This year’s New York International Auto Show will be as notable for its innovative apps, ideas and services focused on adding to the customer experience as it will be for its stands packed with brand new Bentleys and BMWs.
Having first opened its doors to the public back in 1900, the New York Auto Show is by far the oldest show of its kind on North American soil and is also notable for being one of the very few events in this most diverse of US states that brings so many different types of people together under one convention center roof. The show usually plays host to 1 million attendees and 1000 vehicles. Back in the day, the number of cars on display was decided by reliability – only cars that didn’t break down on the journey to the show, went on show.
A 100-year journey
But though cars have become more and more reliable with each passing year since Karl Benz first patented his idea for the modern motor car back in 1886, the industry as a whole has taken over 100 years to realize that they are essentially retailers and that customer service and customer relations goes beyond offering a complimentary cup of coffee at the dealership.
“The headlines may be about how autonomous driving technology is changing the automotive industry, but for consumers, the innovations that are having the biggest impact on how they feel about their relationship with car companies and whether or not they stay loyal to one marque over another are technological ideas that can have their roots in e-commerce,” says Mike Small, Sitel Group US Chief Client Officer. “All major carmakers have launched or are launching everything from omnichannel customer service and experience stores to apps and services designed to add value and as such are adopting the best phygital retail practices.”
Filling up on fuel and on customer loyalty
For example, if you own a Jaguar and use one of Shell’s 43000+ filling stations, you can pay for your gas simply by tapping on the car’s infotainment system screen. No standing in line (potentially with the children) or running the risk of getting a credit card cloned when using an automated pump. The system also automatically records and adds the purchase to a personal or professional accounting or expenses tracking application.
Bentley has taken the idea a step further with an app that arranges a time and a place that’s most convenient for someone to come to your car and fill it with gasoline. You don’t even need to be there to give the concierge access to the car – it’s all automated.
“We are continuously investigating ways in which to offer our customers tailored, convenient, smart services that afford them the greatest luxury of all: more time,” said Bentley’s Director of Product and Marketing, Christophe Georges. “Bentley ownership is about more than just the vehicle — it’s the entire luxury experience.”
As for plug-in electric cars, Tesla is ahead of the curve in this respect. Any Model X or Model S owner can use the company’s ever growing network of supercharging points for free, for life. The car’s infotainment system can plan routes based on proximity to charging points and can warn in advance if all charging points at a certain stop are already in use.
As such they are all perfect examples of a brand reassessing its story to understand how its narrative intersects with the story of its customers’ lives. “When a brand’s and a customer’s narrative meet, it is the optimum moment to deliver added value. This is what builds a relationship and fosters loyalty,” says Mike Small.
The Swedish way of delivering value
It should come as no surprise that a car company from a country that gave the world IKEA came up with this idea. No one likes waiting at home for an online order to arrive. And if you drive a Volvo, you don’t need to. You can give your car, wherever it may be parked, as your address instead. The courier receives directions to, plus a one-time digital key which will unlock the car, then he or she can store the package in the trunk. An SMS alert tells the owner the package has arrived.
“Volvo is not interested in technology for the sake of technology,” said Klas Bendrik, Senior Vice President and Chief Information Officer at Volvo of the service. “If a technology does not make a customer’s life easier, better, safer or more fun, we don’t use it.”
Consume on the commute
How about turning the car into a sales channel? That’s what GM has been doing since January with Marketplace, a digital in-car platform that lets drivers shop with a selection of companies while driving. You can pre-order your Starbucks or Dunkin Donuts, book a table at TGI Fridays and find a gas stop and pre-pay for your fuel.
“The average American spends 46 minutes per day on the road driving. Leveraging connectivity and our unique data capabilities, we have an opportunity to make every trip more productive and give our customers time back,” said Santiago Chamorro, vice president for Global Connected Customer Experience, GM.
“The mantra within customer relations is to always be where your customer is. It’s why customer services is evolving to include channels such as social messaging alongside traditional options like call centers and email. And as the Internet of Things becomes mainstream, potentially any device could be considered a potential channel for meeting a customer’s needs or an opportunity to move a customer further along the path to purchase,” says Mike Small. “Likewise, when AI finally makes the self-driving car the norm, concepts like Marketplace will also be the norm, as the car will have become in essence, a mobile home.”
Changing with changing customer behavior
However, as much as automakers innovate to maintain and build loyalty among existing customers, they also realize that changing technology and changing consumer sentiment, most notably among Millennials is going to change their business model and that they are going to have to shift from being retailers to service and experience providers.
“As Millennials become the world’s biggest generation in terms of spending power and wealth creation, they are upending traditional concepts of consumerism. Ownership is giving way to experience and access,” points out Mike Small. “This generation is spearheading the sharing economy and as such is forcing all consumer-facing brands, not just car companies, to reassess their business models.”
A new model for owning a new model
That’s why Porsche has expanded into hotels, office spaces and restaurants and why it has launched something called Porsche Passport, which allows its clients to pay a monthly subscription fee – rather than purchase a car outright. This monthly payment gives customers access to the type of Porsche they need, when they need it. A convertible when the sun’s shining, an SUV for going on a family roundtrip, or a luxury sedan for the daily drive to work.
Volvo has gone further still, looking to the smartphone for inspiration when trying to remove pain points from the traditional car ownership model. Called Care by Volvo, the new model is essentially a two-year contract that for a set monthly fee covers every single element of owning and driving a car, even tire wear. “Care by Volvo takes the guesswork out of car ownership, covering insurance, service, maintenance and basically everything except gas,” said Anders Gustafsson, President and CEO of Volvo Cars USA.
Driving towards the future
“Companies should look beyond their own borders for ideas, inspiration and a greater understanding of the world in which their customer live. Brands should be prepared to drive to any length in order to ensure that their customer remains at the core of their operations,” says Mike Small.
But this is just the beginning of the biggest revolution within the industry in the car’s 130-year history. The innovations and intelligent approaches to customer service are expected to continue when the industry arrives in France for the Paris international Motor show this October.