The way that Americans shop for goods and services has seen a lot of changes over the past two decades. Many companies have kept pace with the times, but auto dealers? Some, yes, others, not so much.
Thankfully, a few in the industry are shaking things up. Tesla and Audi are tinkering with the time-honored sales model, and according to the Detroit News, Chrysler is working to bring service into the 21st century.
THEN VS. NOW
We can probably all agree that the internet has changed everything. Since the mid-1990s, the traditional, highly centralized consumer experience -- organized around a showroom and a cash register -- has been completely upended.
On the sales front, we now shop at home using laptops and tablets. We interact more often with search engines than with sales personnel. On those rare occasions when we do set foot in a brick-and-mortar store, it's often to see a product up-close, touch it, hold it, then cross-shop it using our smartphones. We even scan, pay for, and bag our purchases, without uttering so much as a "how do you do?" to sales staff.
Service has changed, too. Although we still bring our products to service centers, they're often faster and more personalized than they once were. When everything is humming along, Apple's Genius Bars are a great example of how service works today. (The Geek Squad desk at Best Buy? Less so.)
How does this translate to the automotive sector?
Though franchise laws govern a good bit of the car-sales experience, automakers like Tesla are pushing the limits of what's possible (and legal) by ditching conventional showrooms for information hubs. Customers can visit these hubs to see cars up close and learn more about them, but sales pressure -- which can often be off-putting at traditional dealerships -- is mitigated, because the hubs don't sell cars. Customers go elsewhere for that.
And then there's service.
Like most service outlets, garages can be intimidating. Customers often have little understanding of the technical intricacies of their vehicle. They have to trust their mechanic, because they lack the knowledge, skill, and/or equipment to carry out the repairs themselves. This dynamic encourages a degree of suspicion and distrust that's hard to overcome -- especially for consumers accustomed to an increasing degree of transparency in other areas of daily life.
Chrysler is working to address this problem by giving service technicians tools that can offer diagnosis and repair information in ways that put customers at ease.
YOUR NEXT VISIT
On your next trip to the Chrysler garage, you may be greeted by a mechanic who'll be able to diagnose your vehicle moments after you've left the driver's seat. She'll plug in a small device (probably into the onboard diagnostic port), and just a minute or two later, you'll be able to scan a complete list of problems and service needs on her iPad. Because that iPad is connected to the web, it'll also display any relevant recalls, software updates, and other important alerts.
That won't necessarily shorten the time that you spend hanging out in the garage's waiting room, nor will it improve the quality of the vending-machine coffee found there. However, it should help make you more comfortable with the service process.
WHAT'S THE CATCH?
While that sounds great for the consumer, what's in it for Chrysler? Why should the company spend thousands of dollars developing an iPad app and training service personnel across the country for little or no immediate financial gain? If a car's broken, it has to be fixed, right? What difference does the customer experience make?
As the Detroit News explains, many dealerships use their sales and service departments to pay for overhead. In other words, all those oil-changes, tune-ups, and other repairs pay for the light bill, the water bill, the contract on the Xerox machine, and so on. That leaves the cash derived from car sales as pure profit -- so even when sales are slow, the dealership can keep its doors open.
The only problem is, dealerships are having an increasingly hard time competing on the service front. Neighborhood garages and chain stores like Pep Boys are often more conveniently located -- and they're often cheaper, too, especially after a vehicle's warranty expires.
And so, given the obstacles of location and price, Chrysler shops are hoping to use service as a means of distinguishing themselves. We've all had bad customer experiences before -- experiences that have made us vow never to return to those shops again. Chrysler is hoping that its new service model will have the opposite effect, inspiring loyalty despite some slight inconveniences.
[via John Voelcker]