I’m about to replace my Audi. My shopping list ranges from a Scirocco to an A7 so I’ve been going to quite a few dealerships. We also have a family Volvo estate, so in the interests of science I went to see them too. All premium or thereabouts. But not a premium experience.
Visiting dealers is rarely satisfactory and you wonder why. Things have improved over the past 20 years but the franchise dealer system is a very old one and it has not kept pace with the retail world. A survey by motoring.co.uk has just found that almost a quarter of customers still find dealer staff unhelpful or uninterested. Meantime the internet has evolved to the extent that customer’s first port of call is the web. That probably won’t mean the local dealer’s site. Or any dealer site. It may not even mean a manufacturer’s site. It’s far more likely to be What Car? or another third party.
I was at Daewoo when it launched in the UK as a new brand in the mid-90s. We knew we needed to do things differently to be relevant and we knew customers didn’t enjoy the dealer experience. So we went to the market without dealers. Car manufacturers perform feats of technological wonder in creating brilliant, complex but easy-to-use products for the modern world, but then interact with customers through a third party. At Daewoo we removed that element so we could control customer communication and offer the best customer service in the market. The result? Record market share for a new market entrant.
Online media means that the customer can now be hooked in much earlier in the process, and it should be used far more to drive traffic to those showrooms. The showrooms themselves need to change – from being displays of cars almost certain not to include the specific variant you want, to being trusted contact points delivering a useful and engaging experience.
We’re not talking about Burberry-style brand experience environments, or the corporate showboats Peugeot and Renault have on the Champs-Elysee – although these should have a place in a carmaker’s grand brand scheme. We’re talking about Apple: wholly-owned retail outlets putting the customer in direct contact with the company. Staff who are there not to sell but to explain, cut through the complexity and help the customer make the right choice.
These days most of the major brands own part of their retail network. The opportunity is there.