Consumers’ expectations for what constitutes a great car-buying experience has changed significantly in the wake of the pandemic. And dealers that are slow to adapt to the “new normal” and meet consumers wherever they are – online or in-store – run a real risk of falling behind their competitors.To shed some light on what dealers should consider as this new paradigm for customer service continues to unfold, we asked Dave Mingle, vice president and global practice head of customer experience at Reputation, and Chris Walsh, the president of Reynolds and Reynolds, for some insights and perspectives.
Creating great retail customer experiences
Q: These days, everyone talks about creating a great customer experience. But are there some fundamental elements that dealers often overlook?
Dave Mingle: Our data shows that customers value transparency and simplicity more than anything else – even price. When dealers communicate clearly and honestly and make it easy for a customer to do business with them, it builds trust and loyalty.
Chris Walsh: One of the most difficult things to execute is seamlessness. A majority of customers start their journey online, then go to a dealership. When this happens, the transition has to be seamless. They shouldn’t have to start over or repeat information. They should be able to pick up exactly where they left off. That means information is accurate in both places and your sales folks don’t have to back into the monthly payment presented online. Without this seamless transition, your customers are starting over, and they will get frustrated.
Q: With all the emphasis on dealers converting to digitalized car-buying processes, do you think the human element gets lost in the shuffle? What are some good strategies for ensuring it remains top-of-mind?
Walsh: The key is understanding what’s valuable to each customer and delivering in that area. When they have questions, you need to be there. They might know exactly what vehicle and features they want, but don’t know how to order it, how long it will take or how to get financing. Ensuring your dealership has complete visibility to everything the customer does – no matter where they are – will ensure you’re able to step in at any point in the digital process, while making it seamless. Providing this kind of value is what makes the human element so important. Mingle: Whether buying online, in-person or a combination of both, building trust will always be a big factor driving loyalty in the car business. Listening and responding to customers with empathy and transparency, no matter what channel the customer uses, is a “brilliant basic” that any dealer needs to master. Q: What’s the most important thing you think dealers must emphasize to create great customer experiences?
Mingle: As mentioned above, dealers should focus on the “brilliant basics.” That is, listen to customers anywhere and everywhere they can. When responding to customers, be authentic and transparent, whether delivering good or bad news. Dealers that do so are more likely to build trust with their customers, who in turn will be more likely to become loyal advocates, which drives new-customer acquisitions.
Q: What’s the most important thing you think dealers must emphasize to create great customer experiences?
Walsh: At Reynolds, we truly believe a great customer experience stems from providing a seamless online to in-store transition. It’s being able to meet customers wherever they are while ensuring accurate pricing and deal information. Up-to-date information must be accessible anywhere, at any time. And your team must be ready to intervene when needed, as if they’ve been there all along. It’s all about connection, transparency and seamlessness.
Q: Are there new technologies now available that can enhance the customer experience at dealerships?
Walsh: Having a live-chat program is key to a great experience. Virtual-retailing options that completely connect to CRM and DMS platforms are must-haves. To create that seamless transition, everything has to be one. Your team can’t work out of disparate systems. If they do, they won’t have the full picture or accurate information to move the sale forward seamlessly.
Mingle: Our most successful dealers consolidate their customer-feedback data into a single, omni-channel, experience-management platform. This makes it easy for anyone in the dealership to listen and respond to customer feedback, no matter whether that feedback originated in a survey, text message, online review, social post or even a call-center inquiry.
Q: As more customers buy vehicles online, there’s less face-to-face interaction with customers. How can dealers bridge this interaction gap and keep it from becoming detrimental to business?
Mingle: It is essential for dealers to become experts in the tools their customers use to interact with them. Increasingly, that includes mobile apps, text messaging and social channels. It also requires a platform where all the data can be consolidated into a single view and understood in plain language, and where feedback gets sent to the right people in the organization.
Walsh: Your employees are an asset. You have to find where they are most valuable in the process and ensure they can be as effective as possible. In a study conducted last year, we found consumers really valued F&I managers because the consumers don’t know a lot about that area, like what aftermarket products are available and what benefits they provide. Even if the sale takes place online, customers still may need that human interaction when it comes to F&I.
Q: How are smart dealers keeping frustrated customers happy as they contend with an unprecedented car-inventory shortage?
Walsh: We interviewed John Keohane, who’s the vice president of operations at Temecula Valley Buick GMC in California. He has a simple, yet effective method – keep customers informed. With more pre-ordered vehicles, customers aren’t familiar with the process, so they crave education and reassurance. If you communicate proactively and are up-front about timelines and processes, customers will be more at ease and appreciate the transparency.
Mingle: Our 2022 Automotive Reputation Report revealed that dealers fare better in the eyes of customers when they communicate well and don’t take advantage of the shortages by charging unwarranted mark-ups. The study reported that a third of customers who felt taken advantage of said they will not recommend or return to the same dealer in the future.
Q: What are some good strategies for maintaining contact with customers after they buy a vehicle? Do you see any dealers thinking outside the box on this?
Mingle: The most progressive brands, both in the car industry and beyond, are doing their best to meet their customers where they are. This increasingly means leveraging mobile devices, messaging apps and social media. This requires implementing tools that make managing omni-channel customer communications as easy as possible, especially for younger buyers who are much less likely to use or respond to email or snail-mail communications.
Walsh: One strategy that stands out is focusing on the ownership experience. Promote interactions like car washes and detailing. This keeps customers connected and can bring them to your store regularly. Another idea is to send customers short “how-to” videos about things like their vehicle’s tech features, removing stains, or emergency needs like changing a tire. Providing educational content like this helps to build a trusting relationship with the customer.
Q: Is the shift to electric vehicles (EVs) affecting the dealer-customer dynamic and if so, how?
Mingle: Our 2022 report indicates that 46 percent of customers are now considering an EV for their next vehicle purchase. Dealers have a great opportunity to win with these customers by becoming experts in the benefits of EV technology and, just as importantly, addressing the concerns customers have over vehicle range and charging infrastructure.
Walsh: Retail-service consultant Pied Piper released a study this summer that showed traditional dealerships have higher satisfaction than direct-to-consumer models. EVs are simply spurring more questions from consumers. As long as dealerships can rise to the opportunity with an educated sales force and a disciplined – and possibly different – sales process, they’ll see great success with EVs.
Q: The high cost of electric vehicles is a big obstacle to widespread adoption. How are smart dealers handling price objections?
Walsh: Strong dealers are doing the same thing they’ve always done: They listen to customers, understand their wants and needs, educate them about vehicles and their benefits and find solutions. A strong sales process backed by strong salespeople will help meet the needs of their customers regardless of the type of vehicle.
Mingle: Dealers need to take full advantage of government incentives and develop easy-to-understand cost-benefit analyses. While the price may be higher for certain EV models, the cost to operate over time is lower. This can make EVs a cost-effective purchase, plus it’s an eco-friendly alternative.
About the Panelists
Vice President, Global Practice Head Customer Experience, Reputation
Mingle leads Reputation’s customer-experience (CX) strategy. He has compiled more than 30 years of expertise in leading CX strategy and operations for some of the world’s most recognizable enterprise technology and global automotive brands.
President, Reynolds and Reynolds
Walsh leads Reynolds and Reynolds with an intense focus on helping dealers succeed. With more than 35 years of experience, his passion for customers helps shape Reynolds as a company and a partner to dealers.