The road to the digital buying experience has been kicked into high-speed as a result of the pandemic, and consumer’s shopping habits continue to evolve. Providing dealers with a seamless route to working with consumers on the platforms and outlets they prefer can make or break your digital initiatives.
Dealers have a number of options when selecting the right technology partner, so ensuring you are meeting their needs and keeping up with the most current trends and technology is of paramount importance.
P&A spoke with The Impact Group’s COO, Garret Thorpe, and ProMax’s COO, Shane Born, on a wide range of digital aspects crucial to your dealer-clients’ business. Dealers have a number of options when selecting the right technology partner, so ensuring you are meeting their needs and keeping up with the most current trends and tech is of paramount importance, as well as implementing long-term strategies for success.
Understanding Dealership Technology
What are some key qualities or characteristics that dealers should focus on when it comes to vetting and selecting prospective technology partners?
Thorpe: It’s the background and experience that the provider brings to the dealership’s operations: How long have they been in business? What’s their background? What kind of growth are they experiencing if they’re a relatively new technology provider? Growth is really important, but if it’s not managed properly or if they’re seeing a lot of fast growth, that can be an inhibitor in terms of the performance and adoption of the application. What are the backgrounds of the people who are in leadership roles or the people who are supporting or developing the application? Are they technology professionals who are developing for automotive or are they automotive professionals who are developing technology that supports automotive processes? Things like uptime, redundancies, and reliance on a responsive support team are also very important. We see now, especially with the remote aspects of the industry, that there are a lot of new systems that are being leveraged and installed, and there are changes in process that might be taking place. If there are stresses on those systems, whether from a bandwidth or uptime standpoint, and those systems fail, that can really hamper the operations inside and outside the dealership, as well as the experience for the customer.
Beyond that, when you are evaluating a technology partner, you have to question their commitment. Is that provider in business to support you on a month-to-month basis or are they going to ask you for a year-long or three-year-long commitment to leverage their technology? There are a lot of companies in the industry that have recognized, if the system is developed, supported and trained on, and implemented properly, those systems should stand up on their own two legs. Providers shouldn’t have the right to hold the dealer to a multi-year commitment if their services are not reliable and supported properly. That’s an important question for a dealer to ask, as well as about the fees. A company’s structure is also important. Are they developing and supporting their own applications or are they outsourcing any of that development, support, or training? How does that work, and are those services inhouse or are they leveraging third parties as part of that process? All of this affects the dealer’s relationship and experience with the platform.
With respect to implementation and systems training, what are some strategies that ensure successful adoption of new technologies into a dealer’s process?
Thorpe: In today’s environment, given the adjustments we have all made in regard to remote connectivity, certain processes that might have been previously followed 100% of the time, or close to it, are now not always being followed as closely. We are all adapting to changes in schedules and finding that we need to be, as technology providers, adaptable to a dealer’s schedule and what is happening with the flow of business within the dealership. When it comes to implementation and training, particularly if you can’t be doing that in person, are you adaptive to what might be going on, on the other side? If you’re training a finance manager and business happens to be really busy that day, and this is a remote training process, can you be nimble and adjust to that and whatever else is happening at the dealership level? The success of the implementation really relies on the architecture of the technology just as much as the training and installation of it. Is it in intuitive? Is it easy to use? Are there other ancillary applications that are necessary to help support the use of that application? In a remote environment, is there a thorough testing of configuration before it goes live?
We’re seeing many dealers implementing new technology at a rapid pace in order to be prepared for what might be coming over the next couple of months. We want to get those systems running as quickly as possible, and we want to get them into action and maintain that profitability. But, if we are not following a routine and methodical process to test and configure those systems, as well as properly train on them, and cross train teams if necessary, then we are setting ourselves up for failure — not only at the provider level, but at the dealership level of that customer experience and the profitability that comes out of it.
In our current environment, what aspects of a technology platform are most essential to making remote accessibility and support of the dealership easier for a dealer’s partners, as well as their employees?
Thorpe: Ease of use and the system design is most important. Is it easy to use and is it simple to understand, not only from the end-user’s standpoint in the dealership, but for the customer who might be interfacing it with the individual in the dealership? Is it a logical flow of information for both parties? Is the navigation of the software intuitive and simple? In terms of development, is it up to date? Is it leveraging the most up-to-date technology? Is it cross-compatible on all devices that a customer might interface with it? Is it safe and secure?
When it comes to our remote environment, a lot is happening as far as sensitivity of information and the content of the interaction between the dealer and their customer. You have to make sure that the communications are secure, the information is being sent and linked properly, and there are no risks as far as privacy and safeguarding of information. These things are all really in flux right now. We have to make sure that we have systems and processes in place that support the security of that information. In terms of the remote accessibility portion, you have to ask if that piece is baked into the application that’s being leveraged or is it necessary for the dealer or user to be maintaining their own remote connectivity piece? Are they managing their own Zoom account or subscription to GoTo Meeting in order to connect and interface with the dealer? Or does the piece of software they are leveraging already have that baked into the platform in a way that is easy to activate and easy for customers to access at the same time? Those are really critical elements to the remote aspect of all this.
