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"No Appointment Needed" - Time for Dealers to Turn to Aftermarket Systems to Better Connect with Customers

by Roger Lanctot | 11月 11, 2012

Why is Pohanka telling customers to come on in for service without an appointment? The first ads I noticed were for Chevrolet, but it soon became clear that Pohanka was making the same offer for all of the brands in its Portfolio including Honda, Toyota, Lexus and Acura. (The offer for Chevrolet is especially surprising given the OnStar Vehicle Diagnostics Report, which ought to allow dealers and consumers to anticipate needed service and schedule visits in a more predictable manner.)

The offer: “No Appointment Necessary” for service. Just drive in. In fact, Pohanka of Salisbury (http://youtu.be/GeVRCmH7bUE - Youtube) goes so far as to offer free Wi-Fi, shuttle service and refreshments.

On its face, the offer is a wonderful customer-friendly proposition. The message conveyed in the advertising: Bring your car in, regardless of what is wrong, and we will fit you in right away. You can then kick back, fire up your portable computer or tablet and set up your office in our waiting area while you have a coffee or soda or maybe even a snack. We will do our best to figure out what is wrong with your car and try to fix it on the spot.

There are so many things wrong with this proposition that it is hard to know where to start, but I’ll give it a try.

1.      Dealers need to manage their business.  The only thing worse than having idle service bays is having customers come in at unpredictable times with unpredictable vehicle problems.

2.      Dealers make money from service.  For most dealers, the service operation is the life blood of their viability.  It is where they make money.  Selling new cars is a more or less break even proposition.  For dealers to have to advertise to consumers to bring their cars in suggests a vision of a bunch of idle wrench twisters hopelessly looking for and pleading for something to do.  (Maybe the cars aren’t breaking down?  Yeah, right.)  Something must be very wrong for dealers to advertise in this way.

3.      My dentist makes me wait.  My accountant makes me wait.  Everyone makes me wait.  My dealer used to make me wait.  What’s changed?  The service cycles for preventative maintenance are growing, so it is true that consumers have less reason to pay frequent visits to dealers.  But, at the same time, cars are lasting longer and consumers are holding on to them longer, according to R.L.Polk (http://bit.ly/Z9VKgQ - Length of Vehicle Ownership Hits Record High).  This means that consumers are likely shifting their vehicle servicing to independents (a fact borne out by studies from the Automotive Aftermarket Industry Association) and/or deferring service.

A couple of things could be happening at Pohanka dealerships.  Perhaps the company has decided to up its game by changing the message from one of playing hard to get (“We can see you next week.”) to an open door (“Come on in!”).  I actually welcome that message as a vehicle owner with not infrequent needs for vehicle service.  And I DO respect and appreciate the offer of Wi-Fi access and snacks, though I’d prefer a loaner car to get back to my own office.

I am concerned, though, that the offer actually reflects what is wrong with the automotive industry and something that is putting the health of 30,000+ new car retailers at risk.   With no direct connection, via OEM telematics systems or connected smartphones, to their customers, dealers are forced to take a blunderbuss approach to marketing.

New car owners in the U.S. are familiar with the post card marketing used by most dealers targeted at scheduled service benchmarks normally based on estimated vehicle usage.  GM, BMW and Mercedes have taken the first tentative steps to allow dealers to be notified of mileage thresholds triggering scheduled maintenance.

A new solution based on connectivity and tied to interpreting vehicle data is required.  Dealers shouldn’t have to resort to the equivalent of hitching up their skirts by the side of the road.  Dealers need a more scientific and targeted model built around vehicle connectivity.

Vehicles throwing off error or failure codes should be communicating those codes to OEMs, dealers AND the consumer.  In fact, on-board service scheduling like that enabled by xtime on BlueLink-equipped Hyundai vehicles is the new benchmark for customer integration.

In the future, connected cars will enable connected dealers to plan their marketing campaigns around the status of their “fleet” of connected cars.  This kind of planning will enable more efficient use of fixed assets – those service bays – and timely ordering of the necessary parts.  Dealers will also be better able to go after deferred maintenance opportunities.

At the recent SEMA/AAPEX gathering in Las Vegas multiple aftermarket players showed smartphone- and OBDII-based systems for interpreting vehicle diagnostic codes for the purpose of capturing service opportunities.  (http://bit.ly/RNpYne - AAPEX Seminar: Telematics presents the automotive aftermarket new challenges and opportunities)  OEMs may be making progress, but the aftermarket is not sitting idly by.

It’s still early days for bringing dealers into tighter communication with their customers.  But this Pohanka come-on-down offer is a sign of the coming apocalypse for any OEM that is not working to better connect the dealer to the customer and the car, or any dealer that is not investigating aftermarket customer connectivity propositions.  Until this problem is solved, I’ll be popping in to my Pohanka dealer without bothering to call, sucking down a few sodas and soaking up the free Wi-Fi.  But as an industry, we can do better.

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