How to Build a Digital Dealership that Meets Customer Expectations

Aug 17, 2021
Erin Lomax, Cox Automotive VP Ops Consumer Marketplace

Estimated reading time: 9 minutes

Let me start by saying that customer satisfaction with the car-buying process has increased since the beginning of 2020 for the first time in a very long time. This is a major accomplishment for our industry, as well as a major behavioral shift in what consumers expect. We’ve learned that car buyers don’t care what type of widget or tool they’re using on your website if they get the car they want for a fair price as easily as possible. Say it with me again: as easily as possible. The experience you deliver to your customers matters more than ever and that means you need to build a digital car dealership ecosystem. 

And if you build it, they will come.  

2020 gave rise to the “digital everywhere” expectation and the car-buying process is no exception. Consumers learned they don’t have to follow the traditional way of car buying where they sit at a dealership for hours. E-commerce is here in the auto industry and it’s here to stay. So you need to meet car shoppers where they are, whether that’s fully online, digitally assisted or traditional.

In this post I’m going to share how to build your digital car dealership, starting with three foundational pillars. These pillars will help you serve today’s customers and set you up for success for car buying of the future. 

  1. Optimize online 

Your customer is online. You know this. Shoppers’ desire to do more online has increased and it keeps growing, with two-thirds of shoppers more likely to purchase a vehicle 100% online today than pre-pandemic1. If you aren’t optimizing your online presence, here’s where to start:  

  • Build the perfect VDP. Your VDP (Vehicle Detail Page) can make or break you. Make sure you’re checking the boxes when it comes to photos (interior, exterior and make sure to include pictures of any areas with damage), accurate pricing (don’t bait and switch!), vehicle descriptions and 360-degree spins

87% of consumers find 360-degree spin important when shopping for vehicles online and most consumers are more likely to take action to learn more about a vehicle they find online with a 360-degree spin. Think about it: while 360-degree spins on listings can’t replace a history report, they do create confidence about the condition of the vehicle, build trust with the dealer and are necessary when purchasing partially or fully online.  

  • Partner with the right third party. Car shoppers are visiting fewer websites during the decision-making process now, but third-party sites like Autotrader and are still the most popular first and last destinations for buyers. Optimize your online presence by choosing the right third-party sites and partner to drive better leads2
  • Create a personalized digital storefront. As you land potential buyers on your digital storefront, it’s critical to make that experience as relevant as possible. Site visitors who have personalized experiences show four times as many deal pencils, are 3.3 times more likely to initiate a trade-in and have a 216% increase in conversion rates1. Whether you’re capturing data on-site, using your CRM to keep track of consumer data or leveraging a free tool like My Wallet to surface your preferred lenders, relevancy through personalization is essential to a successful digital car-buying experience.  
  • Bring people to you. Speaking of your CRM data, use it to bring people to you. Third-party cookies, which enable user tracking across the web, are going away so now is the time to shift your digital marketing strategy to focus on cleaning up and leveraging your own customer data.  

Your data could be your competitive advantage if you’re delivering personal messages to people at the right time, like when they’re coming off lease or due for service. When you use data to drive relevancy and personalization, you get more qualified leads and deliver a better experience to the customer.  

We have the details on what’s changing with browser cookies and what dealers need to know.  

  1. Create an anywhere car-buying experience 

Customers want it all, don’t they? It’s up to you to blur the lines between digital and physical and create an anywhere experience. You need to offer a digital retailing suite along with options for a traditional sales experience. You need to create a positive and consistent customer experience, no matter who your customer talks to or through what channel. It’s a lot, but there are a few simple tactics you can employ to get started:  

