COVID 19 has brought about sweeping changes to both the way we live and the way we do business. The New Zealand motor industry is on the cusp of partially reopen under Alert Level 3, with service workshops expected to be busy from the moment the alert status changes – recently announced as coming into effect from 11.59pm next Monday, 27 April – but with many restrictions and workarounds to uphold public health and safety. Dealers will soon find themselves in an environment where their face-to-face customer operations need re-evaluating.

To minimise disruption due to this sudden shift in business operations, dealerships will need to ensure they comply with to-be announced new health and safety measures, but equally importantly, increase the instance and quality of business they conduct remotely and virtually to manage the economic impact of the government’s measures.

Alongside the below advice, always follow the latest Ministry of Health guidelines to ensure your dealership adheres to the recommended hygiene and cleanliness standards, as these are liable to change as we return to regular work environments in the coming weeks and months.

Recommended general practices

 Like many businesses, many customers will be wary of the health risks in conducting anything face-to-face. Aside from ensuring solid business practices around hygiene, keep in mind that overcoming customer fears is equally as important as marketing your safety protections.

No matter the changes to your business, lead by example. If you ask your team to take certain safety measures, abide by those measures yourself. You should also use this time to listen to your team, as many of them will have the same concerns as the general public around the economic downturn and its effects, so be aware that like your customers, your staff are also likely to be experiencing higher levels of stress. Anything you can additionally do to give your employees some level of comfort in their roles will help with both their productivity and overall wellbeing.

Minimise staff travel during these times wherever possible, and keep meetings as small as possible, in large or open spaces, whilst maintaining social distancing measures. If you have had to make any cuts to staffing, empathy and trans­parency are key. For anyone still based remotely, it is especially important to consider connecting on a regular basis via a medium such as video conferencing.

Find out if your OEM offers programs to help customers who may be suffering financial hardships because of this pandemic, yet still need to buy a car or make payments. Many OEMs and captive finance companies have initiated programs to assist – or are rumoured to do so shortly. You can integrate these OEM resources into your messaging to alert both new and existing your customers about their options.

Most importantly, keep yourselves, your team, families and customers safe through adhering to as many of these measures as you possibly can.

The service booking bounce-back

Dealership service operations are important for those people who need their vehicles for necessities such as work, healthcare and grocery shopping. As we decrease through the alert levels, there is likely to be a sharp influx of these types of service bookings, built up from the alert level 4 ‘lockdown’ period.

Importantly, cleanliness remains critical even when we move out of lockdown as every vehicle is a ‘hotspot’: each is an enclosed space that can travel and carry germs from one place to another. Ensure your dealership practises the recommended cleaning and disinfecting proce­dures, and ensure you mandate (and maintain) social distancing with custom­ers at all times.

Consider implementing some of the below ideas in your service department:

  • Emailing customers to let them know you are open for service, and that:
    • you have implemented the recommended hygiene and cleanliness procedures;
    • you have processes to minimise human contact and exposure throughout their repair and maintenance; and
    • let them know if you have suspended loan car initiatives, or closed customer facilities such as lounge areas
  • Allowing them to schedule service appointments online
  • Expanding service hours with additional shifts
  • Providing pick-up and delivery options for customer vehicles
  • Updating your website and any business listings with the relevant information, particularly around extended business hours and important changes to procedures;
  • Providing customers with a video of your complimentary multipoint (or similar) inspection/s;
  • Phoning, texting or emailing customers to discuss proposed work and gain approval prior to commencement, promoting transparency;
  • Processing credit card payments electronically, remembering to follow hygiene procedures if any payment needs to be taken in-dealership;
  • Cleaning the interior of vehicles focusing on touchpoints such as handles, steering wheel, multimedia controls, gearstick, glovebox, etc;
  • Wearing gloves when both picking up and returning vehicles; and
  • Returning invoices, receipts and disinfected keys in a bag to the customer.

