How Mobile Is Changing the Way We Buy Cars

Mobile is transforming the car shopping experience completely. Brands, manufacturers and dealerships need to redesign the customer experience to compete in this mobile/digital world.

Brian Solis

April 29, 2016

8 Min Read
How Mobile Is Changing the Way We Buy Cars

The automotive industry is undergoing one of the world’s most incredible transformations. From electric and self-driving cars to connected vehicles to manufacturers bypassing dealerships in favor of direct-to-consumer sales, the amount of change is staggering.

One of the biggest areas of disruption, which is both a threat and an opportunity, is the way new technology is driving people to think and act differently during the shopper journey. With consumers increasingly using digital and specifically mobile to help make decisions, smart marketers are investing in new touchpoints in new ways to get ahead of changing behaviors.

Micro-Moments = Macro Opportunities

Over the last several months, I’ve worked with Google to study the evolution of digital decision-making, and the insights are nothing short of game-changing. Like the dawn of the Internet and its effect on shopping at the time, Google’s research is around what it calls micro-moments, when customers turn to their mobile phone with bursts of attention to discover, buy, go and do.

As a result, the shopper journey is being reshaped by new behaviors and expectations. And this culminates in the need for new micro-optimized touchpoints and for marketing to connect with people on their terms when, where and how they’re going through their journey.

These micro-moments profoundly affect how manufacturers and dealers market, sell and service cars.

Dave Mingle, executive director-global connected customer experience for General Motors, is leading a new initiative across the company that upgrades technology, processes and models to more effectively reach “connected” customers.

“We are listening to our customers in new and different ways,” Mingle says. “Today’s customers are learning and shopping on their own terms via their smartphones, tablets and computers, and using search, mobile, social media, third-party websites and enthusiast forums among others to get the answers they need. It’s about optimizing the experience in a mobile environment for whenever and wherever our customers want to reach us.”

It’s this customer-centric approach that is changing the game. But what exactly is different and what should manufacturers and dealers do to connect with connected customers?

Customer Experience the New Competitive Advantage

The average car shopper today makes just two dealership visits. By the time customers set foot inside a dealership they are beyond informed. They’re ready to buy. The key is to be present, helpful and optimized during this new dynamic journey to make the cut.

It’s this shift from selling to informing that’s driving transformation among some of the most digitally savvy dealerships out there.

Peter Chung, general manager at Magic Toyota in Edmonds, WA, sees changes in the customer landscape as an opportunity rather than a threat.

“Rather than fighting this evolution and seeing it as a challenge, we took this opportunity to rethink the process from beginning to end,” he says. “We spent time understanding how search algorithms changed but more importantly, we looked at how consumers were searching, shopping and also what devices they used, where, and how.”

It was this change in consumer behavior that inspired Magic Toyota to re-imagine the customer journey starting with its website. Dealerships traditionally design sites to promote conversions and lead acquisition, but Magic Toyota now believes the secret to conversion lies in experience, giving customers what they’re looking for, answering their questions and being present in ways that are simple and easy to use on mobile devices.

Google recently published an in-depth review that highlights five common micro-moments that help manufacturers and dealers take the wheel in auto shopping. Walking through each moment helps executives see the world through a new lens and provides insight into where to prioritize shifts in budget and resources to engage connected customers.

Moment 1: Which Car Is Best?

Six of 10 car shoppers enter the market unsure which car to buy, according to Millward Brown Digital and Polk. As customers do their research, they look to blogs, review sites and other sources. But one of the most common and compelling resources customers lean on is review videos. In fact, of the people who used YouTube while buying a car, 69% were influenced by it – more than TV, newspapers or magazines.

Moment 2: Is It Right for Me?

After the glamour of researching dream cars, reality quickly sets in. Customers need to know which car will suit their needs.

Again, online video ranks highly at this stage. And YouTube keeps topping the list. Time spent watching these types of auto videos is up nearly two times in the past year alone.

