The current environment due to the COVID-19 global health crisis is unlike anything most auto dealers – or any of us – have seen in our lifetime. Beyond the serious health implications, the pandemic’s economic impact is pervasive and top of mind. Small businesses like dealerships are feeling the serious effects already with significantly reduced foot traffic and declining sales. No one knows how long the virus itself or its socioeconomic influence will last, but it remains important to connect to customers through these challenges and help them understand that you are open for business and implementing new tools and practices to reach customers.
With thoughtful implementation and the right tools in place, your dealership can use digital retailing to help survive the current environment and thrive in the future.
To help dealers’ businesses succeed during these uncertain times, digital retailing no longer has the luxury of being something “nice to have.” With shelter-in-place orders and social distancing measures established for weeks and perhaps even months to come, digital retailing has quickly catapulted into the category of “must have.”
People are spending more time online than ever before. From virtual happy hour meetups with friends to ordering groceries online for delivery to your doorstep, right now technology must substitute face-to-face interaction out of necessity. Undoubtedly, we all look forward to the day when life can return to pre-pandemic normalcy. But it is likely – as it has been with past mass crisis situations – that the world will see significant and permanent transformation from this experience. If the car buying process was on the verge of being an online activity before widespread social distancing measures, the pandemic will almost certainly tip the scale, cementing digital retailing as the default for years to come.
Dealers can use this time to ensure their businesses are prepared not just for the future, but also for the current and rapidly changing environment, by implementing or improving their digital retailing strategy. To meet rising online demand, dealers have an opportunity to create a personalized car buying experience and ensure that online shoppers are given excellent customer service. Give consumers the flexibility to complete as much or as little of the car-buying process online as they want – whether just browsing vehicles, starting a deal or completing multiple steps, a seamless digital retailing experience is imperative.
Understand that many shoppers might be hesitant to make big purchases during these uncertain economic times, but inevitably when the dust settles, people still will want and need to buy cars. If you demonstrate understanding and provide outstanding customer care now for the many people who are just browsing online and dreaming of the future, your dealership will be the one they remember when it comes time to get serious about a transaction. Dealers should view these leads not as a one-time transaction, but as potential lifetime customers.
Here are a few tips to guide dealers’ digital retailing strategy during this pandemic and beyond:
- Make sure that you offer a digital shopping experience across all channels – this should include your website and third-party listings on both traditional and mobile platforms.
- Build a rapport with consumers online – give them the personal experience they would get as if they are sitting right in front of you. Consider using free tools you may not have thought of, such as FaceTime or Zoom meetings, for a more personalized experience. Get them online and introduce them to digital retailing by giving them more control and walking through steps.
- Adapt dealership protocol to include guidelines for digital retailing inquiries – with employees working from home, it’s more important than ever to ensure everyone understands their marching orders.
- Create a single point of contact for digital retailing – by introducing a “digital concierge,” the consumer gets personalized attention and doesn’t fall through the cracks, increasing the likelihood of converting an online lead into a deal.
- Acknowledge previous online steps consumers have completed – recognize the work customers have already put in online and be ready to pick the process up from there. You need to have all their details (car they’ve looked at, payment they’ve worked out with terms, trade in info, F&I options if they chose some) and acknowledge all that information in your responses.
- Respond to consumers as quickly as possible – consumers expect quick, personalized responses to their inquiries, especially now with people glued to their screens.
- Personalize every interaction – from a consumer’s perspective, there is nothing worse than receiving automated responses that barely answer the question asked. Instead, tailor each message to ensure you demonstrate that their time and business is important to you.
- Display all relevant deal information during the online shopping process – transparency and trust are key to any successful relationship, so if you aren’t providing real pricing or full access to all of the information needed, consumers will quickly click next.
- Invest in the future – some dealerships might think digital retailing is too expensive for their dealership, but at this point, many would agree that you can’t afford not to. Many providers are also extending great deals in the current climate! Many solutions providers are also extending many great deals in this climate.
- Reach out proactively – let shoppers know your virtual doors are open and that they can perform buying steps online. Review online shopping behaviors through your browsing data and artificial intelligence functionalities which can surface the best leads. Once identified, send these shoppers who are not taking the next step a custom email with special financing offers and discounts you may have in place right now to engage them further.
Digital retailing has never been more relevant. It will be the difference between dealerships that sink or swim during these uncertain times. With thoughtful implementation and the right tools in place, your dealership can use digital retailing to help survive the current environment and thrive in the future.
Mo Zahabi is the senior director of product consulting at Cox Automotive.
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