Andy Turton - Head of Automotive, Americas

Auto brands know the value of meaningful customer research. They know that it’s far simpler and more cost-effective to bring back repeat customers than it is to acquire new ones. And they have long since made the connection between customer experience, customer loyalty, increased lifetime spend and business growth.

And yet many of the auto executives scrutinising their customer satisfaction scores find themselves asking the same question: why aren’t my numbers moving? And how can I improve my customer experience and increase revenues when it’s so difficult to see the impact of any changes?

To answer these questions, we need to take a closer look at what customer experience research is best suited to revealing – and we need to explore what it takes to help it reveal more.

Snapshots in the customer journey
The current approach to customer experience research, in auto and elsewhere, focuses on the most meaningful touchpoints in the customer journey – and also the touchpoints that are easiest to capture. Customers are surveyed after they have bought a new vehicle, after their first service, when they fix a problem under warranty, when they come in for repairs following an accident, and in several other clearly identified scenarios – almost all of which involve an experience that takes place at a dealership.

These experiences matter of course. And good or bad experiences are worth knowing about. They can identify the customer experience performances that seem to correlate with different future loyalty and spending patterns. They can prioritise improvements and they can incentivise dealerships to deliver those improvements. However, we are fooling ourselves if we believe that this handful of well-surveyed touchpoints adds up to a complete picture of customer experience.

Part of the risk is that surveying all customers in just a few specific situations tends to obscure the meaningful differences between those customers. A common experience tends to deliver a common mindset and a common response. And this helps to explain why customer satisfaction metrics don’t move more dramatically than they do. What we really need is a fuller view of customers that enables us to identify the real differences between them. Only a complete view of the customer journey will enable us to identify meaningful customer segments, people for whom the same touchpoints matter, and planning customer experience strategies around them.

The sum of all experiences
A customer’s experience of an auto brand begins when they first encounter the claims it makes in marketing and advertising, and includes everything that happens subsequently. Every time that they slip behind the wheel and start their engine, think about upgrading their in-car systems or pick up the phone to make an enquiry, they are adding to the memory bank that will help to direct their future spend and their consideration process for the next vehicle purchase. Customers are the sum of their experiences and the mindset they bring to each new experience cannot be separated from the experiences they have had previously; these are the filter through which each encounter with the brand takes place.

The same objectively good experience delivered to two separate customers will produce very different feedback if one has a positive accumulated experience of the brand – and the other, a negative one. The positive customer is likely to provide positive feedback while the customer with negative previous experiences is less likely to do so. By focusing solely on the most recent experience, we risk obscuring others that may be the real trigger of satisfaction or dissatisfaction; the factors really influencing lifetime spend or propensity to churn.

Take the example of a dealership where customers frequently complain about service check-in times – and where they typically spend less and are less likely to return to buy a new car than customers at a dealership in the next town. You would assume that the dealership has a service check-in problem. Yet when we compare the average times we find that check-in is actually no quicker at the neighbouring dealership. The difference is that customers at this other dealership rarely complain. Why?

The answer of course is that check-in itself is not the problem; however it is the occasion when customers get the chance to vent their feelings about the cumulative experience that they’ve had up to that point. Low satisfaction scores at check-in certainly indicate a customer experience problem, but they don’t necessarily tell us what the real problem is.

If we are to devote resources to improving the customer experience at our problem dealership, we probably won’t achieve much by cutting check-in times. We need a means of identifying the pattern of previous experiences that provide the real triggers for check-in complaints. By focusing on such patterns, we can begin to tease out meaningful differences between our customer segments, whose needs and experiences will vary in important ways. Adapting services and offers to these distinct groups can make our customer experience management more subtle, responsive, productive and profitable.

The good news is that we increasingly have the means of doing this.

Moving beyond the satisfaction survey
Social media listening enables us to predict fluctuations in brand equity in close to real-time – and we can do so across a far more representative sample of consumers than traditional surveys. In the customer experience space, this greater representativeness extends to all types of experience, not just those taking place through a dealership, or when it’s convenient to invite customers to complete a survey. When people make a comment about their vehicle, we hear them. We don’t have to wait for them to have a service first.

Because we can pick up on good and bad experiences as they happen, we can provide frontline dealership staff with timely insights about priorities. In auto, we have the potential to go further still. As connected cars deliver more and more data on actual driving, we can integrate an increasingly precise view of the experiences that most influence customer satisfaction. We can treat each customer based on up-to-date insight about how their vehicle has been performing, and what the impact of that performance might be.

This new approach to customer experience research will reach its full potential when we integrate manufacturers’ own customer-level spend data into the model. Matching meaningful patterns of customer experience with lifetime value provides a powerful tool for unlocking growth, at both dealership and brand level. Armed with insight as to exactly how, when and why experience at a dealership impacts brand perceptions and propensity to buy, we can do much more than simply improve those experiences. We can plan distribution networks, offers and promotions more effectively; we can use insight to inform vehicle development, features and trim; we can drive brands forward more efficiently and more precisely.

Manufacturers have traditionally been reluctant to share such data – and the truth is that researchers need to give them a good reason for doing so. Brands will do so willingly if the return is a much more accurate and subtle understanding of where to invest, and where to reduce effort, in a bid to increase customer loyalty. That day is drawing ever closer.