DIY takes on a whole new meaning

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Dealers need to embrace customers who don’t want to connect in traditional ways

In the “old days” (around 2002 or so), I was conducting some focus groups for an OEM client on the subject of service. 

The clients (from dealerships and from the factory) were sitting behind the one-way glass watching and listening to what the participants had to say.

The conversation eventually got around to what customers experience when they engage with a service advisor or just drop their vehicle off for service. 

One participant expressed a need for a USB key that the dealer could provide ahead of time and that the customer could use to check off services required and send the data or bring the USB to the dealership. 

This would include describing problems with the vehicle and what they thought the cause was. All that would be needed is to hand over the USB at the dealership and you’re done.

At that point, a great commotion came from the viewing room (banging and loud voices) and I had to excuse myself and go and see what the problem was. 

It wasn’t really a problem — just some very strong reaction to the terrifying notion of customers being able to tell the dealership exactly what they wanted and even diagnose problems with their vehicle. Needless to say, the self serve idea didn’t go very far!

Consumers prefer self-serve

Move forward a few years and what we see is that the idea was not that far off the mark. 

Consumers, especially millennials, are moving strongly towards a world that allows them to avoid human contact in the customer service experience.

The rise in use and acceptance of “chatbots” or “intelligent assistants” is one of the most noticeable trends.

Aspect Software, a Phoenix based global supplier of CRM solutions, publishes a report called the Aspect Customer Experience Index and in their 2016 report they show just how far this has progressed.

Is this relevant to auto retailing and auto service?

Customer interaction is changing: 71% Want the ability to solve customer service issues on their own, 69% Interact with an Intelligent Assistant or ChatBot at least 1x per month, 61% Believe ChatBots are here to stay

The technology in vehicles and at dealerships has advanced rapidly in the past decade. Today’s vehicles are virtually computers on wheels and it’s a matter of a few years until all the individual intelligent systems come together (along with infrastructure) and self-driving vehicles will be with us in a much bigger way. 

At the same time, dealership technology has also advanced, allowing the dealership to connect with the customer’s car not just on the service driveway, but all the time with the help of intelligent monitoring systems in the vehicle. 

If you Google “self diagnosis apps for automobiles,” you’ll find what I found — a multitude of aftermarket apps and gadgets that consumers can plug into the OBD port and pull off the same information your technicians do in the shop. 

These range from what seem to be very simple ones that provide basic information, to much more sophisticated apps. But the cost (in the U.S.) is not high — what looks like a comprehensive app could run US$100 and the simpler ones around US$15.

Clearly, these will appeal mostly to gearheads and the average vehicle owner is not likely to be that into knowing everything about the performance or condition of their vehicle. 

The point is that the technology is there — in the vehicle, on the service driveway and in the shop — to allow consumers much more transparency and, if they want to, take more control of the service experience. Eventually they will. 

In our own backyard, Rogers recently introduced their Smart Drive product: a device that plugs into the OBD port and allows the customer seamless connectivity to their media and entertainment choices as well as providing status and maintenance information about the vehicle.

In the sales area, we have already seen the shift towards a customer coming into the dealership armed with loads of information and ready to do a deal. While you can’t truly describe this as “self serve,” much of the front end of the sales process has been taken on by the customer.

Haven’t we always said that customer service is paramount?

It’s valuable to look at what’s driving the growth in self serve in the opinion of some key players.

On the surface, there’s a conflict here, but if you think about you own experiences as a consumer and as a business owner, you can see the convergence. 

With any change there are always challenges. Some customers want personal interaction, others don’t. It’s important to understand where the customer fits.

Speed, consistency and knowledgeable staff will indeed impact business results favourably. In a hands-on environment such as a dealership, this points to the need for strong and consistent process and staff that are knowledgeable about both their field of expertise as well as about the technology they have to work with.

The traditional metrics of customer service in the dealership still apply (politeness, ability to engage the customer, knowledge), but as customers and dealers start to deploy new connectivity technologies, all of these must take on an additional dimension. 

To provide excellent customer service in this new context, staff must be able to take advantage of the opportunity to use the technology to meet the customer’s needs for speed and consistency and demonstrate their understanding of how the technology can be of benefit to them. 

As consumers embrace more technology, the need for appropriate training and resources must keep pace.

How will this affect dealerships?

The true self serve model may still be a little way off for dealerships, but I believe there will be a change in how we interact with customers on both the sales side and the service side. 

Customers will become more open to taking the initiative if they can meet those three key needs (speed, consistency, knowledge). 

The notion of a more detached relationship with the customer seems to fly in the face of decades of preaching that a closer relationship is needed. 

But the playing field has changed and the way consumers define a good relationship has also changed. 

Customer Gauge, a global CRM firm based in Amsterdam and Boston identifies five important considerations when deploying technologies that allow customers to take more initiative in their interactions with companies they deal with:

  • Make sure the functionality of the technology is flawless
  • Optimize the technology based on usage and feedback
  • Personalize the experience (single sign-on, populate fields already entered, etc.)
  • Market the technology — customers are ready for it
  • Always provide a human lifeline

Challenges and the bridge

With any change there are always challenges. Some customers want personal interaction, others don’t. It’s important to understand where the customer fits. 

All the years of talking about engaging the customer have not been wasted. But the way in which we engage the customer has changed and will change even more in the future.

The essential bridge is to make sure that dealership personnel are engaged with the customer, not with the technology.

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Canadian auto dealer