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GUEST COMMENT Driving car sales from a digital forecourt

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Covid restrictions have limited showroom visits but the demand for new cars remains. Moving online might seem like the answer but building a virtual forecourt can be complicated, explains Tracey Gilbert, Head of IBM iX in the UK, the business design arm of IBM Global Business Services

Covid-19 has had a significant impact on how people buy and lease cars. Although the first step remains largely unchanged – the potential purchaser does their own research – the pandemic has stopped people coming into showrooms for the next, very critical stage of the process: the face-to-face conversation with a sales person. 

Worse still, no matter how good your range of vehicles, not being able to physically interact with it removes another key part of the established buying process. It throws up a barrier between the likely buyer and their vehicle of choice, weakening the hands-on emotional reaction that still plays a crucial role in the majority of purchases.

As you might expect, this has created a real problem. According to The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT), UK new car sales slumped by almost 30% in 2020. In light of this, car manufacturers have had to quickly reconsider how they want to engage with their customers and that’s been a challenge. 

Moving the processes online, as part of a wider digital transformation, seems like the obvious solution but that throws up obstacles all of its own. For example, how do people view cars on the digital forecourt, what do they do with their old model and how can customers investigate the wider offer in a meaningful way?

Developing a digital sales journey

Fortunately, Audi UK were ahead of the curve. In 2019 it engaged the support of IBM iX to help it reimagine its customers’ digital experience from initial enquiry to ownership. Together, we have transformed the physical purchasing journey into a meaningful digital process that mirrors the conversations that dealers have on a daily basis. During 2020 Audi UK saw a 59% increase in online sales enquiries. Today, 90% its car sales start online. So how did we help achieve these remarkable results?

We started out by asking customers what they wanted and one of the leading responses was the use of simple language. The automotive market is perhaps overly-reliant on jargon, which can be especially problematic online. We addressed this concern by ensuring we talk to customers using terms they understand.  

Another obstacle was matching the discussions around the selection of options such as colour, engine size, transmission, heated seats and sound system with an online alternative. This has traditionally been a central part of the in-showroom conversation – successfully migrating that discussion to the web was always going to be difficult. Fortunately, bridging the gap between a virtual visit and a physical one was made a whole lot easier thanks to the tools and expertise garnered from supporting other clients around the world. 

Part of the issue we had with delivering the digital transformation was the number of legacy systems running. It was only when the pandemic hit that the scale of the issue became apparent. Fortunately, our digital mechanics in the IBM Garage were able to help Audi UK create a strategic roadmap for its business, which resulted in an enhanced user experience; the virtual forecourt started to come to life.

A trip to the garage

The IBM Garage methodology was really helpful as it is specifically designed to accelerate digital transformation across a business by converting ideas, practices, technologies and expertise into real commercial value. It fundamentally helped trade in an old business model for something with greater online traction and user comfort. 

This was partly achieved through the integration of Adobe Experience Manager into the website. It combines digital asset management with the power of a content management system, enabling Audi UK to deliver enhanced functionality and an improved customer-experience based on data, rather than assumptions, by providing it with a holistic view of how consumers interact with the new site. As well as delivering valuable consumer insights, the use of Adobe Analytics has also helped pinpoint technical issues, resulting in a reduction in customer submission errors by 90%.

What’s more, content editors can now complete everyday changes themselves, freeing developers to focus on more complex tasks such as the development of a test-drive booking application, a vehicle maintenance scheduler and a part-exchange calculator. Overall, software development cycles, which previously took between 6 and 12 months, have reduced to an average of around 12 weeks. This in turn has allowed Audi UK to quickly test and iterate prototypes based on user feedback. As a result, it is also now better able to understand its visitors and give a more tailored and intuitive experience. 

A unified online experience 

At the start of the process Audi UK’s stated aim was to “create a digital experience that will be as beautiful and intelligent as our cars to meet the high expectations of our customers”. The number of sales enquiries being received confirms it has succeeded; Audi UK broke its online sales enquiries record three times in June 2020 alone. That’s a great headline figure but converting those leads into sales is what matters and thanks to an enhanced and streamlined online presence it is now sending consistently great leads through to its dealers. 

Covid-19 has made the online experience even more important as dealerships have had to close or limit operations but drivers are still buying cars despite the lockdown. Audi UK is well positioned to maximise those sales opportunities by delivering one of the best digital customer experiences anywhere.


Tracy Gilbert, UK and Ireland Leader for IBM iX 

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