Breaking Down the Customer Experience
Who is the modern customer?
Ask 10 different people and you might get 10 different answers. So, maybe that’s not the question you should be asking.
Let’s rephrase it to: Who is your customer and how can you meet their needs today and into the future?
The automotive industry is unique in the way that it serves many different age groups—from Gen Z to the GI Generation—and many needs, from vehicle purchase to routine maintenance to collision repair. For most of the general population, vehicle ownership and maintaining those vehicles is a part of everyday life. So, even though it may not top their list of desired businesses to visit, the fact is that the average consumer will, at some point in his or her life, need to visit a dealerships—most likely on more than one occasion.
For this reason and the overall success of a business, dealerships need to start taking a closer look at how their businesses attract, impress, retain and win over the customer. It needs to look at how the different departments work together to provide a top-notch experience because any bad experience within the doors of the dealership can cause a customer to leave forever.
So, how do you keep a customer throughout the lifecycle of his or her vehicle? “One-size-fits-all mentality” is not the answer because your customers are not all the same. They don’t have the same wants or needs. As a company, it’s your responsibility to figure out who your customer demographic is and the overarching approach you can take to maintain those customers. Then, take it on a case-by-case basis and individualize the approach to work with that customer.
Two automotive groups—one specializing in higher-end vehicles and one covering a wide variety of OEMs more commonly seen on the road—outline their strategies for getting customers through the door, providing them with a memorable experience and retaining their business throughout the lifecycle of their vehicle. They also describe what to do to win that customer back in the unfortunate case that the customer has a less-than-stellar experience. Then, two customer experience experts weigh in regarding how to best engage customers at each stage of the life cycle.
So, take the time to familiarize yourself with a number of different strategies and then take a closer look at your customer base to find what works for you. Remember, a one-size-fits-all mentality is not the way to go, but overall, these tactics will win over a wide range of customers.
Then, it’s up to you to fine tune it.
Meet the Players
The Luxury Dealership: Velocity Honolulu
Velocity Honolulu, part of JN Group Inc., embodies luxury. The website even spells it out:
“Velocity Honolulu caters to those who desire more than the ordinary…”
Velocity Honolulu is a destination. It was created so its customers—the owners of Lamborghinis, Ferraris, Maseratis, Lotuses, Bentleys, Audis, Alfa Romeos, Jaguar and Land Rovers—could experience the finer things in life. To put it simply, Velocity provides a one-of-a-kind experience for all that walk through the door. But the way it does that is nothing short of extraordinary: The building not only houses the dealerships and its state-of-the-art service center, it also has fine Italian cuisine, fashion boutiques and spas.
The Traditional Dealership: Hanania Automotive Group
The Hanania Automotive Group, which has 17 dealerships (soon to be 18) with two body shops, covers 12 OEMs and is closer to what most picture when they think of a dealership. Although it may not offer an in-house men’s salon (like Velocity), each of the group’s locations provide its customers with memorable customer service and by doing that, have created a wide range of customers to which to cater.
Meet the Experts
Newman is the principal analyst and founding partner of Futurum Research, a strategy, research and analyst firm; and CEO of Broadsuite Media Group; a group that connects brands to customers. He is a contributor to Forbes, Entrepreneur and Huffington Post.
Morgan is a keynote speaker on customer experience and author of More is More: How the Best Companies Work Harder and Go Further to Create Knock Your Socks Off Customer Experiences. Morgan contributes to Forbes, Harvard Business Review and Hemispheres magazine and is the host of The Modern Customer podcast.
Phase 1: Attract
In order to stand out in a sea of competition, the top dealerships find a way to pique customers’ interest
One in three.
That’s the number of service visits that are conducted at a dealership, according to a Cox Automotive study.
That’s the number of franchised dealers in the U.S., according to the National Automobile Dealers Association’s (NADA) mid-year report in 2018.
That means the majority of potential customers bring work elsewhere and—even when they are bringing it to the dealership—still have plenty of options when it comes to where to bring their vehicles.
