Engage Customers with Digital Communication

March 14, 2017

Better engage with customers by utilizing text messages and emails 

Take a look at your cell phone, says Scott Pechstein, vice president of dealership software developer Autobytel. First, look at the number of unread emails sitting in your inbox; there are more than likely quite a few. Now, compare that number to the number of unread text messages on your phone—if any. That’s the power of text messages, he says, and it’s something that every fixed operations department needs to leverage for its benefit.

And this isn’t just anecdotal: Not only are 98 percent of text messages read, nine out of 10 are read within three minutes, according to a Frost & Sullivan study. Furthermore, that same study showed that the majority of people check their phones more than 100 times per day.

And for the naysayers that argue emerging technology is distracting and makes customer interactions impersonal, J.D. Ipsen, parts director at Ken Garff West Valley, says digital communication actually allows you to communicate more efficiently and quickly in a way that customers actually want to be communicated with—especially the growing millennial generation.  

The bottom line, says Pechstein, who has spoken on this topic at a number of national industry training events, is that texting isn’t a fad and it’s a piece of technology that every department can leverage with little effort and money to better engage with customers and keep them updated throughout the repair, service or parts process. 

Digital Communication in Parts

Ipsen concedes that traditionally, customers and vendors working with parts departments prefer talking on the phone. They like to build that relationship and have those face-to-face interactions, he says. However, with his wholesale counter (60 percent of Ipsen’s business is wholesale) answering up to 20,000 phone calls per month, he says that both sides have increasingly turned to email, and, more recently, texting and mobile apps.

Internally, his staff uses systems like OEConnection and OPSTRAX that allow customers to order parts from his department and communicate digitally. In addition, he says many of his parts employees prefer to utilize instant messaging and emails when communicating both with other departments and customers. 

However, the tool that Ipsen says has made the biggest difference in his department is utilizing a GPS delivery tracking system. The system, called Elite EXTRA, allows Ipsen to create routes in optimized sequences, dispatch them to a smartphone or tablet and let customers both track drivers in real time, see delivery ETAs and communicate with them directly. As the GPS gets pinged every 3–5 seconds, dispatchers and the parts team team will see on a map every move the drivers make.

“The big part about it is that in the old days, you had no idea where your driver was,” he says. “Now I can tell you to the minute based off real-time GPS and traffic and everything else. I can tell you the estimated time of arrival to your doorstep. It used to be that you had to call the dispatcher. And if they have to call you, you’ve already lost the battle.”

Ipsen says that being more proactive and transparent in communications with customers has improved customer satisfaction and reduced the number of frustrated or angry customers. If a delivery or shipment is late, for example, customers will be notified earlier and accommodations can be made.

Digital Communication in Service

In the service department, Pechstein says the biggest benefits of digital communication occur after the customer has already arrived for an appointment. Digital vehicle inspection forms, in particular, are especially conducive to utilizing text or email. After the customer drops his or her vehicle off, Pechstein says to make it a point to ask the customer how they would like to be followed up with, and emphasize the text messaging and email capabilities. After the vehicle is diagnosed, a service advisor will send a text message with an inspection report attached. 

Pechstein says that texting that kind of information to the customer means they can review it on their own time and give the service center a call, if necessary, rather than service advisors or technicians having to spend significant amounts of time tracking the customer down on the phone or playing phone tag.

Then throughout the repair process, utilizing a texting function allows you to stay in touch with customers in an undisruptive way and provide updates on the repair process, or in the case of collision, expected delivery date. Although phone calls may be necessary at times, Pechstein says, taking and sharing vehicle condition photos can become integral in helping service advisors sell recommended services. 

Digital Communication in Collision

On the collision side, Pechstein recommends having a text sent to customers every time their vehicles move into the next step of the repair process. These can even be automated, but he recommends customizing the text messages and their frequencies for the customer. Customers can then simply respond back with a text message at their convenience, which will notify the shop. 

Once customers pick up their vehicles, Pechstein says they can receive even more messages from the shop throughout the following year, asking how the vehicle is doing, or recommending that it’s time to come back to the service department for maintenance.

There are two caveats to utilizing text messaging, Pechstein says:

  1. You should utilize a third-party platform that streams the information to your management system or CRM. That way, you can leverage the information and have it on file for future appointments, contact information, or in case of any disputes. 
  2. The dealership must have express written consent to text the consumer. This is a compliance issue, Pechstein says, and the easiest way to receive that consent is through an opt-in text. Generally, texting platforms will send a text asking the consumer if the dealership can text them, to which the consumer responds “yes” or “no,” thus alerting the dealership.