Seamless Journeys: Digital and physical touchpoints in the automotive industry

Vittorio Bollo
Posted: 02/19/2018

New York-based consultancy Oliver Wyman poses a very pertinent question: “You’ve innovated the car, now how about the buying experience?” Any OEM today knows one thing for sure: the selling of automobiles and automotive accessories are not what they used to be – simple, hierarchical and linear.

In 2016 the World Economic Forum (WEF) stated how, “OEMs, dealers and customers are dynamically redefining how they interact with each other, with consumers increasingly expecting a seamless experience across both digital and physical touchpoints”. All this is due to consumers’ fast-evolving digital expectations and allied demands for new and innovative services – a task far easier said than done for OEMs.

Digital Leads the Way

Accenture Digital stated that there will be an estimated 50 billion connected devices worldwide by 2020. No wonder that OEMs are investing ever-increasingly in digital solutions to sell units and solutions. The automotive industry is set to increase IT spending from what was $37.9 billion in 2015 to $168.8 billion by 2025 (at a CAGR of 16.1%), as cited by the WEF. This digital revolution is shaping the consumers of tomorrow. Holger Masser, the global head of the automotive business unit at SAP, reminds us that customers today can connect anywhere at any time, with ever-easier access to online resources and new technology. According to Masser, it is customers that are the actual drivers of change in industries such as the automotive industry. As the IBM Institute for Business Value states, “Consumers are more engaged than ever—they not only want to use cars - they can be compelled to co-create them”.

automotive digital enterprise

Consulting group Capgemini released a survey The Selfie Experience - Cars Online 2015 in which 7,553 consumers in Brazil, China, France, Germany, India, UK and U.S. participated, most of whom were planning to buy or lease a car in the next 12 months.

The survey found that the preferred balance between physical and digital touchpoints varied greatly with regard to culture, age and car-owning experience. In general, the younger generation (18-34 years) has a stronger affinity than older customers with the web and the online world generally, as expected of ‘Generation Connected’. Satisfaction is not enough for for those surveyed. Strong feelings of loyalty towards a manufacturer or dealer would be required at repurchase time, i.e. 87% of very satisfied customers would purchase the same brand again, and 85% would buy from the same dealer. Most evident in the survey is that customers want to be in the foreground of their own ‘selfie,’ i.e. they expect individualization, flexibility and ongoing communication with OEMs. 

But it’s not just about digital needs driving changes in sales and innovation. It goes further for OEMs and the all=pervasive digital revolution, as cited in 2016 by the WEF. The WEF found that the development of a “data economy” would be particularly transformative for the automotive industry, which it cites as being one of the most data generation-intensive industries in the world (in fact, second only to the utilities industry). The WEF estimates that data exchanges could create $36 billion of operating profits for OEMs from jointly run data exchanges operated at scale. Benefits will probably be derived principally through third-party monetization and the reduced cost of data acquisition for OEMs who contribute to the data exchange.

The Physical Remains

Darshan Shankavaram of Capgemini found that, “With the majority of customers still demanding physical contact with dealers, automotive companies will need to carefully balance the digital with the physical if they want to stay ahead of the competition”. The Capgemini survey detailed above did find that customers still want to physically see the product, and have personalized contact, before making a decision. However, a visitor to a dealer showroom today has typically done up to several months’ research already – so the need is for a product expert rather than a salesperson. What is needed is the soft sell, not the hard sell. Interestingly, former deputy head at eConsultancy, Christopher Ratcliff, noted how an eConsultancy survey of almost 2,000 digital marketers and ecommerce professionals, titled Understanding the Customer Journey, found that it was offline channels that have become key battlegrounds in winning (and keeping) customers.

But automotive expert Arthur D. Little does caution that the traditional dealership is losing relevance. The consultancy is of the opinion that what are emerging instead are new semi-stationary formats that still retain the ‘physical’ aspect of the purchase process. The retail presence has to move offsite whereby retailers meet customers in non-traditional interaction spaces, e.g. places that customers may visit in their spare time. Dealerships need to evolve, making physical spaces more digital: the WEF cites an Audi virtual showroom in London as an example. The showroom has only four physical cars on display. Enormous video screens show customers all the specifications for their chosen model. The experience includes authentic sound effects, the opening of doors and a 360° look inside. Audi is also piloting a wearable virtual reality device that gives car buyers a truly interactive experience with a new model. Automotive marketing guru Owen Gill commented on how Volvo teamed up with Google Cardboard to allow customers to preview models from anywhere. 

