Steve Young Blog: Improving the customer experience

By automotive-mag.com 7 Min Read

We are often told that the customer experience in dealerships has been transformed in recent years through more diverse recruitment practises and improved training, reinforced by ongoing customer satisfaction surveys and mystery shopping.  You would therefore expect to find this reflected in feedback from buyers.  We are also all too aware of the weak demand from retail customers for battery electric vehicles (BEVs) in most parts of the world and you would therefore expect dealers to be making every effort to capture sales from any prospects in the showroom who expressed interest in a BEV.

As part of our research programme, ICDP has just started a series of focus groups with new car buyers in France, Germany, Netherlands and the UK, and I listened in yesterday to the first two in the UK.  We have deliberately selected participants for the groups who had an interest in BEVs at the time that they bought their last car, even if they actually bought something else.  Whilst focus groups provide you with a rich source of anecdotes and qualitative evidence, they’re clearly not statistically representative, but there were a couple of consistent threads through both groups that I found quite shocking.

The first related to the buying experience in general.  We know from quantitative research going back almost 15 years that new car buyers rank the quality of the interaction with the staff in the dealership as the most influential factor on their purchase, ranking far ahead of physical attributes of the dealership itself in terms of architecture and finishes.  We also know that almost all car buyers conduct extensive online research before they ever visit dealers so are well informed, typically have very specific questions or needs that they want to address in the dealership visit and are very likely to buy the brand that they have come to see.

Despite this we heard numerous tales of sales executives who were unable to answer some straightforward questions or even worse gave answers which the buyers immediately knew to be wrong because of their earlier research.  In at least one case this led a customer to buy car which was totally inappropriate for their pattern of usage.  In another case a female buyer had been treated in a highly condescending way, being guided towards the rear seat on the test drive even though she was actually the real buyer and decision maker.

With respect to those who were buying BEVs, it was obvious that many of the sales executives had very limited knowledge of what it actually meant to live with a BEV in respect of the various factors that influence real world range and what the broader implications were for a buyer of choosing a BEV over other powertrain options.  One thing that we have found in this and previous consumer research with retail buyers buying or considering a BEV is that they are very aware of the potential issues and pitfalls of choosing a BEV even if some of this knowledge comes from less than reliable sources like parts of social media and the general press.  Our panels yesterday raised topics such as high initial depreciation, premature obsolescence due to technology change, artificially inflated service times, higher tyre wear and increased collision repair costs without any prompting from the moderator.  If the sale executive is unable to address these concerns and answer questions in an honest and open manner, it is not surprising the buyers then turn to hybrids and pure ICE cars as the safer option.

Although I’m told consistently that improved HR policies including less highly geared pay plans and a deliberate effort to improve the diversity in recruitment are helping to reduce the previously extremely high turnover in sales executives, it seems that we still have an issue with either lack of training or ineffective training.  How you interact with potential customers is largely about attitude and culture but it is something that competent line managers should be able to observe and address, for example when female buyers are not treated with the respect that they deserve.  Some of the issues for BEV prospects that we heard about yesterday could be addressed by product training, but the real need is for sales executives to live and breathe BEVs for an extended period of time.  They also need education which goes beyond the product itself into some of the broader implications of the technology such as the depreciation curve and long term cost of ownership.

Although our other research challenges the idea that there will be a progressive shift of new car purchases to a pure online journey (only 4% of new car buyers flagged this as their ideal option in 2023, unchanged from 2017) there is a risk that the customers will move online, not because they want to but because of dissatisfaction with the showroom experience.  As I said, two focus groups does not represent hard evidence, but it could serve as a wakeup call to the management of dealer groups and to the manufacture representatives responsible for networks to make sure that they truly understand what is happening in the showrooms.

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