By Simon Harris
The new car market has witnessed remarkable growth since the last recession. Around 800,000 units have been added to the annual total since 2009, reaching more than 2.6 million in 2015.
While the 2016 market may be more subdued as a result of a post-referendum lull in consumer confidence, the growth over the previous seven years would have been far more difficult to maintain without effective lead retention.
The internet has allowed potential buyers to be more informed and closer than ever to making a decision by the time they interact with a dealer. But it has become increasingly vital to ensure customers who don’t buy on a first showroom visit are not lost.
Third party call handling agencies offer a variety of services designed to make sure that customers with a strong interest in buying cars don’t slip through the net.
Nick Reisinger, managing director at Call It Automotive, said: “Our business started in 2010 and it has doubled every single year.”
Call It Automotive works with a number of manufacturers, including Ford, Fiat, Renault and Suzuki, and Reisinger points out that staff at dealers are often busy and can be unable to keep up with all the potential leads.
In active showrooms where some customers are not yet at the stage where they are ready to buy, it can be easy for contact details to be lost or forgotten.
Reisinger said that, at the same time, manufacturers have been keen to measure the success of marketing campaigns, trying to gain evidence of whether enquiries or sales have been influenced by them – and the only way to do this accurately is to take control of this part of the interaction with customers.
“Being able to intercept calls helps manage customer expectations and give the sales staff breathing space
to deal with people on the showroom floor”Ben Stevens, Moneypenny UK
Other call handling providers work solely on behalf of dealers, becoming a vital component in customer service and even in the field of reputation management.
Ben Stevens, automotive business development manager at Moneypenny UK, said getting it right can ensure customers are retained in the long term, gaining repeat business.
“In the past, a car buyer would probably have done research, looking at magazines and visiting several dealerships,” said Stevens. “Now it’s a different world with the ease of using the internet for research.
“People walk into dealers now knowing exactly what they want. Being able to intercept calls helps manage customer expectations and give the sales staff breathing space to deal with people on the showroom floor.”
Stevens said managing expectations has become ever more crucial when customers have access to social media platforms if they are dissatisfied with any elements of the process.
He explained the key objectives are being able to offer each dealer a personalised service, knowing what the ‘hot cars’ are, and aiming to patch the caller through to the sales person straight away. The Moneypenny team are familiar with the sales staff at each outlet, and keep records of personnel changes and annual leave to ensure the service is as smooth as possible.
Call handling agencies can also come into their own when there are major recalls or customer concerns over a fault they may have heard about in the news. An agency can help restore and improve the standing of both manufacturers and dealers when they are facing challenges.
Connie Barrow, operations director at Armchair, said: “In September 2015, the Volkswagen fuel emission scandal hit the headlines, resulting in much uncertainty for consumers on the reliability and trustworthiness of vehicles.
“We were available to act as an overflow reception for dealerships – directing calls to the most appropriate department”Connie Barrow, Armchair
“With VW, Audi, Seat and Skoda affected, thousands of customers had queries about their vehicles. This resulted in a large increase in the number of enquiries to dealerships, an unprecedented influx of calls that many were unprepared to handle.
“Armchair Call Handling was available to act as an overflow reception for many motor dealerships – directing calls to the most appropriate department when possible, or taking detailed messages for a member of the team to act upon at a time that was suitable for them.
“They provided customers with the necessary reassurance in a time of uncertainty. This helped many dealerships change a negative situation into an opportunity to delight customers by demonstrating their high standards of customer care and commitment.”
Phil Williams, director at Direct Affinity, said changes in buying habits have resulted in customers looking for new cars sooner than in the past. As a result he is calling for dealers to be more proactive in staying in touch with customers at the right time.
He said: “In the past, it might have been satisfactory to contact customers 27, 30 or 33 months into an ownership cycle, but with the increased popularity of PCP schemes, we’re now finding that the 21-23 month point is where we need to speak to them, as some PCPs are 24 or 25 months long.”
Much of Call It Automotive’s work with dealer groups is providing live webchats to help with customer queries.
Reisinger said this is an area that has seen considerable growth in recent years, with buyers increasingly comfortable seeking answers online.
“If you manage to capture a customer as the first person they engage with online in a live website chat, you have the best chance of attracting their business. But it’s important to do it well because they might have another window open on their desktop and they might be chatting to someone else.”
He added that with a successful webchat, the leads then provided to the dealer are all pre-qualified, and the customer is closer to making the decision on a purchase.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, there is broad agreement among providers that smaller dealer groups could also find call handling beneficial to their businesses, as one converted lead could pay for the service for many months.
However, Williams said that although Direct Affinity prefers to provide call handling services, it is possible to merely provide dealers with its software, which allows them to monitor and measure leads more effectively themselves, rather than investing in the full service. But he said there are clients with between 10 and 20 sites that still find outsourced call handling more effective.
Williams said Direct Affinity also provides a ‘lost sale’ service, where valuable intelligence about why customers did not buy is obtained from customers and can help modify and target sales strategies more effectively.
Additionally, call handling services can provide support during disruptive periods such as taking on a new site or during rebranding.
Barrow said: “Increasingly, Armchair has been called upon to help newly acquired or rebranded dealerships. The transitional period following dealership acquisition can often have a detrimental effect on customer service. Despite meticulous planning and the best intentions, customer service, sales and reception functions can suffer.
“With so much change following dealership acquisition, it can be difficult to gauge appropriate reception staffing levels and a dealership’s capability to handle incoming calls is often underestimated.
“Armchair Call Handling has helped many dealerships during this phase, ensuring 100% of calls are answered and dealt with.”
Continuity in these circumstances allows new sites or businesses to hit the ground running, and even if the new car market goes off the boil as the year progresses, it could be even more important to ensure every possible lead is converted into a sale.
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