by Tracey Schelmetic
In the earliest days of the consumer Internet, users often counted themselves lucky to receive an email response from a company within a week. It’s an idea that seems outmodedly quaint today, along with the hamster dance (remember that?) and downloading free music from Napster. Unfortunately, many companies – dealers included – are still assuming it’s 2001 when it comes to their digital customer support.
What Do Consumers Want?
A study conducted in 2018 by SuperOffice found that the average company takes 12 hours and 10 minutes to respond to an email. This is still far too slow for many consumers, 30 percent of which expect a response in an hour or less, according to analyst Jeff Toister. To better meet customer expectations, dealerships need to embrace the new culture and determine what they should be doing differently, according to a recent Dealer News Today podcast interview with Chris Sondesky, Managing Partner at BDC Pros.
“We have to listen to the consumer,” said Sondesky. “From an operational perspective, we need to make the process people-driven.”
Customer Service First, With No Expectations
There’s a stark split in the way people buy cars and the way dealers sell cars today. Buyers want a managed and guided experience – a professional consultation – with someone they trust. At the same time, many sellers are simply chasing leads in an effort to always be closing, forgetting they need to cultivate the customer relationship for repeat buying.
“One side you have consumers, who still need to touch and feel a car,” said Sondesky. “They need the professional consultation. There are great companies that execute different segments of what we do. No one, I have found, has gotten it together all the way. You have to bridge that gap between this lead generation ‘crack’ that we’re all on.”
In that gap is a pathway for customers to get from “I want to buy a car” to “Here is someone who can help me buy a car.”
The Customer Experience is Highly Time-Sensitive
During the podcast, Dave Cantin notes that customers today aren’t driving to five dealerships to shop for the best price. They also want the right service, the right selection and – perhaps most important – the right customer experience.
“A customer emails a dealer,” said Cantin. “You have minutes to respond, and it’s so critical that you do, or else they’re going to email the next dealer. Whoever responds first and gives that customer what they want is going to earn their business.”
Response time to email, social media or text inquiries can even provide cover to otherwise imperfect dealer responses, according to Sondesky.
“In our data, we found that the dealer that responds to the customer and doesn’t otherwise botch the process gets the business five out of six times,” he said. “You’ve got to be fast to respond to the customer wants.”
Dealerships should let go of the expectation that they’re going to be able to deliver a car today or tomorrow. Consumers don’t necessarily need a process that fast: they’re receptive to a five or seven-day window, provided there are set expectations of what the process will entail, and what they need to do get there. Dealers that communicate this information clearly will find that consumers are happy to take those steps.
It’s Less About Sales and More About Customer Service
The days of simply waiting for customers to walk into the showroom based on radio, television or print ads are over. Successful dealerships are addressing customers directly online, which makes it less of a sales process and more of a customer experience process. Loyal customers are those who trust the information they’re being provided, as well as the individual who provides it. The key is making customers feel that you care about earning their business.
The right dealer experience needs to be a blend of customer service and sales, but according to Sondesky, too many dealers are still pushing the sales side too hard without providing the customer service element.
“What comes first?” he asked. “The sale or customer service? The customer service comes first. Give that with no expectation. If you work from that premise, the customer will give you the opportunity to earn what you want.”
Sondesky urged dealers to build what he calls “crack alpha teams” that operate from a series of coordinated best practices, tightening up operations on a segmented basis throughout the sales process so no steps are skipped and no opportunities fall through the cracks. These management-led teams should be supported by a strong boots-on-the-ground initiative. Avoid aggressive calls, auto-replies on emails and ambiguity with customers about when they’re going to get a response.
“This is not the time to have 100 generals in a room looking at a battle plan,” said Sondesky. “This is the time to get your sergeants and lieutenants together operationally and have them tighten up their processes, identify exactly what they can and can’t do, and what they’re capable of executing under a time frame.”
The Goal is to Drive Repeat Business
There is an oft-quoted business truism that it costs five times as much to attract a new customer than to keep an existing one, yet you’d never know it from the way some dealerships spend the lion’s share of their time attracting new leads rather than nurturing existing customer relationships.
“We’ve gotten away from earning our customers’ business – the repeat business,” said Sondesky. “Customers should be buying two, three, four or five cars from you. If you can earn that from them, and deliver that service, all the other supply stuff happens. Pay attention to customers, make it about people again and stop looking at it as a transaction.”