A few years ago, the customer journey for car sales was straightforward: go to your local dealer, see what stock they had, look in the showroom, talk through your specifications with the sales team, and progress to purchase from there.
Now the world, and buying a car, is much more complex. Consumers have many more options for researching and buying cars in the digital age, and it is critical for brands and dealerships to understand new factors that are driving purchase decisions.
Brands and dealerships that embrace the shift to digital will have an edge.
The pandemic had a strong influence on moving customers to digital sales. During the first few months of the pandemic, digital car sales reached 30 percent of all vehicle purchases in the U.S. Manufacturers are taking note of the trend.¹
Jonathan Goodman, Chief Operating Officer of Polestar recently told ABC News that his company is “breaking away from the traditional car buying experience you’d normally find at dealerships.” Reinforcing the trend, companies like Volvo are predicting that almost half of their auto sales will take place online by 2025.²
On the consumer side, buyers are embracing the digital model. A survey conducted by Progressive Insurance in 2022 found that 78 percent of those surveyed who purchased a car online were highly satisfied with their car purchase experience, with only 3 percent of those reporting they were unlikely to purchase a vehicle online again.³
While brands and customers are moving forward with the digital model, dealers are struggling to develop new strategies for attracting and retaining customers.
Dealers that successfully optimize a blended digital/in-store experience will create new opportunities starting with successful customer acquisition. Nurturing touchpoints during the lifetime of the car means they can leverage the digital experience to foster long-term customer relationships for future sales and stronger growth.”
Customer journey research provides insights on how to approach new buying habits.
With so many new variables at play in a digitally-driven sales climate, auto dealers are seeking answers to important questions such as:
- How can I understand how many of my buyers or potential buyers are going straight through the digital channel to commit to a vehicle purchase?
- How confident do they feel about making their choice, particularly doing so outside of the dealership environment?
- Have they had the opportunity to sit in a physical vehicle on a different occasion, did they make their purchase without experiencing the car?
- Have buyers used any virtual reality (VR) tools to understand on some level how the car may look and feel?
We have seen increasing complexity across different channels, and work with our clients to help them understand these challenges, mitigating the barriers and driving their strategy toward success through Customer Journey research.
With so many different potential journey paths, we use an interactive online space to ask potential car buyers to tell us about their preferred steps in the purchase journey and invite them to show us how they approach purchase decisions. Our analysis builds an understanding around the most common journey types, and the research insights reveal crucial moments in the buyer’s journey.
This research gives us a better understanding of:
- Consumer engagement in the categories that matter most.
- Nuances in the decision-making process.
- Key touchpoints and moments of truth
- Purchase triggers and touchpoints during the consideration stage.
Customer journey research helps you determine which aspects of the journey are most important, identifies key points where you can position your approach, and provides opportunities to develop activation strategies to intervene during important moments to meet customer needs or wants for a better outcome. Crafting the right approach builds deeper engagement, helping dealers establish positive and effective relationships with customers.
Understanding key customer moments creates opportunities to earn loyalty.
For buyers, more time spent in digital research results in less time spent feeling scrutinised or “sold to” at the dealership, and this is important to them. In the Progressive study, consumers reported that they liked having an opportunity to try out the cars, but only 58 percent were satisfied with their in-dealership experience. Understanding what the buyer truly wants will give dealers the best opportunities to anticipate customer needs, avoiding the potential for a lost sale – or worse, buyer’s regret.
As the digital model matures, the role of the dealer will be much different. Thomas Furcher, former Chief Strategy Officer of Cars.com was recently interviewed by McKinsey about the future of car buying. “Dealers will need to get much smarter about understanding their customers and about offering sales experiences that make sense for each customer,” he said, noting, “The days of the salesperson asking, ‘so what brought you in today?’ should be over. The dealer should already know that. They should already have the cars waiting. They should already have payment packages designed and ready. Being in a place where the entire shopping experience can be customized to the individual buyer will go from being a luxury to being the norm and the expectation.”
To make the transition from an offline store to a dynamic digital sales model that Furcher predicts, dealers will need to stay close to customers by paying attention to research trends – and listening to the cars. New technologies such as 5G connectivity and IoT (Internet of Things) mean dealers can have multiple digital touchpoints with customers throughout the ownership lifecycle, from regular maintenance to faster service during breakdowns.
Dealers that successfully optimize a blended digital/in-store experience will create new opportunities starting with successful customer acquisition. Nurturing touchpoints during the lifetime of the car means they can leverage the digital experience to foster long-term customer relationships for future sales and stronger growth.
Want to learn more about customer journey research?
1. Alan Haig Partners, Press Coverage, 2023.
2. ABC News, More consumers are shopping online for cars. Can dealerships keep up?, Morgan Korn, March 28, 2021.
3. Progressive Insurance, Consumers Embrace Online Car Buying, 2022.