What are people searching for? Vehicle test drives, highlights of features and options and walkthroughs of the interior or exterior of the vehicle.

“We found that customers aren’t searching by keywords, they’re searching with specific questions, features and locations,” Chung sys. “We’ve had to re-think our website to work on mobile and touch and more so, focus on useful pictures, videos and also blog posts that are written to directly answer questions that match customer search queries.”

Chung also observes that mobile used to only account for 15% of site traffic and now it’s well over half. In fact, with its investment in mobile design, Magic Toyota is experiencing increased time on site, engagement and conversions.

Moment 3: Can I Afford It?

Once customers start to narrow their options, the next step is to determine whether they actually can afford their car. Searches for list prices are at their highest levels ever, growing 25% in the past year. Again, this trend is driven by mobile, which accounts for 70% of these searches.

Beyond price, customers also want to understand the value of their current car. This helps make deals tangible as they decide whether to sell or trade in.

Moment 4: Where Should I Buy?

Even in a mobile world, at some point, the customer journey moves from online into the real world. Google found searches for “car dealerships near me” have doubled in the past year alone. Beyond “where,” customers are also searching for very specific information (“when” and “what”) to shape the remainder of their journey around their needs.

Customers don’t want to waste their time when they come in to the dealership either. They want to know where the car they want is in stock. Search interest for inventory is growing more than four times faster than overall auto searches. And while websites and apps often can answer those questions, customers still will make a phone call to get answers when they can’t find it online.

Moment 5: Am I Getting a Good Deal?

In the retail world, when a customer shops in a physical store, they simultaneously shop online via mobile. This is referred to as “showrooming.” On the flip side, when someone shops online and in turn purchases in store, it’s called “webrooming.”

In the auto world, customers prefer to shop using both methods. Research is done online. And when they’re at the dealership, searches shift from information-gathering to intelligence.

In fact, searches via mobile while at the dealership saw 21% growth. Searches for Kelley Blue Book and competing dealers occur more often when at the dealership – before any final decision is made.

Dealerships are starting to appreciate this behavior. Chung offers advice based on his experience in these critical moments of truth. “You can either turn off WiFi on the lot or block competitive dealership websites or you can be transparent and helpful while they’re on the lot,” he advises.

Magic Toyota is all in and ready to transform to serve customers in these rapidly evolving micro-moments. Reps carry tablets, cars are outfitted with QR codes, Facebook beacons help personalize customer experiences, with all of this improving relationships while cutting down the buying cycle.

Connected Customers Drive Sellers Crazy or Inspire Change

Dealerships aren’t alone in getting the help they need. Beyond Google’s research, organizations such as the National Automobile Dealers Assn. have formed educational programs to teach executives how to compete in a digital economy. For example, NADA’s 20 Group manages dedicated forums for dealers and their managers to learn best practices and share new ideas on more than 120 topics to improve business operations.

Micro-moments are remodeling the shopper journey and that introduces the opportunity for innovation in customer experience (CX). This is something that isn’t just facing the auto industry: every industry must understand how customer behavior, preferences and expectations are changing.

GM’s Mingle sees CX as a competitive advantage.

“Customer Experience isn’t just the latest buzzword to drive successful business results,” he says. “It’s a differentiator, and successful companies embrace it and establish a solid foundation for their employees to deliver great customer experiences. It’s about defining your customer’s journey for your particular industry and making sure you excel at those ‘moments that matter’ to your customers.”

We’re not going backward. Each of these micro-moments is valuable to every business and anyone in the world of sales, marketing and service. Better products, pricing and great service now are just part of the overall customer experience. Appreciating and serving connected customers quickly, purposefully and consistently online, in mobile and in the real world is how to win in CX one micro-moment at a time.

To download the complete playbook for winning the moments that matter, click here.

Brian Solis is principal analyst at research firm Altimeter Group, a Prophet company and author of the new book "X: The Experience When Business Meets Design."

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