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IT Insight: Keeping in touch with technology

The internet has certainly changed the way modern businesses can communicate and interact with their customers.

Car buyers are much more likely to begin their research on the web rather than leafing through the Yellow Pages to find a phone number. The internet gives dealers the ability to market themselves and their services in a way a newspaper advert could never manage.

Through the web and via emails, retailers also have a greater opportunity to manage customer communications effectively. They can be used as a way of responding to initial enquiries, advertising promotions, or reminding customers of services or MoTs. Proactive dealers can go a step further and utilize them to get feedback from customers about a service, or to keep in contact with elusive company car drivers.

However, it is a two-way street and if dealers want to truly interact with customers, then they need to ensure they are taking full advantage of the technology.

Customer surveys via the internet

This is where web-based customer surveys come in. They can offer several advantages compared to more traditional methods of data capturing and give dealers the opportunity to find out who their potential customers are and, more importantly, how they can target them.

“The web combines the immediacy of the telephone with costs per response that are lower than can be achieved by post,” says David Jamieson, managing director of Maritz Research in Europe, specialists in consumer market research services.

“It also integrates well with the customer relationship management strategies and online management systems that companies are developing to manage customer retention and acquisition,” he adds.

Approach customers at their request

However, it’s not as simple as it seems. Firstly there are issues surrounding coverage. The worldwide web is not yet as universal as Bill Gates would have you believe, compared to telephone or post. Although the number of people who have access to the internet is growing all the time, many customers are still not connected or don’t have regular access.

A further complication is the difficulty of establishing and maintaining a database of customer email addresses. People change email addresses much more frequently than other contact details, so keeping lists up-to -date is a challenge.

“A potential way around these issues is to use the web as part of a mixed methodology approach rather than as standalone data collection method. For instance, the initial screening may involve telephone contact, with the respondent directed to a web survey for collection purposes,” suggests Jamieson.

His colleague Charles Kirk agrees. He believes that effective communications come down to striking a balance between keeping in touch with customers and bombarding them with unwanted communications.

“The best way to get this balance right is to ask customers how they would like to be communicated with, and how often – to give them control. It sounds obvious but it’s key,” says Kirk.

Research by Maritz shows that young males may be very enthusiastic about a new car purchase and so would like to have high levels of contact, but other groups might not require this.

So if you have got past this hurdle and found how and when your customers, both current and potential, would like to be contacted, the next challenge is to keep them interested.

#CCD_ART_SPLIT# Keep it short and relevant

People process information differently when they receive it by visual as opposed to aural means. In mail and web surveys the respondent is in control of how quickly each question is read, or even if it is read entirely. Interestingly, when choices are presented visually, customers are likely to select responses that are presented early on in the list.

“There are a few very simple general rules to follow. Keep it short and keep it relevant. And ask the customer what they want, make then feel in control,” says Charles Kirk.

Long-winded questions will lose the respondents interest, while lengthy surveys will have a similar effect with people likely to quit half way through if they feel it is repetitive.

But Kirk believes that, despite their importance, getting the basics right – in terms of the accuracy of customer data and information – is paramount. “It sounds obvious but make sure your data about the customer and their vehicle, is up-to-date,” he says.

This also has implications for sales teams in terms of the investment in time required to manage customer databases and keeping the information relevant, along with the right training.

“This means a sales consultant’s job is that of diagnostician, not simply an information provider, as consumers are likely to have already undertaken a fair amount of research, often via the web, before contacting a dealer,” says Kirk.

Equally, however, while customers are becoming increasingly informed about factual information, there’s no substitute for face-to-face interaction in the dealership to communicate the retailer atmosphere and demonstrate good service.

Dealers need to remember that although web surveys are useful for capturing data, they should just be the first step on the ladder to a successful sale or customer return, not the last.

Exceed customer expectations

One of the most often repeated criticisms of the internet is that it kills off human interaction and the benefits of face-to-face communication, says am-online editor Jeremy Bennett. While looking a customer in the eye has its benefits, you can still develop a mutually beneficial relationship using technology.

For example, when you qualify a customer, ask for an email address and mobile number. With an email address you can entice them with product offers, or boost your commercial power by making a note of when they are planning to replace their car. It goes without saying that as that time approaches you can again contact them with the latest offers. You can use a mobile number in a similar way.

But there are two essentials to this technique. You must have explained to the customer what you intend to do with their details and get their acceptance. Also, keep communication to a minimum and personalize it. After all, you’ll know their name.

A mobile number is also a useful tool. For example, alerting customers their car maybe due for a service or subject to a recall – and once the car is in your workshop you can tell them when it is due for collection.

Such use of technology will prove the ultimate in customer satisfaction – exceeding their expectations.

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