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.

Improving the path to purchase through manufacturer-dealer Search coordination

My core intention for this post is to improve and develop the overall customer experience of a new car purchase. Having worked in Paid advertising for almost 10 years, six of those directly with automotive clients, I have witnessed the evolution of both Paid advertising and the car buying journey.

Technological advancements and the rise of mobile have changed car buyers’ path to purchase beyond all recognition. Today’s consumers will engage with a growing number of touch points (Google – https://www.thinkwithgoogle.com/articles/consumer-car-buying-process-reveals-auto-marketing-opportunities.html), and at the same time expectation for a seamless digital experience is mounting.

In conjunction, there’s huge appetite from customers to buy vehicles online (Accenture – https://newsroom.accenture.com/industries/automotive/car-buyers-want-better-digital-experience-most-ready-to-complete-entire-process-online-accenture-study-finds.htm) and efforts to close the purchase through eCommerce style platforms are a growing trend.

The problem, however, is the purchase path is being overlooked. OEMs and their retail network still work in silos, failing to deliver cohesively on customer expectations. Marketing activity from each tier is often run in conflict, causing many points of friction and buyer frustration. Shoppers are treated separately by OEMs and dealers, disrupting journey flow and failing to satisfy their needs. Overlooking the customer experience and behaviour means important buyer signals are not capitalised on.

In my opinion there needs to be more intelligence shared, so that a more holistic view of the buyer can be gained. Understanding the buyer in this way will help deliver a more robust and relevant message, consequently moving prospects down the funnel more efficiently. Refining the customer journey is not only imperative to delivering on expectation but will also create new customer confidence and improve ROI.

The great thing about digital is that it presents the perfect opportunity to connect OEMs and dealers, enabling to implement a universal strategy which recognizes these concerns.

For this post I will focus primarily on how search and remarketing could be more coordinated. These are not the only channels that need considering but are the cornerstone from which broader paid strategies can be supported.

Search

In my experience new car Paid activities prove to be the biggest cause for contention between tiers.

Search is fundamental for both manufacturers and dealers. It is the most influential channel, according to auto-shoppers (eMarketer, “Auto Industry Braces for Major Shifts in Search Marketing”, April 2013), and a key driver for leads. It’s imperative both parties have strong and considered ‘always-on’ activity, but the campaign and keyword structures need to differentiate in order to complement the buyer evolution. A frictionless purchase experience is the ultimate goal.

Not only this, a more co-operative search policy achieves parity between tiers, reflects distinct roles and responsibilities and helps avoid ‘cross-pollination’. This ensures the shopper is treated appropriately at every stage of their purchase decision.

Another benefit of this integrated approach is the avoidance of bid inflation. This has been a hot topic the past few years, and is high on most OEM agendas. And with good reason – my company GForces has recorded a consecutive year-on-year increase to Search CPC and an overall 45% rise from £0.49 in 2012 to £0.71 in 2017.

avg_cpc_growth

Not so long ago Google publicised 5 Auto Shopping Moments (Google – https://www.thinkwithgoogle.com/articles/five-auto-shopping-moments-every-brand-must-own.html) OEMs and dealers should own. Applying search principals to these, below are my thoughts on certain key moments.

  • Which-car-is-best & Is-it-right-for-me moments

Six out of 10 car shoppers enter the market unsure which car to buy (Automotive Shopper Path to Purchase, Millward Brown Digital and Polk, September 2015). This creates a massive conquest opportunity and enables manufacturers a significant chance to become a considered brand. It’s during this research phase that manufacturers need to build awareness and win the battle on searches such as ‘top suvs’ or ‘best family car’. Is-it-right-for-me moments start to shift consumer intent toward assessing vehicle safety features, available technology and optional extras. Typical keywords here are ‘manufacturer model’, ‘model spec’ or ‘model’. Manufacturers are best equipped to serve both sets of queries, due to the rich information and video/image assets on their site. Not only this, manufacturers have enhanced digital assets such as brochure downloads and car configurators, both hugely valuable when trying to convince a consumer to consider their brand and vehicles.

