The “Age of Information” dominated the ‘90s and early 2000s with major shifts in technology and data. But 2010 ushered in the “Age of the Customer,” where empowered customers began to have a much stronger influence on commerce and business. Quickly, customers’ demands began to drive business decisions – consumers were no longer just “consumers” – using only the product or service that was provided. Instead, their preferences, habits and desires began to dictate what businesses created, how they did business, and even the political organizations they aligned themselves with.
Technology played a key role in this evolution. The proliferation of smartphones gave consumers the power to research and blended their online and offline experience. Social media provided a direct feedback loop and gave customers a platform to share their opinions broadly. Experiences, both positive and negative, that used to be limited to a customer’s immediate network suddenly had the potential to be shared with others across the globe. This means that businesses can no longer be simply focused on the customer – the customer has to be at the center of every decision.
Forrester recently shared a report, “The Rise of the Empowered Customer,” that dug into how evolving customer behaviors and attitudes manifest themselves and the impact they have on businesses. They argue that we need to shift from being customer focused to “customer obsessed.” But, I think that we in automotive retail can take it one step further and apply these new behaviors to our industry, creating experiences that transform the customer experience and allow dealerships to thrive in the “Age of the Empowered Customer.”
Customers want to be in the driver’s seat, both literally and figuratively. They have the desire and the ability to create the best possible experience for themselves. In automotive, we’ve seen this play out in where they choose to do business. They look at reviews and do their research to find the vehicle and dealership that will meet their needs and expectations. Their evolving preferences have also begun to shape the industry. As they become accustomed to retailers like Amazon or experiences like Airbnb, consumers begin to expect the same of all retailers – and aren’t afraid to ask for it.
Information is readily available for customers who want to do research. This will come as no surprise to many dealers who are encountering highly informed and prepared car buyers in their dealerships. However, as more information is available, customers are increasingly analyzing the information they’re presented for validity and clarity. What does this mean for your dealership? Authenticity is key. Provide helpful and clear vehicle descriptions that communicate the experience with the vehicle instead of the technical specifications. Ask your customers for honest reviews that highlight real experiences they’ve had in your dealership. Find ways to share information in a transparent and relatable way.
Smartphones have permeated society and usage continues to increase. As the use of smartphones and smart devices becomes commonplace, customers will demand that their devices be an integral part of their shopping experiences. Think paying via mobile, tablets in the Service drive and texts when their vehicle is ready.
The line between online and offline interactions are blurring. While someone is in your dealership, they might be searching for different models or even looking up your competition on their phone. Creating experiences that translate from online to in-store is key. Online retailing is one of the ways this trend plays out in the dealership – but it’s important that the experience they’re having on your website transfers to the experience they have in your dealership.
Customers are willing to try nearly anything. With the number of apps and different technology available, customers are used to experimenting with different experiences to find the one that works for them. Got an idea but not sure if your customers will like it? Give them the opportunity to “beta” test your technology or process. Not only will your business benefit from their input, but they’ll also feel like they had a voice in advocating for their future experience.
The automotive retail industry is headed in the right direction in a lot of ways. It’s made a significant effort to become more customer-focused, but it’s time to become customer obsessed. And the impact isn’t just the feel-good feeling of better serving your customers. It will also have a major impact on your bottom line – and our ability to continue to compete for years to come.