So, how do you stand out and get customers to come in?
There needs to be something that draws customers in—from an eye-catching billboard to standout customer service. Customers need a reason to want to bring the car to the facility.
The Luxury Dealership
Strategy: Flaunt your assets
It’s impossible to walk down Kapiolani Boulevard in Honolulu and not take notice of Velocity Honolulu.
First of all, it’s not exactly tucked away on the outskirts of town. No, it’s located just outside downtown Honolulu, on one of the busiest streets in the city.
The showroom and service department are housed in a 226,113-square-foot building across from the Blaisdell Concert Hall and Exhibition Center. The facility is so impressive that it just took home gold in the International Council of Shopping Centers’ Global Awards for U.S. Design and Development.
The building is nothing short of a masterpiece.
Then come all the amenities. The building has not one, but two Italian restaurants: Italica Bar & Café, which serves authentic Italian street food and coffee, and its newest restaurant, Viaggio, which infuses traditional Italian cuisine with Hawaiian flavors. After lunch, customers can head to the Kristin Wood Boutique, which specializes in lash extensions and has a nail salon, or to Sixty-One, a menswear boutique and barbershop owned by Velocity.
“The great thing about the locations within Velocity is that they draw in clientele that may not particularly have visited us,” says Jessica Eggers, senior branding & marketing coordinator of JN Group Inc. “Kristin Wood is a renowned boutique and helps lead more guests into the facility. And, having Italica so visible when passing down Ward Avenue gives guests a quick and comfortable way to come in and be introduced to the facility.”
Getting customers to come in the facility before they ever need a service has been effective for Velocity. Eggers estimates that multiple people each day come to the showroom or the service department after learning about it during a visit to the restaurants, spa or boutique.
The Traditional Dealership
Strategy: Give customers what they want
With 17 (soon to be 18) dealerships representing 12 OEMs, the Hanania Automotive Group has to communicate to a variety of different customers while maintaining some sort of cohesiveness. Lee Bradley, corporate fixed operations director for Hanania, explains that the unified message comes from the group’s internal marketing through its ad agency. The message are free of any “fluff,” explains Bradley, who oversees the Jacksonville area for the dealer group.
“They’re [the Hanania customer] interested in the message and savings,” Bradley.
That’s why, from the website to its email marketing campaigns, the group is up front with its customers and makes all of the information easily accessible. They also communicate in a way that the customer appreciates.
“People don’t spend 10 percent off—they spend dollars off,” Bradley explains. “If they know the regular price and can see the savings, it’s more effective.”
The website was created with the growing millennial customer base in mind and was meant to serve those that, “live on their phone.”
Bradley explains that access to information is paramount. If information isn’t easily accessible, that customer will be lost.
“Service, pricing to scheduling an appointment to hitting a number to dial should be easily found on a smartphone,” Bradley says. “We try to be as transparent as possible in that sense.”
Another technique the group uses is identifying missed opportunities with customers and rectifying those. Bradley says this is an area where many dealerships miss out.
“I’ve been very successful at looking at what we’re not doing,” Bradley says. “Most dealerships do so many things great but it’s what they’re not doing (where they miss out). The question you have to ask is, ‘Do I give my customer a reason to get anywhere else to get what they need? Am I pointing them anywhere else to get them something that I should be providing?’”
For many, Bradley explains, its tires. This, in Bradley’s experience, is one of the main reasons that customers go somewhere else.
“Most people are still unaware that you can buy tires and dealers and [those that are], think it will be more expensive,” Bradley says.
To combat this, the group gets the word out and makes sure its customers are aware and also offers deals. Each location within the Hanania Group has a deal on tires—get four for the price of three all day, every day. The group also does price matching and free tire alignments.
Another recommendation? Don’t forget about collision. The Hanania group has the largest collision center in Jacksonville so it doesn’t lose out on potential or existing customers in the case of an accident.
The Experts Weigh In
The times have changed—the auto industry has done a complete 180. Before, dealerships had all of the information and customers were at their mercy. That is no longer the case.
