A New Era For Car Buyers (and Sellers)
Buying a car can be a stressful process for many people. We often hear anecdotes or have our own unpleasant experiences about dealing with car salesmen (as stereotypical as this may sound). It seems that for the longest time we’ve come to accept – and expect – the routine back-and-forth of the negotiation: “let me ask my manager”, “let’s see if I can get a special discount just for you, just for today”, “let’s talk payment details – oh, and add those fess in”, “why don’t I talk to your husband about this, while you have a cup of coffee”, etc.
But things are changing. Fast.
Software is replacing these unpleasant exchanges we’ve come to expect as part of the process of buying a car. Aaron Martin, Head of Strategic Service of Collective London said that the “Digital world has put consumers in control of their car buying process!”
The internet, for example, allows people to shop for cars across the country, compare and negotiate for the most competitive offer. In addition to taking a trip to the local dealership, more and more people now visit virtual showrooms, research online and check with their social network to evaluate the features and price of the car they’re considering. Some even replace test-driving the car at your local dealership with renting that same model from car rental companies, lifestyle rental sites (elite-rent.com for example), or even Zipcar.
Car buyers now have a lot more options to research and experience the car – long before they end up actually meeting with a car salesman.
Car manufacturers recognize the trend of less of us going to dealers to explore and research. So, they race to offer the best virtual showroom experiences via a website or app on the internet. In today’s mobile-device-addicted world, our attention span is very short. So, if the virtual showroom experience has just a few hiccups, we may abandon that showroom and quickly move to another car manufacturer’s virtual showroom.
To provide the best user experience, car manufacturers must consider the following areas of expertise:
Design : First impression counts! So the site has to be well designed, and with easy to navigate UI.
Reliability : Virtual showrooms should be fast. Nothing worse than having to stare to a spinning icon indicating that the download is in progress.
Content: Needs to be fresh and up to date. In the digital world, information travels fast via social media and digital magazines. If the new model of a car has been released, and journalists have covered them, the virtual showroom information cannot be lagging behind public knowledge.
In this post, I’d like to focus on the content - how can a car manufacturer ensure that the virtual showroom is always up-to-date? Let’s consider some of the basic processes going into content updates.
From Committing a Change to Going Live
What is the process of getting the newest data, the latest design, and features posted to the website?
First, a change request with its detail specification is communicated to the virtual showroom product management team (PM). The development teams (DEV) will most likely use Agile methodology, so the DEV will expect an end-user story (how customers will experience the new feature being requested) from PM to describe the requirements.
Once the story is approved, a team of software developers and graphic/UX designers will be assigned to deliver the new feature. An iterative process between DEV and quality engineering (QE) team will be applied so bugs can be discovered and fixed quickly. Once the feature is approved by QE and PM, the collections of files that make up the update are packaged together into an “Artifact” and shipped to IT for deployment to the data center.
The IT team must then carefully follow a checklist of steps to ensure that the proper changes are made to the server environment and content across all data centers to support this new set of features. If this is not followed, the website may become broken, interrupting service during the deployment process.
Causes of Delays in Getting Content Changes Live
A seemingly simple content change to a web app involves several teams (Marketing, PM, DEV, UX, QE, IT, etc.) and many manual processes and approval gates, not to mention dozens of DEV, QE, IT tools that are used to convert a user-story into a deployable artifact. Whenever you have any manual processes, there is always the risk of errors being introduced. These types of error can cause service disruptions that result in a bad user experience and impact brand perception, revenue and loss of business.
To minimize the chance of problems occurring, IT often limits the frequency of change (“maintenance windows”) to minimize this risk. While it sounds reasonable, it actually has two negative side affects:
This limits the business’s agility, and ability to get new features deployed to the website
This creates a large batch of changes made during each maintenance window. And, more changes means more processes to follow, which can lead to more potential process errors.
Automating these steps can eliminate these errors and ensure a more predictable result.
The Future for Car Dealers
The trend of changing consumer behaviors due to the internet is not happening just in the automotive retail business – but in all industries. It’s interesting to observe the emergence of similar customer-retention tactics employed by different brands- all focused on creating a community of owners/brand advocates, a place for customers to network, interact and socialize (eg, Apple’s Genius Bar, Lululemon stores providing an off-hours hang out spot for their customers, and more).
Car dealers can learn from these innovative retailers on ways to create community. Simplify the front-end process of buying a car, and focus on the post-sales experience to elevate the brand perception, customer loyalty and word-of-mouth through organic promotion.
The Future is Now
During one of my business trip to London, I caught a glimpse of the future of car dealerships. I came across Audi Digital Showroom, which has “Product Specialists” instead of salespeople, and an impressive live interactive app: In the showroom, a prospect can feel and touch the variety of Audi cars on display. If the prospect is interested in the model or trim package that are not showcased at this time, he can visit the high-tech large-touch-screen-enabled console just in front of a digital wall.
A buyer can select the model s/he is interested in and configure the trim of the car while a product specialist stands at the ready to answer additional questions s/he may have. Once the car is configured, the client can “drag” his creation into the digital wall and, magically, a life-size representation of the car of their dreams is created. S/he can then explore more of the car features and trim by manipulating the perspectives of the almost-live-size image of the car on the digital wall.
This showroom also has a design studio displaying the materials for the car’s trim, enabling the prospect to touch and feel the different wood inserts for the car interior, the different steering wheel models, fabrics, color palettes, etc. After s/he is satisfied with his configuration, s/he can email or print the car’s specification.
Because there is no salesman, this showroom has become a fun attraction, and many families visit it with their kids as they contemplate a new car. As they explore and learn about the product, they also appreciate the brand and enjoy the experience.
Digital technologies enable Audi to have showrooms like this in dense urban areas. Because of its location in London, Audi digital showroom attracts visitors who are new to the brand, from all over the world. According to Audi, this new digital store has had a powerful effect: 60 car sales increase in London could be traced to Audi City London experience, and 70 of these new Audi owners were new to Audi.
“This showroom is practically run by software and leading-edge technologies. We are here to provide additional support for visitors to enjoy this digital showroom and to help them designing their future cars,” said Amit Sood, Technology Lead for Audi City London.
In addition to making sure visitors have the best brand experience, Amit is also responsible for coordinating the software updates for this showroom’s digital system as well as marketing for the venue, including events and social media. The software update is delivered to this location via the Internet from Audi software R&D center in Germany. The new downloaded software automatically checks the existing installed version and understands the delta. Then, it intelligently deploys the right components to upgrade system to the latest version. The upgrade can contain new digital wall features, new model information and trims, and other innovations.
But what happens if the software isn’t updated correctly, or doesn’t work. Kids are disappointed and screaming. Parents are puzzled. And no cars will be sold.
The Future of Retail
“Software is eating the world! ” Marc Andressen said in 2004. As you can see, no business will survive without embracing software. When the proper software methodology is applied, software is a great asset to increase a brand experience and customers’ loyalty. It is surely turning the traditional businesses upside down, and those that cannot adapt will lose. Personnel who are currently performing mostly retail sales functions will need to rise to become the product specialists and community builders- ensuring customer retention and positive brand perception and viral promotion.
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