Auto Dealerships Take a Cue from Apple

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As car makers introduce new in-vehicle technology, they're beefing up the customer experience with their own version of tech-savvy employees.
Employee Engagement

Spending time in the car typically means abandoning the Internet and apps for older technologies like satellite radio, CD players, and navigational screens attached to the windshield. But auto makers have been rolling out new features to bring the automobile up to speed with consumers used to touchscreens and on-demand entertainment.

Last week, Ferrari delivered its first fleet of Ferrari Four models equipped with Apple's new CarPlay functionality, which lets drivers make calls, use maps, listen to music, and access messages via voice commands or a touchscreen. General Motors introduced its 2015 Chevrolet Malibu in July, which includes a 4G LTE Wi-Fi hotspot capability.

Consumers expect new vehicles to include advanced features, according to a poll by the Consumer Electronics Association. From a 2013 survey of nearly 1,000 people of driving age in the U.S., 59 percent said in-vehicle technology was an important factor when purchasing a new car.

Two out of five respondents said they intend to purchase an in-vehicle technology device like remote vehicle starters and embedded navigation systems. Consumers also favor devices that allow them to use their mobile devices in the car, such as connectors for smartphones and MP3 players and mounts to hold portable devices.

But as car makers introduce new in-vehicle technology like touchscreens, rearview/backup cameras, and voice-activated entertainment and navigation systems, the stakes are high to make sure customers can use these features. Ford's MyFord Touch infotainment and control system was panned by Consumer Reports as too complicated for average drivers.

Ford was also slapped with a class action lawsuit last year from car owners who accused the company of "unfair, deceptive, and/or fraudulent business practices" in selling cars equipped with MyFord Touch and a failure to disclose defects in the technology system.

Inspired by the tech specialists who assist customers at Apple's Genius Bars, car makers are building their own teams of tech-savvy employees to guide customers through new in-vehicle technology.

General Motors began offering its own version of Apple's geniuses two years ago and named them "Connected Customer Specialists" (CCS). The company employs 50 people in these positions who educate the salespeople at GM dealerships about the latest features and functions in GM models. In addition, each dealership has a certified technology expert to provide additional expertise.

"As more things go into vehicles including personalization features and infotainment, there's more to know about how to get the best value out of your cars," notes John Konkel, Connected Customer Experience director at GM. "That's why we've added Connected Customer Specialists. We're looking at the dealership cultures and raising the level of the customer experience; we want people to understand what the cars are capable of doing."

It's important that salespeople understand the benefits of the technology so that they can better personalize their conversations with customers, adds Lead Connected Customer Specialist Sasha Taylor-Kregel.

As an example, Taylor-Kregel described a conversation between a salesperson and a customer who often worked from his car. After learning about the nature of the customer's job, the salesperson informed him about the car's Wi-Fi capability. "By asking probing questions and having the right info, he [the salesperson] was able to steer the conversation towards features that the customer was interested in," Taylor-Kregel says. "It's all about customizing the delivery to each customer depending on what they're looking for."

The dealerships decide whether every salesperson needs a high level of technology expertise or if a product expert will direct customers to a salesperson to close the sale. Some dealerships, Taylor-Kregel adds, are also hiring people from Best Buy's Geek Squad or Apple's Genius Bars since they "already have a good knowledge of technology and tend to learn on their own."

Other car companies are hiring tech specialists as well. Toyota added vehicle technology specialists to its Lexus dealerships when it launched the 2013 Lexus GS. And earlier this year, BMW launched its "BMW Genius Everywhere" program in which employees armed with iPads are trained to inform shoppers about new features, answer questions, and give free technical support at dealerships. As part of its initiative, BMW also offers an app and website with how-to videos about vehicle features and functionalities and model-specific information. In addition, car owners can call the BMW Genius hotline or program the phone number into the vehicle's control system.

Sometimes consumers want to speak with a salesperson in addition to conducting online research at the dealership. Just like in other retail industries, the path to purchase for car buyers is undergoing a major shift, with digital becoming an important domain for both discovery and decision-making.

More than half (63 percent) of shoppers conducted research on their phones while visiting a dealership, according to a survey of about 1,100 consumers, reported Cars.com. Before dealerships wring their hands over showrooming, the study also found that shoppers use their mobile devices as a consultant to help close the deal.

This trend in other words can speed the sales cycle, since shoppers may have previously left the dealership to complete their research at home. Eighteen percent of the respondents said they used their mobile devices to calculate payments, 7 percent conducted research on their financing options, and 19 percent evaluated their trade-in vehicle price. Dealerships can take advantage of this behavior by providing Wi-Fi access or apps with features that provide relevant information on the dealer lot.

Convenience and usability are critical factors for driving sales, whether it's an app, a car, or another product, observes Paul Nadjarian, founder and CEO of the online automotive marketplace Mojo Motors, which aggregates and delivers information about car models that interest specific users.

"You could offer a fantastic opportunity but if customers get frustrated or confused by the experience, they're gone," Nadjarian says. "That's part of what makes Apple so successful. They focus on design and experience and will walk you through any problems or questions that you might have."

For its part, Mojo Motors tries to save consumers time from researching cars and tracking prices when they're in the market for a used car. Users select the make and model of the car they're interested in and the site shows them nearby dealerships that carry the car and sends alerts when the price drops. Nadjarian declined to say how many users the company has, but noted that about 60 percent of its traffic comes from mobile users.

For companies that want to boost their customer experience, it's important to remember that "people want information, but they don't want to spend time searching for it," Nadjarian adds, "so make sure they can receive it however and whenever they want it."

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