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Digital Customer Engagement Drives the Car-Buying Journey from Discovery, to Test Drive, to Purchase

Automotive industry live chat

In his opening remarks at this year’s National Automobile Dealers Association (NADA) annual show, incoming chairman Paul Walser applauded the resilience of the thousands of dealers and managers, OEM executives, and everyone around the industry gathered to hear him. In the same breath, he reminded them  that “we don’t live in the same world we used to.”

That new-world reality was demonstrated by the fact that none of these thousands of people was physically there. Instead, they listened in remotely with dozens of them appearing behind Walser on screen via a live video feed.

Just as NADA brought its massive annual show to the dealerships for the first time, dealerships will be challenged to bring their showrooms to their customers in 2021 and beyond. They will need to replicate access to people and processes once provided only on-site. It will be imperative that dealerships treat their website not only as an extension of, but also as a substitute for, the physical dealership itself. Integrating the two into a “bricks-and-clicks” customer journey will be key. But they will need to do it in a way that makes sense for the automotive space.

What’s driving the digital customer journey?

Propelled into heightened reality by the COVID-19 pandemic, the digitization of the car-buying experience and the car dealership has been in motion for years. This evolution derived from newer, native online players like Carvana and Vroom, direct-to-consumer sales models from the likes of Tesla, and increasing expectations of customer experience.

As early as 2014, McKinsey research showed that “online” was the number one marketing and sales channel for buying cars. By 2019, they reported that 80% of car-buying research (on average 14 hours) was taking place online. And more than 2/3 of car buyers were actually making the purchasing decision online. Taken one step further, Deloitte found that 60% of U.S. consumers are “interested” in the concept of buying their next vehicle direct from the manufacturer entirely. They added that “this should be a wake-up call for auto dealers that the expectation of a completely digital buying experience could be closer than they think.”

Supply chain challenges will force the need for even greater digitization in 2021, as shortages in the semiconductor and steel industries will challenge traditional models of keeping large stocks of car inventories for immediate purchase on the lots.

Create a smoother road to getting customers into the driver’s seat

In that same NADA keynote address, Walser stated that “we’re not the Amazon of the industry and we don’t pretend to be. But people don’t want to spend four hours understanding the price of a car. The moment customers walk into our stores or start shopping online, the clock is ticking. Shortening the transaction time is critical to our survival.”

With that aim, dealerships (and the OEMs that support them) are adopting the same marketing technologies that retail giants rely on. They’re using conversational AI chatbots capable of ‘greeting’ website visitors and serving up the right content at exactly the right time in the research and discovery phase of the buying journey. They’re also innovating with automotive chats by relying on them to answer more complex customer questions like trade-in value, rebates, and qualifications for discounts. And when the chatbot doesn’t have an answer, it knows how to provide help — connecting customers to live agents via text, phone, or even video. This accelerates qualified leads and all of the information gathered isn’t lost but instead is passed along in the next phase of the buying journey.  Savvy dealerships are using automotive chats and live engagement links in social media, email, and other marketing channels to engage customers where they are and draw them deeper into the buying journey.

You can sort of think of chatbots like self-driving vehicles. They bring customers further along in their journey using the most valuable route and drop them off at the most logical destination.

Let customers take the wheel, but be a ‘nice’  backseat driver

Here’s something to mull over — online views for walk-around videos on YouTube were up 127% year over year in April. Customers clearly want these types of experiences. So, shouldn’t you be the one providing and, even better, personalizing them? To that end, innovative dealerships are enabling the “touchless test drive.” They’re equipping their showroom and sales  agents with the technology — high-definition cameras mounted on walls or in mobile tablets — to  give online customers a personalized viewing of the vehicle.  These technologies allow agents to give different views as the customer requests enabling that touchless test drive that includes both wide-angled views and close-ups, interior and exterior views.

Couple live webinar events with this technology to allow the agent to show a group of customers the vehicle and answers to their questions. For instance, they can show certain views of the car, go over car specs, or offer up links to videos. Funnel webinar leads deeper into their buying journey by offering attendees  access to request an immediate personalized 1-to-1, two-way video chat or let them schedule it at their convenience.

Cobrowsing capabilities that offer the ability to share videos, view spec sheets together, and encourage live, personal conversations also help replicate the physical dealership experience and assist in moving them through their buying journey. Many dealerships also use this as a  way to offer up physical test drive appointments for the most qualified customers.

Greater efficiency can also be gained by having a chatbot route inquiries to a contact center and tasking those agents with gathering information, matching up with the right dealership and the right rep.

Provide the proverbial “Cadillac” of customer experiences

NADA’s Walser recommends looking at everything through the lens of the customer. Connecting the data gathered through all these digital customer engagement technologies is crucial, as one experience naturally drives outcomes in the next. With an integrated set of customer engagement technologies, dealerships can give their customers the ability to do everything online except physically receive the car. Even financing information including securely sharing and signing contracts is easy. The car-buying journey is now frictionless for the customer. And, it is more efficient and effective for the dealership, as staff can spend their time on serious shoppers and not just browsers.

The bottom line, as Deloitte recommends, is not to “…let the dealership be defined by the walls that hold up the roof. Potential customers are everywhere. The flexibility to engage with customers on their own terms in an office, home, or coffee house with video chat or AR/VR can be integral to auto retailing going forward.”

Want to learn more about how you can provide a frictionless customer experience at every stage of the buyer’s journey? Watch the recorded webinar.