In a way, automotive technology has long served many of the same functions as today’s mobile-first social media. For a century or more, cars have connected people across great distances, making it easy to come together around local events, and to move quickly from one stage of a journey to the next. Perhaps, then, it’s no surprise that social media and automotive culture have always been closely intertwined.
Still, evolving technology has also disrupted many traditional aspects of the automotive world. Today’s customers perform intensive online research before purchasing a vehicle, and the factors they base their purchases on are rapidly changing. The classic selling points of speed and handling are giving way to an increased emphasis on fuel economy, connectivity, and ownership cost.
Meanwhile, new competitors like Uber, which doesn’t manufacture vehicles at all, have forced many automakers to differentiate themselves not only as manufacturers, but also as service and mobility providers. In all these ways and more, customer experience is taking the driver’s seat.
To find out how automotive brands are focusing on customer experience in 2017, I caught up with Axel Heyenga, Adobe’s industry strategy director for the automotive industry in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa (EMEA). An international management expert, Axel has more than 20 years of sales and marketing experience within the media, retail, sports, and IT consultancy industries. Prior to joining Adobe, he served as director of sales and marketing at Valtech, unit director at SapientNitro, and director of business development at BTD Newmedia.
JB: Axel, how do you define customer experience in the automotive industry?
AH: In the automotive industry, customer experience involves a lot more than the driver’s experience with his or her vehicle, although that’s obviously a crucial part of it. All the interactions customers have while shopping online, negotiating at the dealership, and even bringing their vehicles in for repairs or maintenance are equally important parts of the customer experience.
JB: Automotive customers have begun taking much more proactive roles in shopping and researching, haven’t they?
AH: Absolutely. We call this “the rise of the digital automotive expert.” Potential buyers start researching vehicles a full six months—sometimes as much as 12 months—before they intend to purchase. A full 73 percent directly factor social media comments into their purchase decisions. That’s also impacted the negotiation process at the dealership. A few years ago, customers were taking an average of seven dealership trips before making a purchase. Now they take an average of 1.5. In other words, customers are doing much more upfront investigation, which means they already have a fairly precise idea of what they want—and how much they’re willing to pay—before they ever show up at the point of sale.
JB: What do these customers want? How have their expectations changed now that they’re doing more of their own independent research?
AH: They’ve become much more interested in mobility and connected services, and much less interested in traditional selling points like looks, performance, and speed. In that way, the automotive industry is really turning upside down. What’s more, the traditional assumptions that everyone wants to own a vehicle—and that everyone aspires to own a higher-end vehicle—no longer hold true, especially among younger demographics. Today’s shoppers are very concerned about how much it’s going to cost in the long run to own and operate a vehicle, in terms of fuel economy, maintenance, scheduled part replacements, and so on. They’re also increasingly interested in connectivity—how accurately the built-in GPS works, how intelligent the roadside support and assistance will be, and what options they’ll have in terms of digital radio.
JB: It sounds like cars are transforming into delivery systems for digital offerings.
AH: In many ways that’s true. The experience of the brand is moving beyond the vehicle, the dealer and the service centre, and is focusing much more on the digital side of the experience. In fact, as we start to see driverless cars become more common in some cities, we’re asking ourselves whether the future of automotive may be the “car as content delivery system.” When car owners no longer have to drive, their attention is freed up to answer phone calls, browse for nearby destinations they’d like to visit, and even check in on the condition of the vehicle. In the near future, cars may become much more like self-driving computers, in which the user simply taps the action they’d like to take—messaging a friend, driving to a restaurant, or pulling in for an oil change—and the car handles the actual execution of those commands.
JB: That could open up whole new fields of digital interaction! But for the moment, let’s focus a bit more on the here and now: What are automotive companies doing currently to deliver more connected experiences to their customers?
AH: One good example of a forward-thinking automaker is Renault, who recognised the need to keep customers around the world engaged with personalised, targeted, one-to-one communication. The company adopted a standardised platform to make sure its international, regional, and local campaigns were all using consistent messaging and branding, and to help formulate more personal, targeted messages across web, mobile, and other channels. The result of this standardised campaigning was a 20 percent boost in conversions on its owner portal, which has already given Renault a lot of new opportunities to connect with those customers.
JB: So, rather than differentiating themselves on the basis of vehicle features, as automotive companies might have done in the past, more automakers are recognising that consistent customer experiences need to be at the centre of their marketing.
AH: That’s definitely the case. In fact, the vehicle manufacturer Lincoln recently discovered that its website visitors were actually turned off by vehicle features they perceived as “gimmicky.” The company adopted an entirely new marketing platform to collect more precise data on customers’ locations, brand familiarity, and preferences; and to deliver personalised website content to each visitor, adapting in real-time to emphasise the aspects of the vehicle that most interested that customer. This raised visitor engagement by a stunning 99 percent, and gallery interactions on their website by 27 percent, within just 10 weeks.
JB: I hope that as more automakers realise those kinds of quantitative benefits, they’ll continue to push for the kinds of connected experiences their customers clearly want. I appreciate you taking the time to share these insights with me today, Axel.
Thanks for joining me for this five-part interview series on customer experience in 2017. In case you missed them, here are the previous interviews on telecom, media, and entertainment; retail; financial services; and travel and hospitality. And when you’re ready to upgrade your organisation’s customer experience, we at Adobe are here to help.