Customers have all the information. They can see what other customers bought and can come in with all of the information that they need. They know what a fair deal looks like.
That’s not only the case in sales, it’s the same for fixed ops. Customers no longer have to worry about relying on the technician. With all of the information readily available, they know whether or not they’re being ripped off, so providing transparency and creating trust with the customer is key.
Modern customers are connected and smart. They use technology and expect brands they interact with to use it, as well. Customers are never far from their gadgets, and dealerships need to take advantage of this.
Personalization of messaging is another effective way to attract customers. Brands have the potential to connect with people individually, and they love that. Customers are more likely to return to a company that shows it cares about them as a person and provides a customized service, so, find a way to send out personalized messages to bring customers in.
Phase 2: Impress
Once a customer walks through the door, remember, you only have one chance to make a first impression
Everyone knows the saying, “Don’t judge a book by its cover.”
In other words, getting the customer through the door is only half the battle. A beautiful building amounts to nothing if the service received inside is terrible.
Every experience matters. Make sure all of the departments within your dealership are doing everything they can to make a positive impression because they are all interlinked. Even one negative experience can lead to a lost customer.
The Luxury Dealership
Strategy: Cater to your guests
Once you enter the Velocity doors, Eggers explains visitors are treated to the “Aloha Spirit,” which takes the Hawaiian word for love, affection, peace, compassion and mercy, and puts it into action.
“Whoever walks in our facility is treated with open arms,” Eggers says.
Eggers explains that Velocity’s president, Brad Nicolai, created Velocity out of a vision he had to uproot customers’ expectations.
“Velocity is a luxury destination where you can shop, unwind and dine,” Eggers says. “It truly is a destination.”
The concierge team is happy to give all guests a tour of the facility upon request.
“We like to help them feel familiar with the building and to let them know what amenities we can offer them and show them exactly where they are,” Eggers says.
Once the visitor decides on a destination, the staff walks them there, rather than pointing it out or giving verbal directions. It’s a gesture that goes a long way, explains Eggers, and reflects the dealership’s commitment to hospitality training. In fact, several employees have received hospitality training with programs through the University of Hawaii at Mānoa as well as various five-star hotel training—all in an effort to uphold Velocity’s core values: S.TI.VE. (See sidebar “Behind the Values”).
“Everyone receives the same experience,” Eggers says. “Come to any of our events at Velocity and it’s not just one type of person—we’re proud of that.”
Upon entering the service center, which is located on the second floor of the facility, guests are greeted by service consultants, who are all factory trained. This helps put customers at ease and offers them that quality experience, explains Eggers. All of the service consultants go through internal and corporate training based on the brands with which he or she is affiliated.
“Their love for our brands truly shines through,” Eggers says. “This passion and dedication to staying in the game is what attracts and retains clientele.”
The Traditional Dealership
Strategy: Show appreciation and do what you say you’re going to do
It starts with a smile, explains Bradley when asked about winning customers over.
“Look happy that the customer has decided to come to you,” Bradley says.
This may sound obvious, but you’d be surprised, Bradley says.
“Your behavior never lies, and the customer is always watching,” Bradley says.
That’s why special attention needs to be paid to body language and the words that are being used when customers come in to parts, service or collision. It’s also important to follow through with your promises.
“If you say you’re going to call [the customer] at two, call them at two,” Bradley says.
Bradley stresses that at Hanania, it’s all about communication, whether it’s spoken or unspoken. Don’t forget to use the customer’s name, say “thank you” when he or she picks the car up. Little things add up, Bradley says. However, when stress runs high, it’s easier to forget those little things. That’s why it’s important to manage daily, Bradley says.
“Every morning, you should have a one-minute pep talk,” Bradley says. “Make sure everyone knows where they stand.”
At Hanania, they have a daily report that summarizes what was done the day before and what needs to be done that day. Doing this will eliminate stress and allow more time to focus on what matters—the customer.
