Who Best to Help Consumers Understand Auto Tech Features? 

By Nedlin Delgado

For seven months, I endured the high-pitched, panic-inducing beeps caused by the park assist system on my new sport-utility vehicle. Yes, it was helping me park but, at the same time, the noise was making me incredibly nervous.

One day, it stopped. For a month, I enjoyed the silence, yet came to the realization that I had grown dependent on the technology. My husband eventually discovered that the park assist could be deactivated and activated by the click of a button. One of us (can I blame him?) must have inadvertently deactivated the system.

While not earth-shattering, the tale is an example of what millions of new-car owners do when they are faced with a similar dilemma. They do nothing. Or they wait a long time before doing something.

I’m as “tech dependent” as the next Millennial so how do I explain a lack of understanding about the nuances of the park assist system, as well as other technology features on my SUV? We eventually went online and watched a video tutorial that taught us about the technologies, but shouldn’t that education process have started at the dealership when I bought the vehicle? 

Much of the technology in vehicles today we only thought existed in futuristic movies—yet we’re already using it! Even the most self-proclaimed tech-dependent or tech-savvy shoppers may not know that some of the features in their vehicle are autonomous features, as evident in the graph below. Okay, they may be low-level autonomous features but they are autonomous, nonetheless.

Feature Considered Autonomous by Level of “Tech Savviness”

Feature Considered Autonomous by Level of “Tech Savviness”

So where does the dealership sales staff come in? Autonomy will change not only the driver’s role but it will influence how dealerships communicate and educate buyers. Dealerships must position themselves as subject matter experts. Technology demonstrations have to go beyond “let me pair your phone to the vehicle” and more toward “let me show you what your vehicle can do—and teach you how to use these features.” If my personal experience is any indication, even a thorough vehicle delivery by a very knowledgeable salesperson isn’t enough.

According to the 2017 J.D. Power SSI pilot report, only 17% of shoppers say that they would definitely contact a new-vehicle product specialist from their dealer with questions regarding vehicle features. Dealerships have to change customer perception and be seen as a valuable resource by making sure customers see the value of instruction. Dealerships should focus on consumer education beyond traditional delivery channels to offer an experience that is more “surprise and delight.”

The study also found that 38% of respondents would like to learn about autonomous vehicle features through online websites/videos; 30% in-person with a salesperson; 30% in-person with a technology specialist; and 8% through call center support. Why not use a combination of these channels to teach customers the ins and outs of their vehicle’s autonomous technology features? Then, when fully autonomous vehicles make an appearance, shoppers will be predisposed to rely on dealerships for training.

Salespeople would be wise to offer such learning experiences before, during and after the purchase, and use the face time to constantly excite shoppers. Links to vehicle feature videos should be included on websites and sent out via text and email. Trust should be built among shoppers by offering re-education after purchase.

Training dealer staff to become subject matter experts establishes trust and shopper loyalty while reducing loss in perceived vehicle value that arises from not knowing how to use vehicle technology. Dealerships should be creating an experience similar to that of the Apple store or the Best Buy Geek Squad, but for automotive retail. 

I’ve been thinking about contacting my salesperson to ask for further explanation of my vehicle’s technology features since I bought it. But I haven’t followed through. I bear some responsibility though, had he reached out to me a few weeks after my purchase, I most likely would have taken him up on the offer to get educated. And my early-ownership experience would have been so much better. 

Because communication is so fast and easy today, salespeople can conveniently reach customers to deliver additional information without having to meet with them one-by-one. Most customers are just now being introduced to vehicle autonomy for the first time and it is important that the first experience be fun and positive. Dealerships should emulate other retail industries in which subject matter experts bring noticeable value to customers by educating them and building brand loyalty.

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Nedlin Delgado is senior supervisor of U.S auto retail at J.D. Power. She didn’t think she needed autonomous vehicle features when she first bought her car, but now she can’t live without them.

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