will be welcomed by most visitors, but not if the coin slot regularly jams. Better to suck up the cost of providing lattes, teas and water – and set the machine on ‘free’.


2: Benchmark your customer service skills

Realising the scale of the challenge is a critical step, and the Institute of Customer Service’s (ICS) annual assessment of satisfaction levels across 13 strategic sectors makes an excellent starting point.

Its latest study put automotive in sixth place across more than 30 metrics of customer satisfaction. It was below the all-sector average in six of those metrics, including on-time delivery and check-out process – both for online sales.

Intriguingly, the research suggested complaints by customers fell in the last year, and that satisfaction with how complaints were handled rose.

Jo Causon, the chief executive of the ICS, highlighted analysis showing that 58.7% of automotive customers favoured a balance between service and price, and were not prepared to compromise on the former in pursuit of the latter.

“We see significant opportunities for organisations that consistently deliver higher standards of service than their competitors,” she said.

“In general, the sector is still above the UK average, but hasn’t jumped hugely, although organisations with high levels of customer satisfaction tend to have higher productivity, revenue and profitability.”

Causon said a clear correlation exists between outstanding customer service and customer trust, and this leads to higher levels of repeat purchases and positive endorsements. Among the issues that she said enhance customer service were the ease of doing business, the staff’s problem-solving abilities and product knowledge, and timeliness.

“We believe organisations looking to deliver better service levels should compare themselves with the best in all sectors, not simply the best in their own,” she said.


3: Help customers to share their experiences in measured and meaningful ways

JudgeService specialises in analysing feedback from car buyers, so it’s no surprise that Neil Addley, the company’s managing director, identifies ‘digital’ channels as the most important routes to achieving loyal customers.

“Everyone talks about customer loyalty, but to me it’s more than that, it’s about advocacy. Every person in a dealership team needs to be a marketeer, and they need to get every single micro-moment right, or there’s a danger that people will become detractors to that business,” he said.

“Customers, or potential customers, are on different (digital) platforms all the time, and many will air their grievances about a dealership, even if it’s only about the coffee. Your staff must help people to share their experiences, and to do so in measured and meaningful ways.

“Of course, you always get naysayers, but they soon get left behind. I remember when email was new, and some people thought it wasn’t worth trying. It’s human nature to get ‘early’ and ‘late’ adopters, and some always huff and puff when things are new and require a bit of effort.

“It doesn’t matter if you are a major PLC, or an owner-managed dealership – adopting and embracing the opportunities of digital is about leadership and focus.”

The Harrogate-based organisation recently hired an analyst to look at links between past and future behavioural patterns by car buyers.

“If you get things right on day one, what impact might that have two or three years down the line?” muses Addley.

“Some people ask which platform to use, and the answer is always the one which their customers are inclined to use. How do dealership staff know? My preferred option is just to ask. It’s evolution within the sales process.”


4: Put people before process

Realising that people matter more than process is a crucial step, according to Karl Davis, the managing director and founder of Coachworks Consulting, a specialist agency for delivering sustainable performance improvements in the automotive industry.

Coachworks has advised 130 dealer groups and manufacturers and Davis has worked in the sector for 37 years, so his observations are underpinned by solid foundations.

“The foundation for great customer service is having an engaged workforce. The starting point for effective engagement – which unfortunately is often missed – is to always put human interest first, and the process second,” he said.

“I realise the automotive sector is increasingly process-centric, as it has to be, but equally, it is people who make the vital difference. Sadly, manufacturers often miss the ‘softer’ issues.

“When I began work in this sector, the return on sales was typically 1%, and all these years later that has barely changed, so we have to improve.”

Davis said the obsession with process can even affect aftersales, and cites one German marque whose customer service operations Coachworks analysed via mystery shoppers. “Owners had to spend 16 minutes online just to book their vehicle in,” he said.

Putting people first can take many different forms, he believes.

“It could mean getting to know your own people better, or discovering more about your customers, or both. It might be tailoring a product demo to an individual’s needs, or ensuring your recruitment is designed to

identify customer-centric people, and you then give them the support they need,” said Davis.


5: Happier workers = happier customers

The UK’s biggest provider of phone-answering services believes creating an environment where people really want to work is the biggest step in delivering great customer service.

Moneypenny has made much of the staff-centric design of its £15 million head office, which opened in Wrexham in mid-2016, and is now home to 600 workers.

The 100,000 sq ft building includes a tree-house meeting room, in-house pub (the Dog & Bone), nature trails and fitness classes.

Joanna Swash, Moneypenny’s managing director, said: “We did everything we could to make this a happy place to work, and the results are tangible. Our annual absenteeism rate is under 2%, and staff turnover is under 5%. Our people stay longer, so they really get to know their clients.”

She said Moneypenny received about 3,000 CVs last year, “so we can cherry-pick the best”. Swash said Moneypenny looks for recruits who are good with people.

“People expect phone-answering to be about sticking to scripts, but we’re the opposite, because we want staff to interact naturally with customers.

“We recruit people for their attitude, not their skillset, train them, and then provide clarity about what we expect. We also have the absolute antithesis of a ‘clear desk’ policy. People can bring whatever personal items they like – and we even give everyone a lamp allowance to make them feel at home.

“We didn’t like how most call centres were laid out, so we arranged our desks in a honeycomb pattern, in groups of four or five, so the space for interaction is maximised, and feedback suggests that is really appreciated by everyone.”


6: Train your staff to tailor their approach

Since its formation in 2001, Accident Exchange has become one of Europe’s largest accident management specialists, with a fleet of more than 2,000 vehicles, covering everything from luxury marques to vans.

At the 2018 UK Customer Service Excellence Awards, it took the trophy for Outstanding Customer Journey.

Scott Hamilton-Cooper, Accident Exchange’s director of sales and operations, believes staff training is the most important step to achieve ever higher customer service standards.

“All our customers are having pretty bad days when they contact us. They’ve been thrown into chaos and turmoil, and for many, it is a traumatic and confusing experience.

“So our staff must be able to immediately make a connection, and because of the different demographics, and the various types of accidents, that requires a very flexible approach.

“One caller might be the CEO of a large PLC, or a Premier League footballer, and the next might be an pensioner who has never before had an accident.

Realising how to tailor your approach takes time and it takes training, so every recruit spends four weeks learning their role.

”We also provide a significant level of autonomy, because there are lots of different nuances to consider, and it’s crucial that every customer understands precisely what is happening before their first call ends.”

All training is in-house and Trustpilot is used to monitor customer satisfaction levels.

“We share all feedback, both positive and negative, to ensure service levels are consistent,” said Hamilton-Cooper. “We use the feedback to continually improve our processes, and once a month, our validation team listens to several messages (typically five) made by each handler.” IAN HALSTEAD



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