If there’s one thing lockdown has taught us, it’s the ease and efficiency of digital tools and communications.

Customers, very much used to making and managing their purchases remotely in other areas from holidays to white goods, discovered that whether they were looking for a new or used car, or needed to book their car in for a service, it was all doable online. 

Sales executives also realised that while the traditional view of touching a car and backsides on seats meant a firm sale, this could also be achieved by embracing digital tools and communications, customers were just as likely, if not more likely, to sign on the dotted line.

The realisation for both dealers and car buyers dawned in the wake of the pandemic that face-to-face contact isn’t always necessary. It will mean a return to old practices, which invariably saw consumers funnelled into the showroom at the earliest opportunity are increasingly unlikely.

A host of digital tools such as video explainers and video walk-rounds, online finance applications and approvals, secure digital documentation systems and live chat were already in place for a lot of dealerships before the pandemic hit. Dealers who had these practices in place were able to continue conversations with customers, despite shutting their physical doors during the lockdown.

We’ve all emerged from lockdown much more comfortable with video conferencing and meetings whilst the entire nation has indulged in Zoom parties and virtual exercise classes. We are now much happier utilising technology to communicate and are more reliant on digital tools to undertake tasks we would have usually done in person. Click and collect, for example, has become far more commonplace and we’re even scanning menus in restaurants and codes in pubs to order food and drink and paying using our smartphones.  However, many of us are still reluctant to completely relax social distancing measures which means digital processes will play an even greater role in all aspects of our lives including how we buy our cars moving forward. 

Whilst video of used car stock on the dealer’s website and personally recorded videos responding to customer enquiries will continue, we can expect to see more two-way video conversations taking place. These allow customers to ask questions and sales executives can even carry out virtual part-exchange evaluations all on the same call.

Throughout the lockdown, digital suppliers to the sector were keen to help dealers maintain contact with customers with many providing services free or accelerating the development of new products. As the pandemic forced dealers to extend its digital processes that even suppliers didn’t expect, it has effectively fast-forwarded the sector by several years and there will be no going back.

As ‘normality’ slowly returns, albeit a new normal, there will always be some customers who are much more comfortable conducting transactions in person, but it seems very possible that many will be happy continuing their car buying journey online, arranging their finance using dealer tools and signing documents digitally. This will become more apparent as Generation Z, those born in the late 90s and the first decade of the new century, ages and they make vehicle purchases in greater numbers.

Alongside these developments, dealers will also need a team with digital skill-sets rather than sales executives who sit people down at their desk to close the deal.

The contactless experience will form much more of the buying process including test drives from home, digital documentation signing and video explainers along with elements of the purchase itself, the final transaction and even the vehicle handover. 

Dealers and customers could well be asking themselves if it’s necessary to conduct any of the processes in the showroom. Covid-19 could prove to be the watershed for the digital transformation in automotive retail for which customers have long been waiting for.

By Debbie Kirlew

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