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Respond to the automotive challenge

It would seem that the threats to the automotive industry's way of life just keep mounting, but the oldest challenge of creating a relationship with the customer is the greatest, says Alan Pennington, managing director, Critical Contact Consulting.

The automotive retail trade is changing. European liberalisation, legislative changes, new retailing formats, new channels, new competitors not to mention block exemption, the Berlin Wall of the motor trade, being pulled down are all changing the way we work.

But what has not changed is the fundamental challenge that has faced manufacturers and dealers alike: how to get and keep a relationship with a customer whose purchases may be two to five years apart.

As we move into an era when the rules of the game are changing, the focus on meeting the customer expectation and the role of brand will become ever more critical. That means dealers must address structures, processes and budgets - not necessarily spending more but getting smarter about investment decisions. Those who respond to the challenge have a real opportunity to gain a competitive advantage.

To be a winner, a business will need to take a long, hard look and develop solutions that put the customer at the heart of their business.

Businesses have to ensure that at every point where they touch the customer, the experience has to be consistently good and must match or exceed the brand-led expectation.

As the quality gap on vehicles diminishes and prices harmonise, the quality gap on the total customer experience will grow. That totality stretches from initial expression of interest through the purchase cycle and into post sale contact.

This total customer experience is, in our view, the key to a successful “brand for life” strategy.

Today's business strategy must integrate internal needs and customer wants, having at its heart an alignment between business imperatives, brand-led customer expectations and a clear enabling data strategy capable of sustaining a three-year vision.

Software should be the last element in the building of a business approach to data. It is an enabler, not a solution, and as such needs to be properly specified and the wider business changes need to be achievable for it to be fit for purpose.

There is much that could be done without huge investment. Take the rise of the internet, which has provided a further complication: potential customers can research your vehicles in huge detail yet remain anonymous.

Surveys show that a tiny percentage of cars are “purchased” via the web, but how many “purchase decisions” are made via the web and converted or lost on the site, or through a subsequently poor experience in the showroom or via the contact centre?

The channel represents a great brand marketing tool, but can you deliver against the expectation created by your site? By way of example we tested 10 major manufacturers' response times to e-mail requests for information via their websites. Five days later, not one had replied. Corporate efforts may delay some changes but they will happen - the smart businesses will use this window to address fundamental changes, which are needed. They will recognise the link and the requirement to balance the brand-led expectations with a requirement to deliver an outstanding customer experience.

Mercedes are at the leading edge of this approach. Where they are leading are you brave enough to follow? And if so, do you have the toolkit?

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