What is driving consumer behavior nearly 18 months after the start of the pandemic? What strategies are best for meeting customers' changing needs?
A panel of car dealership service department experts tackled those questions and others during the first installment of the 2021 Fixed Ops Journal Forum.
Panelists were: Joey Bonilla, service director at Passport Automotive Group in Suitland, Md.; Zach Brandt, general manager at Capitol Ford in Santa Fe, N.M.; Mike Murphy, general manager at Buerkle Acura in Minneapolis; and Glen Reed, fixed ops director at Patriot Subaru in Saco, Maine.
Mr. Bonilla: We're wiping the cars down, and we're doing precautionary measures to make sure they stay safe. That's been one thing that people have complained about. They don't think it's up to par.
So we've made some adjustments. Same thing with wearing masks. We've had quite a few complaints at stores where they'll say they saw an employee with their mask below their face. But they do like to be communicated more via text. Our online payments have gone up tremendously. So some of the adjustments that we've made have actually helped us become better.
Mr. Murphy: A lot of people are changing. I think they're driving decisions. I think we're having additional cars being added to the families instead of ride-share service. I think we've had a lot of delayed services that are testing our service department. It's been very, very busy. We've had to make a lot of adjustments to our business model to kind of stay with what the consumer demands are.
Mr. Reed: We got rid of all the [display] cars on the pad and replaced those with patio sets and chairs and awnings and things. And customers really have liked that.
It's allowed us to take [out] some of the congestion in the waiting room. But in the winter months, ... if the waiting room was getting full and we were trying to keep everyone spaced out, we'd offer a loaner vehicle — even if they weren't going anywhere with the car — to allow them to go out. ... Just use that as kind of like a remote office. They could still hit the Wi-Fi at our dealership [and] run the radio. They could just stay warm.
Mr. Brandt: The biggest area of growth for us was our mobile service. So we were a part of a pilot with Ford Motor Co. and mobile service vans.
We have ordered our second van, and that was probably our biggest area of success during the pandemic — our service to you. Oil changes, recalls especially.
We keep the truck busy three days out of the week, specifically taking care of customers and our fleets.
How do you ensure the highest level of customer service every day?
Mr. Bonilla: We just stick to the basics. We have an experience meeting once a week with our customer experience manager. We're trying to maintain that high level of customer experience, hold people accountable — but just do consistency. I mean, that's the best that we can do with the consistency.
Mr. Brandt: The biggest thing for us right now is communication. If I write 100 hours, about 20 of them have issues with backorder parts. The key for us is just getting on the phone right away, notifying our customer and sharing the information we have. It's much easier to communicate with the customer upfront when they're upset than it is at delivery.
Even if we don't have an update, there's still a [call] every day with that customer and letting them know, "Hey, you're still in the queue. We know you're there. We're just checking in." So I think ... communication for us right now has been the biggest thing that we need to focus on and continue to get better at.
Mr. Murphy: I walk throughout the entire dealership to make sure I touch base with every staff member. We only have about 60 employees. And just really make sure that the communication with the customer [is good] as different things get thrown at us.
I think that it's really, really important that we recognize [the staff's] efforts and encourage them to make sure they maintain that high level of customer service.
Mr. Reed: One of the biggest keys is, we need to embrace the change. I think about things differently. We can no longer require people to do business the way that we want them to do business.
And we really, as an industry, need to focus on, "How do our customers want to do business with us?"
And then we need to embrace those changes to make that a better experience for them.