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Guest opinion: five ways to prepare for the future of auto retailing

Theo Blackburn

"Last month’s Detroit Motor Show and the growing presence of cars at the Consumer Electronics Show clearly indicate that smart tech and connectivity within the car will increasingly drive the agenda for the automotive industry.

In this light, it’s much easier to imagine a future where cars are bought or leased in a similar way to our mobile phones, with frequent upgrades and greater consideration for how the car connects with our existing technology, personal data and media content.

With increasing lifestyle support and expanding service wraps that manufacturers provide around the car, come deepening relationships between customers and brands, and greater expectations of what buying and owning a car means.

As a result of all this, designing a unique experience around buying and owning a car will be of greater focus for brands that want to differentiate themselves.


“Forcing a customer to follow a narrow and prescribed purchase path is swiftly becoming out-dated, as consumers value greater flexibility and control over their journey."

This experience starts from the moment a person decides they need a new car - a journey increasingly starting with research online.

Many will leave a visit to the dealership as late as possible in their research, in order to avoid the perceived likelihood of a biased, hard-sell, and the potential to be influenced by a sales person’s preferences.

Although some brands are making creative improvements to their customer experience, the industry as a whole is ripe for change.

In order to not be left behind, car manufacturers need to find their own disruptive innovation, and increase their “design thinking” capabilities, in order to lead the race and not get left behind.

We’ve helped a number of auto brands across various markets rethink the experience of buying and owning a new car.

Here are five areas around retail they’ve found useful to address to meet changing customer expectations, help shape the future relationships people will have with their cars, and deliver more attractive customer experiences.

1. Make it more convenient to visit the dealership

As large, out of town, spaces can be intimidating for some customers, many showrooms attract visitors for little more than a final inspection and signing a contract.

This causes customers to only visit after they’ve done most of their research online and have already made some of the most important decisions. This denies car brands those critical opportunities to provide support and guidance.

Through clever partnering and a more convenient network, having a greater presence through the customer’s research phase can afford fruitful conversations and early engagement with the products and services on offer.

One way of lowering the barrier for customers to visit is by complementing existing dealer networks with locations that fit into customers’ daily routines, such as the the Hyundai Rockar outlets or Tesla stores and infinite pop-ups found in Westfield shopping centres.

2. Embrace and enhance how people research

Contacting a car company or visiting a dealership can be a chore for customers who expect to find pushy salesmen and no more information than can already be accessed from home.

What’s more, the depth of knowledge that a customer can gain online about a specific model is, understandably, difficult for a car salesperson to compete with.

He needs to memorise a wide range of ever-changing specifications, leading to potentially awkward and underwhelming sales conversations.

This needn’t be a significant problem, however, if car manufacturers are able to acknowledge the customer’s research findings earlier, for example, through online tools.

They can then work collaboratively with customers to find the best fit for their needs.

Lincoln’s Concierge service in the US is an example of how supporting the customer in their best interests should be about providing expert guidance through product specialists, more objective recommendations and interactive experiences that bring product and service features to life. This gives visitors a depth of understanding not provided via a simple Google search.

3. Make purchasing an easy and seamless step to return to

A well-known yet significant challenge faced by most physical retail spaces, is the issue of showrooming, where savvy customers use the shop to explore and try the products, perhaps get some valuable support from staff, but, ultimately, leave to complete the purchase elsewhere, typically online.

With the intense competition and offers found in almost all car buying markets, it’s easy to understand why a prospective customer might go elsewhere if they can’t find the right deal from the OEM.

Understanding that customer journeys are no longer linear here is crucial.

Forcing a customer to follow a narrow and prescribed purchase path is swiftly becoming out-dated, as consumers value greater flexibility and control over their journey.

Therefore, it’s important to design in time and space for contemplation and review, while making it as simple and alluring as possible for customers to return to the support you’ve provided to complete the purchase. For example, it can be using the preferences your customer shared during their research, to make the offer more personal and the completion of purchase effortless.

4. Offer long-term services and benefits others can’t

Considering it’s more common for car manufacturers to make larger revenues on servicing than on new car sales, the service packages and all-round support offered with a new car today (beyond the several-year warranty plans and finance deals) is often lacking in inspiration.

With the growing popularity of car-sharing schemes and the dawn of the connected car, automotive brands have a large and exciting opportunity to harness new customer data and insight into car usage, to deliver innovative personalised services which provide real value to drivers.

Beyond product and price alone, car makers of the future will take the lead from innovative start-ups such as Automatic or Splitsecnd, and add value by gathering, interpreting and sharing our driving data with us in more meaningful ways, ultimately, making each journey we take safer and more efficient.

5. Reconsider staff roles in the relationship

Finally, to build a relationship customers can trust and rely upon, you need to shift how customers perceive dealership staff and their roles.

While not all salespeople fit the negative stereotype, there is great room for improvement across the industry.

Staff need to be empowered with the right tools and processes to re-frame their value in order to offer more customer-centric support.

In addition to the obvious training and development that such changes require, brands could reconsider incentive structures around car buying and selling.

Experience measures such as Net Promoter Score should be used to ensure customers are getting the service they need right from the start to form a successful relationship.

For brands such as BMW, this change has taken place in recent years in the form of ‘product geniuses’, who, being free from the pressure of sales commission, are motivated to provide expert and objective guidance to new car buyers."

Author: Theo Blackburn (pictured), senior service designer at service design consultancy Engine

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