As the COVID-19 coronavirus lockdown continues, car dealers are taking varying approaches to their online marketing as most make efforts to prioritise online marketing in preparation for a new kind of 'normal'.
For car sales, it’s easy to find a wide spectrum - from “we’re closed until further notice” to “we’re open online” right the way up to (almost) full-blown auto eCommerce with “browse, part-exchange, buy online and we’ll deliver when we can”.
Like any other kind of business, car dealers are starting from very different points when it comes to their online presence.
The further advanced the integration between showroom and website, the easier it is to maintain effective communication with customers at a distance, while also satisfying changing demands.
During the lockdown, the automotive sector has seen a massive shift online.
The “enforced convenience” of the online car buying user experience is expected to leave a permanent mark on showroom-based car sales as lockdown speeds up the digital transformation of the automotive sector.
Live messaging, live video chat and online purchasing have shown buyers that the majority, if not all of the car buying process can be done remotely.
But could some car dealers get left behind, waiting for a clear end to the Covid-19 crisis?
Dates for a UK lockdown release are regularly thrown around.
Over the course of the last couple of months, the experiences of countries such as Italy, Spain and France have generally been a fairly reliable indicator as to what we can expect in the UK.
And so how these countries are planning to leave lockdown is probably a good starting point in terms of forward planning.
We’ve heard from dealers “We don’t know what we are preparing for”.
The fact is we probably do, but it’s not an attractive proposition.
As in most forward planning, there are more advantages than disadvantages for companies that make contingencies for the 'most likely scenario'.
The consequences of Covid-19 seem to be pretty clear from the information available. As it stands today, here’s what we can expect:
- At present there is no treatment or vaccine for Covid-19
- A very small percentage of the population has been in contact with the disease
- A high ratio of infections per person puts the NHS into overcapacity
- The ratio of infections per person is manageable with the lockdown
- If the release from lockdown increases the ratio beyond a critical point, (as before lockdown) there will have to be another lockdown.
Any lockdown release must take into account a limitation of the spread of the virus.
At present, apart from lockdown, the only other way to prevent exceeding the critical infection ratio is by using:
- Physical barriers including masks and other PPE
- Hygiene measures
- Social distancing
- Testing and isolation for infected patients
Therefore the “most likely scenario” for dealers to be able to reopen is that measures 1 to 3 will need to become part of the daily operation of the business.
Forward-looking dealers can plan for lockdown release right now by ordering adequate PPE and by creating their own safety protocols.
By looking at each stage of interaction at each site, safeguards can be built in to protect staff and customers based on current guidelines.
Once businesses do that, they will be adequately prepared and ready to open to the public when the time comes.
In the absence of vaccine or treatment, there is no other foreseeable scenario as the lockdown measures are lifted.
This is why online communication channels are such a valuable resource to be harnessed – probably even more than during the lockdown, as society and the economy adapts post lockdown.
The online car buying user experience will become an increasingly attractive alternative to physically going to the dealership, even when customers can actually get out.
Companies that anticipate that change in demand will make up lost ground faster than those that don’t.
There are of course challenges to putting in place live video chat, online payment, distant selling signature capabilities and vehicle delivery services. It will certainly test the reactivity, creativity and problem-solving capacity of the marketing department or agency.
Staff may also need training in the finer points of online communication. But it can be done and the solutions are there.
The alternative is to wait for instructions then scramble to put something together at the last minute.
While the image of staff wearing masks in the showroom and social distancing protocols with contactless service handovers may seem unthinkable, there seems no other alternative at present – aside from extending the lockdown.
If a 'return to normal' is off the list of possible lockdown endings, here’s a summary of actionable steps dealers can take to plan for the 'new normal':
In the dealership:
- Order appropriate PPE and sanitising products to protect your staff and customers.
- Plan safe protocols within recommended guidelines for sales, test drives, servicing handovers, collections and delivery.
- Some reorganisation or adaptation of sites may also be necessary.
- Reach out to your customers – email marketing has never been more important, and customers want to hear from you.
- Refine your online communication channels – live messaging, live video chat, easy online forms but consider the particularity of the online environment – it’s not the place for the “hard sell”. Think Solutions, rather than Sales.
- Update your website – it’s a good time to review your site from a user’s perspective. Can they find you online? Is it attractive, easy to use, helpful and up to date?
- Create content your customers want to read and watch – your customers are at home online, on social media, watching videos, searching for answers and helpful advice. And cars too.
- Prepare for online sales – rather than simply generating leads, your website is now also your dealership showroom and you should be gearing up for online reservation, part-exchange, finance and sale as well as delivery.
Finally, we’d recommend communicating with your customers on a regular basis to inform, reassure and manage expectations.
In the face of new online car sales businesses, main dealers have a strong hand to play combining bricks and mortar dealerships with an online showroom.
But only if they are prepared to embrace and adapt to new ways customers will be buying cars going forward.
Author: Michele McKee, managing director, Kee Creative