We need to make sure the experience has continuity, whether it’s delivered remotely or if the customer is sitting in the dealership with the person who is driving it. We are first and foremost focused on the F&I interaction, so our philosophy is that it should be the easiest piece of technology for the F&I manager to leverage. However, the customer is interfacing with that technology, whether they’re in the dealership or they’re outside the dealership. To the benefit of the customer and the person in the dealership that is leveraging and driving that interaction, it really should be the same process regardless of how the customer is seeing and experiencing it.
The last thing about the remote connectivity piece is that dealership management, executive level managers, and partners that support operations outside the dealership need to have the remote connectivity to track, monitor, and manage what’s happening or what’s not happening in those processes, even if they’re not in the dealership.
What advice can you give to help dealers ensure that customer satisfaction remains consistently high in an era when certain deviations from tried-and-true dealership processes might be more likely, or even necessary?
Thorpe: It’s really important that the technology platform that is being selected and implemented is customizable to the highest degree possible to support the processes in the dealership that work at a very high level. It must also bolster the areas for particular dealerships operations that maybe could use some enhancement or improvement. I think that customizability and ensuring that the dealer’s value proposition, brand identity, and market identity in the area they compete can be leveraged and conveyed to the customer. Even if we are in a situation where we’re not in the same building, does the customer experience the exact same thing they would in a finance office or a showroom? Is the platform process oriented? If the platform is not process oriented to some degree, and we are deviating from those tried-and-true processes, there might be a tendency to put the cart before the horse.
On our side of the industry, F&I is the focus. If we’re trying to get through a delivery quickly, keep a customer happy, and make sure that all the options are still presented, are we going to find ourselves in a situation where we are presenting payment before value? That doesn’t do anyone any good in terms of maintaining a value proposition and positive customer experience. Let’s continue to follow the steps to the sale that we know are most effective and ensure that we’ve got the customer in a solid deal before we take our next steps. Is there a value proposition that’s understood on whatever is being presented to the customer before we talk about what it’s going to cost them to leverage those solutions? I think that the technology platform, if it supports those processes and helps maintain them, and if those processes are trackable and manageable remotely, that is a really important thing in terms of customer experience but also in maintaining profitability. You have to ensure that communications inside the dealership and outside the dealership are tied together with its partners, whether it’s a general agency partner or an administrator partner. That way, if there is something going on and an agent can’t get into the dealership to help resolve it, they know what is happening in the store or they know how those systems or processes are being followed, so they can continue to develop income, train, and help support the account even if they’re not party to those interactions to the same degree they might have been previously. Process-oriented technology, tracking mechanisms that allow you to monitor and manage, and keeping it speedy and efficient for the customer are all still very important.
The Digital Buying Experience
How has COVID accelerated the migration towards offering a digital buying experience to customers?
Born: While we’ve seen more adoption of online tools consistently, and in many cases across generations of several years, COVID certainly expanded the awareness of gaps currently facing the auto shopper, especially those that are looking to have a similar experience to what they have on Amazon. We’ve seen certain companies take advantage of that, like Carvana for example. With larger groups like Asbury, we recently saw them try to tackle the same challenge with their release of Clicklane. There are other companies out there looking to migrate to that next step. But there are some data points to take into consideration. Google recently shared that 93% of people are using their personal vehicle more, and that’s a positive thing for the auto industry as people migrate away from rideshares and public transport. When they surveyed the Top 10 Factors in 2020 for Considering Purchasing a Car, at home test drives, review videos, online payments, and VR test drives were all amongst the top. We’re starting to get some insight into things that people are seeing as important when making that decision. Additionally, 18% of those people said they would buy a vehicle sooner if there was online purchasing option. Now, I don’t think we’re quite at the point where everyone wants to put a car in their online shopping cart, click a button and be done with it, but I think that we are seeing disruption in our industry.
Currently, the primary driver of consumer value within digital is research. Google shows that 95% of auto shoppers use digital as a source of information during that research phase, and 65% of those buyers research for three weeks or less before making a purchase. Once they start researching, they’re making a purchase pretty quickly. Another interesting point is 60% of those were undecided when they started. It’s no longer, my father drove a Ford, my last car was a Ford, so I’m going to buy another Ford. They’re having an open mind during that research phase. Additionally, video test drives and walkthroughs have doubled in the last year, according to YouTube — 70% of consumers said that the video they watched influenced their final decision. When you combine that with the fact that more consumers are starting on third party sites, we’ve seen a 12% YOY increase starting on third party, and a decrease in going straight to a dealership website. Dealers want to ensure is that you’re aligning your digital marketing spend — Google ads, pay-per-click, etc. — to target those consumers that are still in the undecided, research phase. You also want to attract them with the things they are looking for. When they’ve gone from one of these third-party websites and they land on your website, you have to ensure you’re offering them more — additional steps they can take and additional information, specific to your dealership. Examples would be to give them the option to become instantly pre-qualified — not just fill out a form and hope someone calls you back, but instantly get prequalified. See what the value of their car is, figure out the equity on the car and how that translates to payments on the specific vehicle they are looking at. Those things allow a consumer to give additional and valuable information, while ultimately making the buying process frictionless, faster, and more convenient. That’s really what the consumer is looking for when they are talking about a positive digital buying experience.