“Every day should be just as urgent as the last day of the month,” Bradley says. “If you build that urgency, then it’s amazing how it benefits the customer.”
The Experts Weigh In
It’s all about empathy and identifying what a particular customer’s need is. Some consumers prefer a high-level of human interaction throughout the process and others prefer as little as possible. Fixed operation departments need to be able to offer both to customers. Companies need to be responsive to the customer.
Customers care more about the experience than they do about a price or a product, which means they’re willing to pay more for a better experience. For fixed operations, in particular, customer experience is a great way to stand out from the competition and create loyal customers.
If you focus on creating a great experience when a customer has been in a collision, for example, you can build a reputation for helping customers through difficult times and potentially get more word-of-mouth referrals.
Phase 3: Retain
In order to be successful, top dealerships keep customers within the organization
The basic goal of a dealership is to keep a customer throughout his or her vehicle’s lifetime, which means getting all of its service, parts and collision repairs needs done at the same location. However, this doesn’t always happen. Dealership fixed operations have a difficult time retaining customers. In fact, the Cox Automotive Study reports that a lack of retention costs dealers $266 billion in lost revenue annually and 70 percent of consumers who purchased or leased from a dealer did not return for service in the past year. That’s a lot of missed opportunities. That’s why dealers need to do whatever is possible to not only provide them with a first-class experience the first time, but find ways to make sure that they keep coming back.
The Luxury Dealership
Strategy: Give them a fun reason to come back
Customers that come to Velocity become members of the Velocity family.
“We stay in a constant loop of communication through service reminders, product launch events, test drive events, customer appreciation mixers and more,” Eggers says about customer follow-up. “We also love that the boutique and restaurants are able to offer yet another attraction to Velocity and keeps our auto and moto clients coming back.”
Basically, once you’ve experienced Velocity, the team makes it very hard to forget about the experience that was had and keeps customers wanting to come back.
Velocity’s business development center team handles communication with customers to remind them of servicing and other appointments, but also sends out invitations for various events within the building and that celebrate Velocity in general. Recently, Velocity hosted “Just Add Water,” an art exhibit that was a collaboration between Modern Luxury Hawai’i magazine and Kelly Sueda Fine Art that celebrated the local surf community to benefit the Kapi’olani Medical Center for Women and Children. Eggers says that Velocity loves to support local companies, so anytime there is an opportunity, the dealership jumps on it and invites its customers base.
Eggers says that one of the most rewarding parts of the events is seeing all of the dealership’s clientele mingling.
The Traditional Dealership
Strategy: Create a positive culture
The dealerships within the Hanania Group may not have the bells and whistles that Velocity has as far as attracting customers back, but the positive energy and experience that the customers receive is what keeps them coming back for more, Bradley explains.
“If [the techs] are happy and in good spirits, then the customer will feel that energy,” Bradley says.
This is monitored by having the service manager on the floor as often as possible, which goes back to Bradley’s last lesson of managing daily.
“You need to be out on the drive during your peak times, you need to be out with your team,” Bradley says.
The staff of the group are trained to educate customers and have open communication from the moment they step through the door, explains Bradley. Every customer is asked for his or her preferred contact method (phone call, email, text).
“It’s really just asking when they come in. It’s amazing. People think, ‘Wow, I have a choice.’ Give customers options,” Bradley says.
Once this information has been collected and the customer is out the door, the dealership follows-up with service reminders, specials and announcements.
“It’s all about reaching out to them and being there for them,” Bradley says.
The Experts Weigh In
Consistency and timing are key. Most people aren’t thinking ahead to their next service or aren’t thinking about a collision, but when the light goes on or an unfortunate fender bender occurs, most people dig into archives to see if they have an email—especially when it comes to service. The light goes on and people immediately look for a coupon.
To retain customers, make sure you stay top-of-mind. Make sure customers are aware of services provided and get the word out if your dealership can service other brands beyond the OE represented. Service advisors need to be communicating this to people.
