Visitors to the Volvo stand at the 2018 Los Angeles Auto Show may have expected to see the Swedish luxury car brand’s latest models on display. But in place of any vehicle was a single sign that read: “This Is Not A Car.” At one of the world’s major automotive marketing platforms, Volvo decided to tout not its cars but its customer experience.
The bold move reflects Volvo’s belief that today, how consumers experience a car brand is more important than the physical vehicle itself. And so it demonstrated new connectivity services, including an app that allows online shopping to be delivered to the trunk of your car, plus an option for friends and family to access and use your car without a physical key handover.
“Our industry is changing,” Håkan Samuelsson, chief executive of Volvo Cars, said in a press release. “Rather than just building and selling cars, we will really provide our customers with the freedom to move in a personal, sustainable and safe way.”
APPEALING TO THE DIGITAL GENERATION
Global research firm McKinsey estimates that millennials – people now in their 20s and 30s – will represent more than 45% of the potential car-buying cohort in 2025.
“These customers are getting accustomed to superior experience, especially in the digital space, and they expect this same experience in more traditional areas like automotive,” said Harald Fanderl, a senior partner at McKinsey. “This is challenging the traditional setup in dealerships and services, which were organized around the needs of the car – not necessarily those of the customer.”
It’s a trend that is pushing car brands to focus on far more than aesthetics and performance.
Ryan Robinson, global automotive research leader at US-based management consultant Deloitte, said this is especially the case in popular mass-market vehicle segments such as the sports utility vehicle (SUV), where model design now tends to follow a similar template: high and off-the-ground, hatchback boot, sloping rear.
“If the world is going to coalesce around this relatively similar-looking vehicle, manufacturers have to figure out a new differentiator,” he said. “In many instances, that’s down to experience.”
FIRST IMPRESSIONS COUNT
When choosing a car, consumers want value and convenience and they don’t give brands long to influence their purchase decision. Deloitte’s “2018 Global Automotive Consumer Study” found that more than a third of US consumers start researching a vehicle purchase less than a month before they decide to buy.
“If we want to stand out and be memorable we have to offer the experience,” a spokesperson for German automaker BMW said. “It’s as much about ‘how’ as ‘what’ we’re presenting.”
BMW has made concerted steps to seamlessly interlink the online and offline buying experience.
Vehicle configuration happens on a screen, whether online from the customer’s home or on a Virtual Product Presenter at the dealership. Beyond that, the company has introduced the “My Car is Born” feature on the BMW Connected app, which allows customers to track the progress of their new car as it is being built.
A TRULY CONNECTED OWNERSHIP JOURNEY
Brands that invest in making the purchase journey as smooth and enjoyable as possible are likely to better position themselves for future revenue and profitability streams, Deloitte’s Robinson said.
“You want to get people comfortable with making decisions, move them through the process as smoothly and efficiently as possible and lay the foundations for setting up a lifetime relationship,” he said.
Guillaume Becourt, co-founder and Experience Design lead at France-based experience software provider epicnpoc, works with automotive companies to focus on the customer experience across the entire value chain.
“The emotional interaction now goes beyond the physical product and it’s why the experience has to be developed, taking into account all of its dimensions including services, entry and exit phases, and user feedback,” he said. “The product becomes part of an end-to-end system.”
Even when things go wrong, manufacturers are better positioned to rectify the situation if they have a view of the entire customer experience.
“Clarity on end-to-end ownership for a customer request is key,” McKinsey’s Fanderl said. “Players need to establish the Disney-inspired mindset in their employee base – even if it’s not your fault it is still your problem – to create broad ownership to resolve customer problems.”
FUTURE FLEET MANAGERS
In some areas, automotive brands are experimenting with new services to further personalize the customer experience.
British luxury carmaker Bentley has been testing a “bespoke, connected, door-to-door” concierge service, Bentley on Demand. The service gives existing owners the opportunity to request a vehicle on-demand for a test drive or special occasion.
“In the wider market, businesses are exploring the feasibility of a subscription model which can be adapted to suit customers’ changing requirements, allowing them to drive a city car or sedan to work in the week, for example, and then swap for a sports car or SUV at the weekend,” Robinson said.
These developments signal a future where automotive manufacturers might be defined less as consumer end-product companies and more as fleet managers. To succeed, they must take steps now to survive the transition.
“Companies should ask themselves, ‘What is the one purpose that unites us across departments and inspires us to deliver great customer experience daily?’” Fanderl said. “It is very important that automakers do not wait until all the major changes in mobility – electrification, connectivity and so on – really ramp up. True customer experience is a state of mind, and it is a journey that will never end.”
Becourt believes that most automotive manufacturers are already well-structured to evolve their business models, provided they are adaptable and focus on the bigger picture.
“New products and solutions are launching every day but, in parallel, cars are defined years before their release and will be on the market for even longer,” he said. “Manufacturers will need to build even more flexible architectures. And if they want to improve the customer experience around these complex products, they need to think incrementally. The user experience has to be capitalized, re-used and improved.”
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