Nor are these only the demands of mature, richer markets. Researchers Rajan et al. surveyed 1,551 Indian customers who had purchased a vehicle within the prior twelve months, as well as 87 dealers and conversations with top management teams from various automakers. One of their principal conclusions was with regard to physical sales spaces and what they dub “the dealership of the future” in which automakers must convert dealerships into “brand experience centres”. Customers need to encounter differentiated retail formats with innovative virtual-physical layouts, the authors contended.

All (Seamless) Roads are Omnichannel

Customers can potentially interact with companies through many channels, be it online, via mobile and tablet applications, via email, by engaging in online chat, at kiosks, and by speaking with customer representatives at physical locations or telephonically. The potential for interaction by a customer with a brand is immense – but so too is the potential for a breakdown in said interaction. That is why it is important to heed the advice of Kim Flaherty of the Nielsen Norman Group, who reminds us that, “When users engage with an organization through a specific channel, they see it as one of the many interactions that make up their overall user experience with the company.” Fluff up any channel and see the interaction (and goodwill) disappear.

Enter omnichannel. To strive for a seamless customer experience across all digital and physical touchpoints is to be committed to an omnichannel approach. Kim Flaherty states it well: “Seamlessness is a quality of any crosschannel customer journey where the transitions (or handoffs) from one channel to the next involve zero or minimal overhead for the users. Basically, if you can pick up where you left off, the user experience will be seamless.” However, new channels have sprung up in recent years, often added incrementally and on an ad-hoc basis. This has created a fragmented backend infrastructure for many organizations, which invariably lead to roadblocks for customers and users. 

automotive digital enterprise

Roadblocks or problematic transitions between channels are anathema to seamlessness. Therefore, the switch between digital and physical information channels need to be seamless - at all times. And the experience needs to be personal. Capgemini cites the example of a customer who uses an online configurator and then later visits a dealer with the expectation that the salesperson will already know their specific needs due to the inputs made online into the configurator. Seamlessness means closely integrated physical and digital channels, demanding streamlined back-end systems such as customer relationship management (CRM), analytics (Big Data) and cloud computing (SMAC).

All In This Together

The automotive ecosystem is clearly changing rapidly and this too will shape how OEMs attempt to win over customers in both the digital and physical realms. One hard reality is that of competition from OEMs once considered ‘unorthodox,’ i.e. more than 1700 new digital start-ups are expected to disrupt the automotive industry supply chain by 2025, as per Frost & Sullivan (WEF) – not to mention the likes of IT juggernauts Google and Apple entering the fray. The upside of all this usurpation of the automotive status quo is that digitization, for example, will decentralize both production and the supply chain. In addition to lowering costs, this will accelerate supply chain transparency through continued partner system integration downstream. 

Ernst & Young reckons that this transformation will be immense in retail terms since it “will not only require a concerted effort from both automakers and dealers, but will also demand an unprecedented level of collaboration with other stakeholders in the ecosystem, particularly insurance companies, auto finance and aftersales market participants.” The automotive industry will become far more adaptive, leaner – and smarter.


The consultancy Arthur D Little observes how customers experience three main elements when buying a car: the vehicle itself (the tangible), the brand itself (the aspirational), and the overall experience of buying the vehicle and the ownership thereof (the transformative). That is why the customer’s experience with all touchpoints throughout this relationship is crucial. However, the balance between digital and physical touchpoints for automotive customers remains fluid and evolving. Capgemini cautions that it “will be a while longer before the industry is a seamless mix of bricks and clicks”. An E&Y survey found that 31% of C-suite executives in the automotive industry consider delivering seamless digital/ in-store experiences, as well as leveraging online resources to influence choice, as being critical to winning and retaining customers. That number is frankly astounding: how can the remaining 69% of executives surveyed believe any differently? This is indicative of an automotive leadership that remains far too orthodox in its understanding of how vehicle will get sold. The proverbial wake-up call is not only needed by all those at the top - a rapidly changing market absolutely demands it.


Vittorio Bollo
Posted: 02/19/2018



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