The automotive industry's most in-depth and longest-running study of its kind reveals what today's consumers want.  -  IMAGE: Getty Images

The automotive industry's most in-depth and longest-running study of its kind reveals what today's consumers want.

IMAGE: Getty Images

During the past two years, vehicle buyers and service customers have moved even more of their buying and researching online. Because of changes in e-commerce, social-distancing mandates, and purchasing behaviors, many consumers opt to do their shopping, communication, and research from home. 

Digital Air Strike's ninth annual study provides insights into these trends, highlighting how limited inventory, price, payment increases, and the need to pre-order new vehicles have shifted communication expectations between dealers, OEMs, and consumers. 

The facts of the study are clear: Consumers aren't getting the information they seek throughout the vehicle shopping, purchase, and ownership experience. The study also shows how vital a dealer's online presence is and that consumers want better online financing options.

“The vehicle researching, buying, and ownership processes have changed exponentially since the onset of the pandemic,” said Alexi Venneri, co-founder and CEO of Digital Air Strike. “This is the ninth year we have completed our trends study, and the data has consistently proven to be helpful for our dealers and the industry. Our team leverages it to ensure our technology is adapting to address changing consumer behaviors to give our dealer and OEM partners a substantial competitive advantage.”

Digital Air Strike conducted the study throughout the second, third, and fourth quarters of 2021. The ninth annual Automotive Customer Experience Trends Study surveyed 2,046 vehicle buyers and 2,784 service customers who purchased or serviced a vehicle within the previous year. The results were focused on the significant buying demographics from 25-54 years old, with 57% male and 43% female respondents. All lead sources were considered (internet, walk-in, etc.), with all major U.S. geographic regions and domestic and foreign automotive brands represented. The consumer survey focuses on what influences vehicle buyers and service customers to choose one dealership over another — and the answers might surprise you.

Here are five takeaways from the trends study.

#1: Leverage Online Advertising and Interactions to Improve the Customer Experience 

With more consumers working and shopping from home now more than ever, there is a need to ensure your virtual showroom is as prepared for your online visitors as you are for those coming into your physical showroom.

Online sources continue to be the most dominant resource for consumers when researching a dealership for a vehicle purchase or service. Consumers are more likely to select another dealership without a solid online presence that includes current offers and special services.  

The top reasons consumers didn't contact a dealership:

  • 40% said there were no special offers
  • 35% said the prices were too high
  • 26% said there were not enough dealership photos online
  • 11% said there was no easy way to contact the dealership
  • 8% said the dealership had bad reviews
  • 3% said there were no listed COVID-19 protocols

#2: Communicate with Effective and Timely Messaging to Gain More Customers 

Respond to customers quickly, answer all their questions, and provide the resources they need to buy and service their vehicle, including special offers, pricing, financing, warranties, and pre-order information. If you're not responding fast enough, your competition will be happy to assist. 

Response rates from dealers to consumers’ inquiries continue to underwhelm customers. The facts are clear: Dealers are not meeting consumer expectations. And when dealers are responding to questions, consumers are not getting the information they need in those responses. 

Consumers want their questions answered instantly and 24/7, or they will reach out to a competitor in today’s world. Dealers can reach and convert more consumers by leveraging digital communication platforms such as texting and online chats.

Some dealers are responding faster, while others are not responding at all. For example, 57% of vehicle buyers say the dealer responded within an hour from the initial inquiry, up from 52% in the prior study. However, a whopping 31% of consumers, up from just 6% in the previous study, said they didn't receive any pertinent information from the dealership.

Another shocker, three times as many vehicle buyers say the dealership never responded to their inquiry.   

And when they did respond, the quality of the response was lacking. While dealerships may be responding quickly to leads, the information included in the answer could be improved. According to consumers surveyed, this is the information they received after inquiring about a vehicle:

  • 52% - price of the vehicle, down from 80% in the prior study 
  • 26% - offers and incentives, down from 45% for the previous study
  • 17% - other vehicle options, down from 37% in the preceding study
  • 13% - lease and finance options, down from 23% in the prior study

Another missing element that can significantly impact the buyer is videos. Of the consumers surveyed, 41% say a video from a dealership would help their dealership selection. However, only 4% of dealers responded to inquiries with a video. 

#3: Increase Lead Conversion and Protect Your Online Presence with Reviews

Provide an exceptional customer experience, have a process to get positive reviews from happy customers quickly, respond to all reviews, and establish a reputation management strategy that includes promoting your great reviews. 

Based on this year's survey results, more can be done to highlight happy customers and get them to post reviews online after they purchase or service a vehicle. 

Only 58% of sales customers and 71% of service customers said the dealership did not ask them to write a review. This is a lost opportunity since 81% of sales customers and 88% of service customers say they wrote positive reviews when asked for feedback. 

Consumers select dealers based solely on online searches and reviews at record levels. This is true for 60% of sales customers this year, compared to 47% in the prior study. As for service customers, that increased to 67% this year, up from 46% for the previous research. 

Ninety-three percent of vehicle buyers (up from 88% in the prior study) and 87% of service customers said online review sites helped their dealership selection process. 

Meanwhile, 30% more service customers compared to the prior study say a dealership's response to a review is the most crucial factor when considering online reviews. This includes both positive and negative reviews. Consumers want to see that the dealership cares about customer feedback and is willing to address it. 

#4: Turbocharge your marketing game. 

Vehicle buyers overwhelmingly chose Google (60%) as their main source for dealership research and reviews. Google was the only source that increased from the prior study. 

Improve your marketing strategy with a regularly updated Google Business Profile — promote your special offers, post more dealership photos, and alert consumers of pre-orders and newly available inventory. Keep your consumer base loyal and updated so they don't go elsewhere. 

Consumers expect to access accurate, updated information on the first page of search results. Dealerships should revise their Google Business Profile to reflect a digital storefront to meet this expectation. The profile should offer one place to read reviews, get frequently asked questions, see dealership photos, find specials and announcements, and have an easy way to contact the business.

As people watch more movies, TV shows, and sporting events through on-demand streaming channels, dealerships must find new ways to reach and connect with consumers through those platforms. Because most commercials on streaming services can't be skipped, more consumers are viewing the advertisement to continue their programming: 

  • 70% of consumers watched movies, sports, and shows on streaming platforms. 
  • 75% of vehicle buyers and service customers have seen ads while streaming content. 

Consumers also find high value in ads they see on social media. Sixty-eight percent of sales customers, up from 67% in the previous study, and 60% of service customers say ads are helpful and show items and services they're interested in.

Forty-one percent of consumers, up from 38% in the previous study, say a four- or five-star ratings influence which dealership they choose to do business with.

#5: Improve the online experience you offer consumers 

Consumers want more online options to communicate, receive information, and finalize their purchases. An AI chatbot gives customers instant information 24 hours a day. Online credit applications allow customers to take charge of their purchases. Provide online options to sign the paperwork, request a test drive, and seek vehicle pick-up or drop-off options.

Consumers are completing more of the purchase online, including:

  • 56% did the financing online
  • 16% signed paperwork online

As the senior vice president of marketing and communications, Christina Wofford brings more than two decades of experience in journalism, marketing, communications, and public relations to Digital Air Strike. She is responsible for all marketing and lead generation efforts, including earned media and event planning.

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