An apocalypse looming for car salesmen

Almost a year ago Facebook launched its Messenger platform, a place for developers and businesses to connect with mobile users around the world through bots. For those who don’t know, bots are much like automated agents and can be built to handle issues simple or complex. From a business perspective they provide a way for companies to engage and interact with their audience, removing friction and streamlining desired outcomes. From a human perspective, they can provide support and advice to improve everyone’s wellbeing. A favourite bot of mine goes by the name ‘DoNotPay’ and was built by London developer, Joshua Browder. Originally DoNotPay helped people overturn parking fines (160,000 in fact!), but has since taken on the responsibility of an immigration lawyer, helping refugees complete applications for asylum.

Towards the end of 2016, Facebook also announced Messenger as a destination for news feed ads. This feature automatically opens a conversation in Messenger if the user interacts with an ad – for example clicking a CTA. Businesses then have the following options; to set-up a greeting message which can be followed up by real staff members, create ‘saved replies’ templates OR have their Messenger bot take on comms.

So, why does this matter to car salesmen?

Let’s imagine an OEM decides to run a campaign to promote a new model release. Rather than using the traditional method of linking the ad back to their website, they choose to develop a bot who’s not only capable of responding to potential buyers, but also sophisticated enough to supply different model options, provide configurator tools, discuss add-ons, take buyer details and potentially even close a sale with deposit transactions. The thing is, my hypothetical situation already exists, and this technology is already disrupting industries – just not automotive (yet).

E-commerce has increased consumer appetite for online shopping. There is real demand for OEMs to overcome digital purchase obstacles; recent trials such as Hyundai’s click-to-buy are helping validate this desire with positive results (http://www.am-online.com/news/car-manufacturer-news/2017/01/31/first-customers-of-hyundai-s-click-to-buy-website-receive-their-new-cars). I envision bots being a key enabler for overcoming such hurdles and providing much richer customer experiences, not only in day-to-day applications like Facebook but also on their own domains.

As with any technology, chat bots will require people and businesses to adapt. Currently most bots are falling short on expectation and subsequently their impact and penetration is slower than some had predicted. Furthermore, a lot of people still aren’t aware of them or how helpful they can be, inevitably this will change.

From a OEMs perspective, these are what I believe to be the stimulants that will encourage manufacturers to embrace their application;

  • Consumer preconceptions

Whilst this may be a contentious point, I think most would agree car dealers do not have a good overall reputation (AutoTraders September 2016 Market report – http://about-us.autotrader.co.uk/used-car-industry-ranks-lowest-for-trust-with-todays-consumers). A major segment of consumers have a negative attitude towards car buying and salesmen are the main contributor to our dismay. We begrudgingly allow them to manage our car buying affairs, but have little trust in them doing this with our best interests at heart. I believe bots are an opportunity to reverse this ill feeling. Our perception of them is better, as we expect them to supply neutral, morale and ethically correct information. In addition, as OEMs tackle wider transparency issues, bots will benefit from not having to manage difficult price negotiations and instead provide upfront and transparent prices.

  • Instantaneous communication

Past figures regarding dealer response times are frankly embarrassing. A mystery shop undertaken by Car Dealer Magazine cited more than 50% of dealers did not even respond to an original enquiry (http://cardealermagazine.co.uk/publish/blog-five-ways-dealerships-can-drive-more-sales-and-leads/92944). This simply doesn’t deliver on current digital buyer expectation and vast sales opportunities are missed. In contrast, bots will be able to respond immediately and will not apply the same sales pressure during a conversation. Buyers will be encouraged by these positive experiences, and will welcome the ability to pause or stop the conversation and return at their own convenience.

  • 24/7

I don’t believe a true 24/7 service exists in automotive. I know of solutions which allow for full nightly coverage, but most of these compromise on quality. Often the work is outsourced to third parties based in different time zones and the instruction is to ‘get the buyer details’. This results in a poor customer experience and risks damaging the lead. These services can be replaced with ‘trusted advisors’ who never sleep, never call in sick and always perform optimally.

  • Financial

Cost is a huge factor which is making businesses from all industries look at robotic or artificial intelligence as a replacement for humans. The biggest overhead in most companies is salary. If employees can be replaced with low cost alternatives that deliver the same or better performance, surely these decisions are inevitable? I have no clue what the financial impact of a chat bot would be for OEMs, but am sure that it is considerable and definitely a factor during their consideration.

  • Reduced friction

Consumers increasingly demand a seamless, easy-to-purchase experience. Technology and digital has made buyers “time-poor” and convenience is often rewarded. Manufacturers must engage with their audience on their preferred platforms and provide a more native way for research and conversations to take place. Bots will be able to deliver on expectations by giving the buyer the ability to retrieve detailed vehicle information, offer configuration tools, give advice and finally provide prices wherever is suitable for them, instantly.

 

Whilst my opening statement referred only to Facebooks combined Messenger and Messenger as a destination for ads release, this is just one example in a potentially huge eco-system for chat bots. Slack, Whatsapp, Twitter and Google are just a few more examples of companies developing ways we can build and deploy bots on their platforms. As enhanced bot systems are implemented and rewarded with customer engagement, more and more companies will invest time and resources in them. Chat bots are still in the infancy stage but they promise to be a huge disruption in the medium term.

Despite believing chat bots replacing salesmen is inevitable, it’s not going to happen overnight. OEMs will need to be patient and not rush their proposition, as if execution is poor then it could do more damage than good. A poor U/X will almost definitely result in buyer frustration and more worryingly public condemnation. I would imagine early bots existing to improve aftersales experiences or even helping to mature relationships with buyers post-purchase. Wouldn’t it be refreshing to have a friendly advisor updating you on the progress of your car delivery, helping you to book your pick-up date and even offering assistance when setting up your car connectivity? For me these will be the sensible pilots OEMs undertake before letting bots replace salesmen.

Lastly, with the rise of digital assistants comes an expectancy for more natural dialogue. Building bot solutions with natural language capabilities should be fundamental and reinforcement learning should be at its core. Rule-based conversation trees will not be enough and their impact and performance will quickly become inferior. I believe customers would much rather wait and have confidence they can interact naturally from the outset.

I’m unashamedly enthusiastic about chats bots’ potential influence and hope this post highlights some of the positives that can come from their introduction.