I recently found myself in a situation that will be familiar to many of you: I was in the market for a car. Regardless of whether I ultimately opted for a new or "pre-owned" vehicle, I had a very specific goal, which was to buy a car.
As a primary mode of transportation, cars are inexorably linked to trips and travel, but the purchase process itself is part of a larger journey, one that brought me into contact with numerous touch points along the automotive value chain, including branded, dealer and third-party websites and various dealer representatives. The journey I took was similar in some ways to that of other prospective car buyers in that I did research on- and offline (yes, I fall into the 47.4 percent of in-market consumers that definitely use the internet to find vehicle information, according to a recent BurstMedia survey). I also consulted reviews by current owners, conferred with friends, family and co-workers, and configured several models online with the options I wanted before moving on to the next stages of visiting dealers for a test drive and exploring financing options.
Yet my journey also was unique to me and my particular set of preferences-- for brand, features, price and availability. The entire series of steps, or "events," I went through constituted my experience, and over the course of the process, I formed distinct opinions about the brands I encountered.
Improve the customer's offline experience
Based on the journey I recently took, the offline component of the experience is where brands fall short across the board. Automotive brand websites promise speed and excitement, and most offer a considerable degree of visual flair (and a positive overall experience), but the process nearly grinds to a halt the moment you walk into a dealership, no matter how prepared you are as a buyer. Some, such as Scion, Toyota's youth-oriented brand (for whose target demographic I am no longer young enough, I'm sad to say), may promise a qualitatively different dealer experience. However, at the dealership I visited, it was substantially the same as what I encountered with other brands-- not negative per se, but not in line with what the company's marketing messages led me to expect either. This example is not meant to single out Scion, since the same holds true for all of the brands I considered.
Cars remain a high consideration purchase and at this point, the car-buying process necessarily retains an offline component, whether it's kicking the tires, taking a test drive, completing the transaction at a dealership or actually picking up the vehicle (no downloading the real vehicle to your desktop or iPod, unfortunately), but it's also worth emphasizing that the customer journey does not end with the purchase of a car. That event may represent the culmination of several stages, but the journey will continue, because the now new-car owner will have other goals, wants and needs, from after-market products to service to what might be broadly termed support (for example, how to coax some extra horsepower out of the stock power plant or what type of tires might offer the best traction on snow).
For automotive brands and their dealer networks, the implications of this extended customer journey are huge. They have to not only own the sales and marketing experience (as they've always had to do), but also build expertise in the service end of the business-- and this goes well beyond oil changes and tune-ups. It's about two things: providing a cohesive and positive experience with the brand at every single touch point, from awareness to consideration to transaction and beyond, and delivering on the promises the brand makes.
Thanks to the growing ascendance of digital media, particularly consumer-generated content, and the near-universal use of search engines for information-gathering purposes, experiences both positive and negative enjoy a long lifespan, making it painfully obvious when a company fails to think beyond just the lead capture or customer acquisition event and take into account the entire journey a customer will take with the brand. More to the point, automotive marketers need to keep in mind that a car buyer now can go from search engine results page to a landing page where they can configure a vehicle and get a dealer quote, right up to the transaction phase (or right through the transaction phase, if the transaction is taking place on eBay). This is the case for all brands, not just automakers, and to succeed, they will need a detailed profile of their customers and a "map" of the journey they will take, both online and off. That is a crucial first step in ensuring a positive experience with the brand at every stage of the journey.
Noah Elkin is vice president of communications at iCrossing. Read full bio.