In the digital age, when car shoppers can go online and find the same vehicle for about the same price at a number of different stores, dealerships know that excellent customer service is often the differentiator.
What makes great customer service?
“The key to anything these days is time. We always want customers to understand that we respect and value their time,” says Ryan LaFontaine, COO of Michigan’s LaFontaine Automotive Group. “To me, that’s the foundation of great customer service.”
For Marc Ray, a vice president and partner at two Chrysler-Jeep-Dodge-Ram dealerships in Toledo, Ohio—Grogan’s Towne and Charlie’s—the key to great customer service is “Don’t overpromise and underdeliver. We deliver on the promises we make. And we tailor the process the way the customer wants it to be—making it as quick, easy and efficient as possible.”
Car buyers surveyed by J.D. Power echo both LaFontaine and Ray. According to J.D. Power Vice President Chris Sutton, car buyers say the most important elements of the purchasing process are, first, effectiveness in explaining the vehicle’s features; but then, timeliness in completing the delivery, ease of coming to an agreement on a final price and timeliness in completing the final paperwork.
Great customer service starts with a philosophy of “acting more as a consultant or a friend,” Kare says. “Customers come back to you again and again because they know you’re looking out for their best interests.”
But providing great customer service doesn’t just happen on its own. At LaFontaine’s company, it starts with a full onboarding and training process to make sure new employees understand the company’s “Family Deal” philosophy and core values. LaFontaine takes time to personally meet most prospective employees who will be working with customers.
“We’re always asking: Are they passionate, heartfelt, trustworthy? Do they have a great work ethic and want to be with us?” LaFontaine says. “Customer satisfaction flows from how happy your employees are. Having good employees who share the vision—that leads to customer satisfaction, to wowing them with your customer service.”
Although the pandemic and resulting stay-at-home orders have changed the ways dealerships interact with customers, dealers say the basics of good service remain the same.
When its showroom was shut down, Pat Milliken Ford worked 100% online. But the need to be efficient was the same or greater, Kare says.
“When you’re online, you have got to be quick and responsive,” he says. “If you take too long to respond, they’ll move on.”
The dealership team employed the same consulting-style approach, too. “We did a lot of things over the phone, through our texting tool, by email,” Kare says. “We’d have the customer pull up our website on their screen, and we could build the deal together looking at the same screen.”
Says LaFontaine: “When things were shut down, we deployed a lot of the same tactics, but enhanced.” For instance, he says, the dealerships provided home pickup and delivery for older customers who were apprehensive about leaving their houses but needed their vehicles serviced.
In addition, employees drove to customers’ houses and completed purchase paperwork “on the front porch sometimes,” LaFontaine says. “We’d drive the car to them, sanitize it before we left. Customers know you’re really trying to help them.”
Ray, the Ohio dealer, says he has been using digital tools to sell cars for more than a decade but thinks the pandemic will likely permanently change the industry’s way of doing business.
“Consumers are more open to working with us online,” he says, “Whether it’s a Zoom call or on Google Meet, they’re comfortable talking to us when they’re at home and we’re at the dealership.
“I think we’re going to be doing more of the transaction outside the dealership in the future. We’re all getting better at doing this. Providing great customer service, getting customers what they need quickly and accurately, may potentially even be easier in these digital transactions.”
During the shutdowns, “Dealers found creative ways to make our new reality work for their customers,” says Kathy Ruble, Ally’s executive director-auto marketing, advertising and dealer communications. “So many dealers were going to the ends of the Earth to make sure they found solutions that met their customers' needs, with touchless delivery, home delivery, valuing used vehicles remotely.
“As hard as it was, I think it surprised all of them in terms of how well they were able to make it work.”
As dealerships reopened showrooms, Ally helped them continue to provide great service to customers, with thoughtful reopening kits. In addition to safety signs and floor decals, hand sanitizers and antibacterial wipes, Ally sent out more than 18,000 pens, individually wrapped in cellophane—so that F&I managers could offer customers a sanitized pen they could keep after signing paperwork.
Ultimately, dealers say, great customer service comes down to the personal touch—whether it’s in person or remote. When a regular customer of Grogan’s Towne called Ray with an emergency—his wife’s car had broken down a couple of hours away from home—Ray called the warranty company himself and arranged for the car to be towed to the dealership.
As LaFontaine says, “There’s nothing we won’t do for our customers.”