The year 2019 may be remembered as one of the most uncertain in terms of U.S. auto sales. After a decade of robust sales, dealers are probably wondering if that era is behind us, and what to do next.
For several months now, a combination of fleet sales, booming SUV/crossover purchases and incentives have helped dealers remain relatively stable in an increasingly challenging business environment.
To sustain sales growth long term, however, dealers will need to focus much more on the automotive customer of the future despite the state of sales. And this includes a focus not only on today's customer, but the next generation of car buyers.
Typically, under 30, they are tech-savvy; eager for multichannel, personalized experiences; and a generation comfortable with new digital technologies that can make the car-buying process more appealing.
Such experiences not only will be key to attracting their business, but keeping pace with the latest digital sales tools will help dealers retain it. In fact, staying on top of new sales technologies could be a powerful market differentiator.
To their credit, traditional dealers have progressed in this area, increasing their online presence and digitizing their showrooms with virtual and augmented reality, interactive screens and other new technologies.
But constant innovation will be needed.
There are four key ways auto dealers can build a business model designed to satisfy next-generation car buyers and retain customers overall.
Engage everywhere: Provide a personalized, customer experience across retail formats and channels wherever the customer wishes to engage as part of continuous customer contact.
For example, a Web-chat conversion should continue seamlessly at the dealership. Integrate all channels, including direct sales and online engagement, to speak with one voice. Also, plan engagement that results in sales and service retention by responding to customer needs of the moment.
Digitize the backbone of the business: Doing so will ensure frictionless interactions between customers and staff.
Moreover, guided sales tools that integrate and make all relevant information available to customers will be essential. This could include, for instance, a Web-based CRM system that is integrated with aftersales.
Maximize data use: Share data across the entire dealer organization and relevant automaker areas to provide a single view of the customer, and leverage collected data to ensure a superior, fluid experience for customers. Use customer feedback data to predict and improve experiences. And boost dealership performance by equipping customer-facing staff and technicians with connected tools and technologies that will improve their skills.
Leverage disruptive technologies that are key to really knowing individual customers: These include AI to sense, comprehend, act and learn; voice control that allows customers to engage seamlessly with providers; and immersive reality that superimposes computer-generated content in real-world environments that customers can access anytime, anywhere.
Yes, sales are the lifeblood of any business, and particularly critical to hard-fought dealer success as a living gauge of performance.
But, of equal weight will be determining the best new strategies to achieve present and future success.
Traditional retail can no longer afford to partially participate in the natural evolution of auto retail that increasingly will be influenced and driven by technology.
The emerging next generation of young and technology-oriented customers represent the future growth of the industry — especially as it moves closer to mobility and the new opportunities it will bring — including those in the passenger economy.
Auto dealers, working closely with carmakers, should use this time to both continue satisfying today's customers and preparing to harness the buying power of tomorrow's new customer.