  • Offer video vehicle walkaround. I mentioned that car buyers are visiting fewer sites in their journey, so a live video walkaround could be the extra personalized step that wins you the lot visit or the remote sale. This blog post that has the six tips for using video walkaround to sell more cars. 
  • Enable digital retailing from end-to-end. By offering a complete digital retailing solution, you’re putting the customer in the decision-making driver’s seat, letting them choose how far down the path to purchase they want to go digitally before coming into a physical store (if at all!). And 9 out of 10 consumers are more likely to buy from a dealership that offers at least one component of digital retailing.3 These customers are also more profitable and deliver a shorter customer experience. This blog post has the steps to accelerate car sales with digital retailing.   
  • Offer quality at-home services, including sales and test drivesDuring the pandemic, at-home test drives became an essential selling tool, keeping sales moving while lot visits were limited.  Now at-home test drives are here to stay as a powerful tool for winning customers by offering convenience today’s car shoppers demand. This blog post has tips on how to begin at-home test drives or perfect your system, covering advertising, setting expectations with customers and ensuring your test drives move the sales process forward. And don’t forget that when you do close the deal, delivering the car is the nice cherry on top of a delightful experience.  
  1. Prepare your sales teams for the future — or build a new one. 

Your staff is an important part of your success today and in the future — and it’s imperative that you lean on them to help build your digital ecosystem. When we studied thriving dealers, those whose businesses became more efficient and profitable in 2020, 73% made employee satisfaction as important as CSCI scores.4  

Building out a digital ecosystem requires all employees to be all in and the time is now. Interest in working in dealerships is growing, digital retailing is becoming a must-have and you have a unique opportunity to get good people in the door by investing in their development and offering new types of positions and tasks.5 One dealership we studied took its chat service in-house and transitioned about 15% of salespeople to showroom coordinators, who champion and manage the digital interface with customers.  

Technology integrations offer employees the ability to learn new skills and provide career development opportunities — and sell more cars. To get your staff bought in, communicate the ways that diving into digital is beneficial for both their day-to-day and long-term career development: 

  • Emphasize efficiencies. Technology solutions offer time and money efficiencies, from digital marketing through at-home delivery.  

With targeted digital marketing, staff members spend less time with their leads because there are fewer unqualified leads coming in. The more you know about a ready-to-buy shopper, the less time you need to close on these higher quality leads.  

A salesperson could coordinate several at-home test drives at once, scheduling video and text chats. In the traditional way of selling, a salesperson could only be in one vehicle at one time. Now salespeople could literally be in two places at once — and potentially close two deals.  

  • Convey flexibility and relationship to customer. When you put the customer in control of how they buy a car, you create an instant positive connection that your staff members can nurture and grow.  

Train your sales staff up on all the communications tools and give the customer the options, from text, chat, virtual assistants, FaceTime, Skype, etc. Let the customers choose how they want to engage with your staff.  

Salespeople can also check in with leads and customers more regularly in a low-pressure way through some of these communication tools and gently remind customers when their vehicles are due for service, reach out to check in and build a personal relationship.  

  • Long-term development. Like it or not, this internet thing is here to stay, and every industry, company and individual needs to have a certain level of savvy to stay relevant. By offering your staff training and opportunities to advance their digital skills, you are investing in their career development and keeping them engaged. 

If you focus on these three areas — optimizing online, creating an anywhere experience and preparing your staff for the future — you can start to build out a digital dealership ecosystem and deliver the kind of flexibility and connected experience that car buyers expect, saving time and closing more deals.  

At the end of the day, consumer experience is king here. I believe there will be a wide array of e-commerce tools with varying levels of capability but regardless of those tools and products, dealers need to put the consumer first and meet them where they are. At Cox Automotive, we’re harnessing the power of our collective portfolio to bring the most comprehensive and complete end-to-end shopping experiences to our consumers. Just last month we launched Cox Automotive Esntial Commerce — an industry-first, fully automated eCommerce experience for used car buying. 

If you want to learn more about how to get started with the right third-party and digital retailing, visit the Accelerate My Deal page or contact a Dealer Success Consultant today. And you can learn more about Esntial Commerce here. 

12020 Cox Automotive COVID-19 Digital Shopping Study 

22020 Nielson Content Influence Study commissioned by Cox Automotive 

4 Truths of Digital Retail  

4How to Thrive: Best Practices for an Accelerated Digital Landscape  

5Cox Automotive Study: The State of Dealership Staffing 2021