A common mistake here, is dealers often saturate the market in an attempt to increase offer awareness and leads. However, it’s fair to say most are unequipped and usually operating on a restrained budget. It’s a moment too early for a dealer to step in and it should be the manufacturer’s responsibility to facilitate these keywords. From a dealer’s perspective, I would love to see funds reinvested into a more informed and well connected remarketing strategy, something I will cover later.

  • Can-I-afford-it

During this critical moment, shoppers have refined their vehicle choices and are now using purchase cost, warranty, maintenance cost and fuel efficiency to narrow their selection. Deal, offer and discount related search queries are all investigated alongside the varying finance options: PCP, PCH and HP. Good example of search queries include – ‘model deals’, ‘new model finance’ and ‘offers on model’.

Manufacturers need to allow the retail network to capitalise on the opportunities generated by upper funnel efforts. The retail capabilities at this juncture allows for improved financial models that a manufacturer has yet to offer – for instance, their ability to work with a multitude of finance suppliers and the relationship this has with the consumers search intent. Accordingly, dealers tend to have superior widgets or site areas which serve the buyer intentions better at this point, two examples being p/ex valuations and specific offer areas on site.

Coincidentally, this moment usually reveals manufacturer attempts to capture further shoppers. However, for the reasons above, this is not a cost-effective use of budget. A more astute re-allocation of budget could increase branding efforts during the early purchase moments.

  • Where-should-I-buy-it

A Google study from last year (Google UK Internal Data, Auto CB 2016) cited dealer websites as the most valued and used resource at this stage. Top buyer considerations here are price, location of dealership, opening hours, vehicle availability at location, directions and contact info. Not surprisingly, it’s the dealers’ full responsibility to own this moment too.

A mobile-centric strategy and website compatibility are integral for dealers. Keywords focused around geography are imperious for dealers, and mobiles are the dominant device to carry out searches such as ‘model location’, ‘manufacturer location’ and ‘local manufacturer’. In general, these location related terms not only provide the main search volume for dealers, they also have by far the best ROI in any account I have seen. Dealers need to dominate their local territory and provide a worthy device experience. This moment and its related keywords should be the foundation for all dealer accounts.

Significantly, I feel as though key metrics are overlooked here. Most dealers usually insist a campaign objective is to drive footfall but many do not measure this effectively. Far too often I encounter only standard web or call interactions as part of performance measurement. Perhaps we need reminding what the buyer behaviour indicates here? There is real value in tracking ‘driving direction’, ‘get location details’ or ‘show nearby locations’, even if these are categorised as ‘soft’ leads.

A final thought; it’s important the manufacturer owns, oversees and implements this policy. However, they should work constructively with their network and ensure dealer objectives are also considered. Too often OEMs impose guidelines but the dealers’ concerns are ignored causing irritation. Proving fair opportunity amongst the network should also be a top priority. Improved communication and increased transparency will improve the overall relationship and help both work more decisively together.

Remarketing

In my opinion this channel is the most exciting prospect for improving how manufacturers and dealers work together. The concept should be to leverage manufacturer data through tier 2 & 3 initiatives – something I believe is achievable whilst abiding by existing privacy regulations.

Sharing main site data and volume with its retail network will allow for improved re-engagement at a local level. In turn, this develops the purchase path for a buyer and reduces the possibility of conflict between all parties.

Integrating all tiers through a comprehensive strategy enables the ability to share vital data between manufacturer-dealer. This helps to overcome a problem most dealers encounter when remarketing, having a meaning full data size to remarket with. Not only this, evolving remarketing in this way helps move the buyer down funnel, assisting their needs and helping aid their final decision.

There are many possible scenarios a customer journey might be influenced through remarketing, and interconnecting tiers ensures a better delivery at important decision stages. If the customer experience is the principal goal then performance will naturally improve.

In summary, digital has transformed a new car purchase. The influence it has on a buyer’s decision is growing. OEMs and dealers have acknowledged this by making great efforts to improve the on-site experience and bring the entire buying cycle online. However, I don’t believe the path to purchase has been challenged in the same way. A truly joined-up strategy will be reflective of the consumer behaviour and act upon crucial buying signals. Consequently buyers will be assured by their experience and confidence purchasing online will increase.

Future expectancy for online car buying is exciting, and I for one look forward to helping the industry meet demands.