What advice would you give a dealership as they contemplate the mobile component of their digital strategy?
Born: If you’re not putting a significant focus on mobile when talking about digital marketing, you’ve missed the boat by a couple of years. More than ever now, its needs to be an optimized and enjoyable mobile experience for consumers. In the third quarter of 2020, mobile devices (excluding tablets) generated 50.81% of all global traffic. Google continues to modify and change their practices based on mobile-friendly standards and the weight that is placed on your SEO ranking. If your site isn’t performing well on mobile, your SEO ranking is going to show that. In an effort to share some quick things that a dealership can take into consideration when talking about that: Is it easy for users to find the information that is most important to them on the mobile device? What are the most prevalent things people are wanting when they come to my website? Can they easily click-to-call, see hours, and schedule a service? And is all that info above the fold? Make it easy when they get to your website so that they don’t have to dig for the information they are probably there to get.
Second thing, is the mobile site visually appealing? For a long time, it was enough if you had a redirect of your existing website on mobile and all the info was there. That’s not good enough anymore. It has to look good. Otherwise, you are going to see higher bounce rates on your mobile than you’re seeing on your desktop. Are my buttons an optimal size for fingers to press? It’s amazing how many times you see these mobile sites that are trying to get all these different CTAs and they’re all crammed together, and it becomes difficult to click.
Make sure the mobile site is loading quickly using optimized code. Speed is even more important on a mobile than on a desktop. People using it on a mobile application are more impatient than sitting at a desktop. Make sure you use optimized code, because you want to be immediately pulling up whatever they click. I especially see this as a failure in inventory loading pages. When they get to that page, if you haven’t brought up the first couple of cars right away, they bounce and are onto the next site. Those are just a couple of the takeaways I would give when analyzing your site for mobile friendliness.
What do you foresee on the horizon for digital in the automotive space over the next couple of years?
Born: I think the future is exciting, especially when talking about technology. I think we will continue to see OEMs and dealers adapting AR, VR and 360-video. We’ve already seen BMW, Audi, Porsche, and Infiniti all start to take advantage of this phenomenon. Audi originally allowed consumers to completely customize their vehicle through VR, check out all the different trims and colors and all of that. Porsche went a little bit farther with their virtual experience, where users got the opportunity to see new models before they were even released, which allowed them to pre-order cars. We’ve seen Tesla have an advantage with this, and the new Bronco was another example of OEMs having success doing that. Moving towards the retail side of it, if you look what Vroom just launched, it’s their first virtual reality showroom, and when I looked the other day, they had about 30 cars. But they’re targeting 300 different cars that you can take a look at by year’s end. Goldman Sachs recently reported that the potential for the VR/AR market is $80 billion by 2025 — $35 billion of that specific to software, of which a significant piece is going to be consumed by the auto industry. Another interesting company in that space is a place called Relay Cars. They recently hit 1.1 million downloads on their VR software app, so there is definitely an appetite for that type of immersive experience.
From a safety perspective, there are several companies working with immersive reality, displaying real-time data on the windshield to help keep drivers focused. Perhaps the most prominent edge of this technology is the stereoscopic image that can fix the driver’s viewing angle, and directions, signals, and info, can appear to be part of the road, which keeps your focus on the road and up as opposed to the center console, and in many cases, your cell phone. I think that safety is going to be an important thing that VR helps to increase as we move forward.
There are a few nice benefits where the VR experience becomes more standard in addition to the safety example. It will allow dealers to show off every combination of model, trim, and color, without having to stock all of them. It’s a considerably better immersive experience for the consumer within VR than the last two pages of the brochure where you’ve got the color swatches. Taking it a step farther, the consumer is going to be able to spend as much time as they want within that vehicle, looking at all the different combinations to become comfortable with what they want. And what that’s going to do down the road? It will lend valuable insights into what’s important to a consumer. What are they spending their time on? What’s most important to them when they’re not being pressured by a sales associate on the showroom floor? And it may eventually translate to the CRM. If you can see they spent time online checking out safety features, it registers in the CRM, and when they come into the dealership, the sales associate knows they should spend time highlighting some of those safety features. I think the blend from the virtual experience to the physical experience is going to become more tightly knit which is pretty exciting.