When a sale happens, this message needs to be communicated. In most instances, people just say thank you and goodbye. That doesn’t help retain customers within fixed operations. I’ve turned in two leases in the past year and both times that was an opportunity for them to say, “Even if you don’t buy from us, we’d love to keep your service.” That way, if a customer enjoyed the service he or she received, he or she knows that they can continue to bring in whatever vehicle they have for routine maintenance oil changes or tire rotations.
Following up with customers is a great way to let them know that you are still thinking about them and that you value their business.
The follow-up stage is key, but it’s often forgotten once the customers walks out of the dealership. To do this as effectively as possible, make the follow-ups personal. A handwritten thank you card or a personalized phone call can do wonders. Customers can see through things like canned emails and aren’t likely to respond.
(If Needed) Phase 4: Win Back
If a customer has a negative experience, it’s your duty to make it right
Perfection is impossible. Even the best dealerships know that sometimes a customer has a negative experience and chooses to take his or her business elsewhere. It’s important to remember that the customer is not a lost cause and there is an opportunity to win him or her back and reinstate them into the lifecycle.
The Luxury Dealership
Strategy: Address the issue immediately
Any issue brought up by a client at Velocity in the service department is immediately brought to the service manager and director to internally investigate it, Eggers explains. The client is then reached out to to learn what the problem was.
“We will work with them until we can find a solution,” Eggers says.
Velocity monitors all of its reviews around the clock.
“We are alerted of every single positive or negative review and each review is responded to,” Eggers says.
For negative reviews, the location’s department and manager are contacted to investigate the matter and the team reaches out to the reviewer to work to find a solution.
“Our holistic approach keeps everyone involved and prevents similar issues from occurring again, and helps us make amends with the unsatisfied guest,” Eggers says.
The Traditional Dealership
Strategy: Take feedback to heart
Bradley remembers a customer that rated the dealership three stars. He personally called her up and spoke with her about her experience. Her response?
“Oh my god, you actually read those?”
That customer appreciated it so much that she has returned to the dealership on multiple occasions.
Whenever he possibly can, Bradley personally sifts through the reviews that are four and below and reaches out to customers to find out what went wrong.
“I learned a long time ago that it’s nothing personal,” Bradley says about the reviews.
Often, he says, the customer is just looking for a safe place to vent and will often feel better after and be happy to come back if something is done to remedy the situation.
Bradley says many of the customers that he reaches out to are shocked that he’s so appreciative of their feedback, which goes to show how few businesses actually value input and use it to improve their operations.
“That’s the only way we get better,” Bradley says.
The Experts Weigh In
It’s all about prevention. Make sure the customer has the best possible experience so you never have to deal with a negative experience. However, there are some situations that will arise because some people are just impossible to please. That’s where the follow-up call comes in. The key is to try and get to the customer before a negative review pops up.
I went with my daughter to look at a vehicle for her that was advertised as a low-mileage, low-cost lease. When I went in, the dealership explained that the ad was not accurate. I understood—until I saw the same ad running five days later. I called the dealership and again told them about it and when it was still up a few days later, I wrote a review.
I never planned on writing a negative review, but it was clear this was a shady method to bring people in and when they did not deal with the issue, I took action. Experiences like this can affect the opinion of the fixed operations within the dealership and is a reason why all departments need to work together for the best possible customer experience. Fixed operations and sales need to work together. If they think you are a shady dealership when it comes to sales, they won’t be able to seperate the two. They’ll think the whole thing is shady.
When it comes to winning back a customer, follow-up with customers that have had a negative experience and reach out to them to see what can be learned from the situation.
The first step is to acknowledge that they could have had a much better experience. Be authentic and own whatever went wrong. Customers can see right through companies that don’t back their words with actions or that are only apologizing to get a sale. If a mistake was made, that department needs to make it right. That can be by replacing a part or offering a discount for a future service but the customer needs to know that the gesture is authentic and that it will be used as a learning experience for the future. Listen to customer feedback and take their suggestions into consideration so the bad experience doesn’t happen again.