Vehicle sales

Keep on top of government information on the current alert level to discern any restrictions on face-to-face vehicle sales. Dealerships that are permitted to physically open for sales per this advice should let their customers know, by email, via their website, social media channels, third-party listing sites, and in search engine results such as Google My Business. Where relevant within these channels, advise custom­ers of the additional safety measures imple­mented for their peace of mind.

Describe your plan for keeping your employees and customers safe in-dealership. This can be posted on your web­site and across social channels, and might detail additional cleaning schedules, increased handwashing, hand sanitiser availability, in-store policies to accommodate social distancing, and different test drive procedures. Dealerships may require that customers schedule appointments with the sales department to ensure adequate social distancing is maintained.

If not mandated under new government requirements, consider changing your policies around test drives to allow for less employee-customer contact. If you offer remote test drives and/ or home delivery, provide information on how you are sanitising and following recommended social distancing practices during these interactions.

If you offer remote test drives and home delivery services, the employees you send out to fulfil these services need to be safe too: provide gloves for when they handle the vehicle or customer paperwork and for wiping down the vehicle with disinfectant wipes after a remote test drive. You may want to consider letting the cus­tomer drive alone during this time.

Consider split shifts or remote work to limit employees’ exposure. Sales staff, for example, could be trained to walk customers through the online car buying process. Use digital tools such as AutoPlay’s Sales Pipeline to send and manage video responses to inbound leads, humanising the process in any way you can.

If your service department is open but sales isn’t, consider using your salespeople in the service department: they can review ROs and identify situations where it may be more economical for customers to buy or lease rather than invest in costly repairs.

Online sales

Online sales and remote deliveries are another way around some of the problems this situation presents. Ensure you nurture all leads coming in, as some dealerships around New Zealand are finding success in virtual selling, with vehicle delivery to come at some point in the future once full retail trading resumes. To complete an online sale, customers can not only reserve vehicles but place deposits on them for future pickup or delivery; you can decide with the customer how large the deposit should be and how long you will hold the vehicle once you reopen.

Digital retailing represents an immediate opportunity to identify and manage customers through the purchasing process. Just as with service and in-dealership sales, let your customers and prospects know that you are open for online business. Send out an email describing what you can offer—online purchasing, remote test drives, home delivery, etc. – and include infor­mation about your safety measures.

Online lead management

When a lead Is received, find the vehicle referenced or curate a list of appropriate vehicle options for consideration and share what you’ve found with the customer – you can either do this manually, or use a tool like AutoPlay to automatically match relevant stock to the customer enquiry. Once you’ve learned a few more details, you can put together the exact configuration of the deal—entirely online. You can then have the customer click to schedule a remote test drive, make an offer on the trade-in, and/or begin the financing process – all without face-to-face customer contact.

Avoid pre-recorded phone calls or mass text messages to consumers related to the pandemic. Be careful that your marketing efforts are not in any way misleading with respect to COVID-19, or that uses the pandemic in a way that could confuse or mislead consumers for commercial advantage.

Trade-ins and appraisals

Give customers offers on their trade-ins online in a similar way to how the vehicle sales process can become entirely contactless during this time. Ensure you see pictures of the car to be comfortable with the offer without actually needing to see the vehicle in person.

Remember that you should ensure that all aspects of the transaction (trade-in, F&I, final price, etc.) are fully negotiated prior to vehicle delivery, and that deliv­ery includes only the official act of identity verification and obtaining a signature for a fully negotiated transaction. No further negotiation or sales activity should take place after this time.

Additional extras

Before completing a contactless sale, don’t forget about back-end products. Service and protection plans are a big part of any vehicle sale. Given how much of this transaction may need to happen online, it is important that you have information front and centre to inform people of options and additional extras. Make sure your remote sales team can walk a customer through the benefits with a customer remotely via phone or video conference. Given the current crisis, customers will be more risk-averse than ever, so protecting their vehicle with a small bump in monthly payment or adding a pre­paid maintenance plan may be something they consider now more than they previously might have.