Ontario new-car dealer Michael Carmichael wishes he could travel back in time and carry out some of the measures that have been forced on his business by COVID-19.
“My question ... is this how we should have been doing it all along?” said the CEO of UpAuto in Stratford, Ont.
Those changes — including appointments, maximizing intelligence on customer traffic and reduced-contact service visits — are “just the right way to run a business,” he said.
UpAuto operates Nissan, Subaru and Buick-GMC stores as well as used-car dealer Cargo.
Whether forced to move to appointment-only selling or touchless drop-offs for vehicle service — which has depended on the level of retail restrictions at any given time — dealers interviewed by Automotive News Canada said they aren’t looking back.
“What we’re learning is that what our process was historically is not going to work for us going forward,” said Susan Gubasta, dealer principal at Mississauga Toyota. Customers have embraced online vehicle shopping as well as measures imposed by COVID-19 restrictions, she said.
“Why would we switch back to the old days? This is what the customer knows.”
SPEEDY SERVICE, SALES BOOST
Gubasta has seen the benefits. In service, customers drop off their vehicles and “can get on with their day,” while service advisers contact them later to discuss needed work, with video, if necessary. Customers don’t have to wait to speak with an adviser. In sales, customers with appointments find their test drives ready to go when they arrive.
“You’re not making the customer wait around while you go to the back of the lot,” Gubasta said.
She also noticed that with appointment selling, the closing ratio went up, because customers typically booked appointments only when they were close to buying. Gubasta is not closing the door to walkin traffic, however.
Michael Wyant, chief operating officer of Saskatchewan-based Wyant Group, said that even before pandemic restrictions came into play, he saw a shift. Customers who had extensively researched their choices online were making appointments to finish their shopping process.
The Wyant Group has dealerships in Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia.
“It results in ... a better experience,” Wyant said. “People are happy to pay a little bit more if we’re meeting them on their terms.”
He said the appointment process maximizes customers’ time, lets them control the process, leads to an all-around better business environment and has resulted in less pressure to drop prices to make a deal. There still needs to be flexibility, however.
“I cannot envision a reality where I would want to have the front door locked and customers must call to show up,” Wyant said. But “even when appointment-only was no longer required, we saw a massive migration to customers making appointments.
“In Alberta still, more than 80 per cent of customers, for the most part, are making appointments.”
‘DON’T WANT TO EASE UP’
Carmichael said the pandemic has constricted hours, saving money in receptionist time and not requiring sales representatives to be on hand until 9 p.m. He also tracks foot traffic as seriously as he does online, email and telephone traffic, which he never did closely if at all.
“We didn’t have the discipline before we went into this pandemic. Everyone found religion pretty quickly. I want to get better at it. I don’t want to ease up on it.”
Monitoring that traffic will allow for better lead management and follow-up, not letting opportunities get away from the stores. Wyant and Carmichael said it will also provide better data on whether foot traffic increases once the pandemic is in the rearview mirror.
Still, Carmichael thinks some of the old ways will return when the pandemic is over, such as a resumption of expanded hours and advertising that promotes “You don’t need an appointment to visit us” or “Hey, did you know all our sales staff are vaccinated?”
“The pandemic has been difficult,” said Gubasta, “but also eye-opening.
“COVID has ... shown us we’re more nimble than we ever thought we were. If we can get through this, we can get through anything.”