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The Silver Lining of Effective Pandemic Communications

Written By: Stephen Smith
Posted on July 15, 2020

As an NCM 20 Group moderator and trainer, I’ve grown accustomed to being on the go. My typical week involves heading from one dealership or meeting location to another, all across North America. Typically, my job is a logical feat that takes a team of astute and dedicated associates to make happen. In early March, I returned home from a meeting in Toronto and was planning to leave later that week for my next meeting in Florida, when it all suddenly came to a halt.

The COVID-19 pandemic was upon us, and at the time, the only thing we knew for sure was uncertainty. As a trusted partner of my clients, I immediately went into triage mode with all of my 20 Groups: we scheduled immediate web calls, not knowing how everything would play out, but I knew we would need each other’s support more than ever in a time when we can’t physically be together. It became acutely obvious that this would be a significant disruption to business in almost all markets. These calls became a regular occurrence and a lifeline to most, and I couldn’t be more proud of all the hard work and long hours that were put in to overcome the significant challenges COVID-19 proposed.

Emerging Stronger

Now, just over four months later, we’ve witnessed the progression of stabilization, planning, emerging, and everything else that dealers have done to keep their business afloat. This time has also given us a moment to note the many silver linings realized during this era. No one’s exactly sure what the future will bring, but from a business perspective, the crisis forced us to take a hard look at expenses, processes, personnel, and inventory levels, to name a few. Today, I want to bring to light one of those silver linings that dealers should strive to achieve to overcome conventional consumer wisdom and incorporate it into our mantra indefinitely. That lining is clear and concise communication.

Become A Better Communicator

All successful salespeople understand the importance of building relationships. The skills necessary for building long-lasting, meaningful relationships can often be used interchangeably when describing attributes of outstanding salespeople. Approachable and professional communication is key when building sound relationships. When your communication is clear and concise, you can begin to build transparency and trust with your customers. Transparency is not an easy attribute to pin down and can be even harder to overcome. The perception of smoke and mirrors throughout the retail automotive industry is tough to shake, due to the decades of consumer industry mistrust that has been built up.

Using Effective Communication In Your Dealership

Early in the COVID-19 shutdown, it was those who could effectively communicate that had the most significant advantage. Due to safety concerns and social distancing guidelines, those that were lucky enough to continue business were thrust into action. Dealers were forced to adapt, ensuring the safety of their employees and customers, as well as best serving their respective communities. In doing so, the communication with the consumer base had to be outstanding. The dealerships that made communication a priority allowed their customers to not only feel safe, but in many cases, the experience was received better than pre-pandemic processes.

In the NCM Institute’s Service Advisor Training (SAT) curriculum, a key step in the appointment process is setting the expectations of the customer, prior to arrival. The relationship between a service customer and a service advisor can often be one lacking perceived equity. From a customer’s perspective, the interaction with a service advisor can be intimidating. In most cases, the customer knows very little about the inner workings of their vehicle, while the advisor is often perceived as an omnipotent expert striving to sell as much as possible. We know that is not the case, and have always strived to overcome the gouging perception of the service department. However, even with the best education efforts, in the haste of a typical day, the customer’s anxiety was often overlooked. This changed in 2020.

Innovative Ways Dealers Communicate

In the height of social distancing messaging, I saw countless social media pages and dealership websites describing their new processes and procedures. Some dealers had videos detailing the process as well. In these videos, they would show where to park when visiting the dealership, where to drop off the vehicle’s keys, what the walk-around would include, who would be the person to keep them informed, the dealership’s cleaning and sanitizing measures, and more precautionary information. Although these very detailed and informative messages were done out of the necessity of safety, the benefit from a consumer anxiety perspective was astounding. Across multiple markets, customers were thrilled, in an otherwise uncomfortable time, with the level of communication. I listened to many dealer principals describe in astonishment how their Hours/Repair Order (RO) were higher than pre-pandemic times.

Moving Forward Post-Pandemic

As government restrictions are being lifted market by market, we need to be able to parse out the temporary procedural changes we made from necessity. Additionally, we need to keep in place any operational changes that panned out to be viable steps we should carry forward indefinitely. I would urge you to take this process seriously, and not to rush your way through it. Naturally, you may feel inclined to get this project done quickly so you can move on to the next important task on your plate. However, this isn’t always the best course of action.

Again, service advisors have a tendency to rush through ROs and move on to the next one, but the reality is that if we slow down, explain our process, and treat each customer as if they are the most important one of the day, successful results to the bottom line will follow. As successful dealers know, there is a positive correlation with high hours/RO and CSI. The customer has the right to know what maintenance and repair work is needed for their vehicle on any given day. The burden of following a process that allows the customer to understand the importance of each needed service is on the advisor. Transparency and clear, concise communication created safety in an uncertain time in our service departments, but the level of communication is perhaps necessary to achieve customers for life.

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