WALLINGFORD, Conn. — When it comes to the often perilous practice of communicating accurately and efficiently with service customers, one midsize suburban Audi dealership in Connecticut has come up with a simple strategy: In texts we trust.
For Audi of Wallingford, in the town of Wallingford, about 12 miles northeast of New Haven, learning to rely on text messages to keep service customers informed about their repairs has resulted in increased sales and improved customer satisfaction.
"I'm a skeptic when it comes to software, because software doesn't fix anything; it just usually adds another layer of stuff," said Ray Angle, 47, service and parts director at the dealership for the last six years.
Mr. Angle's skepticism evaporated last year after his store started using a Web-based software program that allows service advisers and technicians to text directly with customers concerning the status of their repair orders.
"Literally the same day we were able to communicate with customers that were in meetings or at home — customers who might not have answered their phones if we had called," Mr. Angle said.
"When we started using the product, we noticed our sales increase. We had been trying to increase our follow-up number, too, and that was a big challenge for me. But that number pretty much tripled within 90 days."
An estimated 81 percent of Americans regularly exchange texts, according to the Pew Research Center. Nielsen Co. (U.S.) L.L.C., the media research company, claims texting is the most-used data service in the world, with more than 15.2 million messages sent every minute.
At the dealership level, several vendors offer specialized applications to allow employees to text with their customers.
Audi of Wallingford uses a Web-based service called PocketExpert, which doesn't require technicians or service employees to reveal their cell numbers to customers but still provides a textlike interaction.
Mr. Angle said customers are asked whether they want to get text updates from service advisers as part of the check-in process.
If they do, the service adviser can provide regular status updates, and if the adviser, for example, informs the customer that a vehicle needs new brake pads and rotors, the app highlights those words automatically in the text with question-mark links nearby.
Customers can click on those words for plain-language explanations of how those parts are used.
The app also allows any customer interaction that gets dicey — say, a customer disagrees with how a vehicle is being repaired — to be redirected immediately to a supervisor such as Mr. Angle, who has the history of the conversation there for inspection.
"In terms of customers calling me with issues, I get less than one a week right now," he said. And because texting is so widespread, Mr. Angle said there's little need for training.
An Audi spokesman said that about 10 percent of Audi stores now use texting to communicate with service customers, a number that's been growing steadily.
The costs for dealerships can vary widely depending on the product. Mr. Angle said his dealership — which sells about 70 new and 30 used vehicles a month and sees about 50 cars per day through its service lane — spends about $150 per month on the PocketExpert service.
He said that while the texting strategy makes his department more efficient, the customer is the real beneficiary.
"This (tool) really empowers the customer," he said, and allows them to understand more completely the service being provided.