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The auto industry is at a crossroads. Vehicle sales are softening, and car ownership is down, especially among younger consumers. Mobility platforms and car sharing apps are giving consumers more reasons to forego owning a car, especially in urban areas. While the market for on-demand mobility is expected to grow, the market for privately owned cars is predicted to shrink dramatically over the next five to 10 years.

While the new paradigm of CASE (Connected, Autonomous, Shared, Electric) vehicles is expected to generate new economic opportunities, the picture for the legacy manufacturer/franchise dealer sales model is alarming. According to KPMG, original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) and tech companies will increasingly fight for the valuable customer interface. What should traditional auto companies do to survive in a world that sees car ownership as less and less aligned with self-expression, freedom and status?

At the 13th annual Automotive CX Summit, executives from OEMs, dealers, and finance providers shared their perspective on how the industry can work together to meaningfully transform the vehicle buying and ownership experience for the better.

Here are three of our biggest takeaways from the two-day conference in Marina del Rey, California.

1. Reinvent the brand-customer relationship

To remain ahead in the luxury market, Cadillac is putting customers in the driver’s seat and accelerating its efforts to improve the end-to-end experience. Eric Angeloro, global launch and lifecycle marketer at Cadillac, presented his company’s strategy: creating innovative products, providing unforgettable customer experiences, enabling ongoing engagement, rethinking marketing and driving word of mouth. All of these elements work together to make Cadillac’s customer service commensurate with its luxury branding.

Delivering unforgettable experiences is the strategy’s cornerstone, according to Angeloro. For instance, to make customers feel valued and welcome, the company’s president sends a personal letter to owners of the CT6. Select car enthusiasts are also invited to exclusive events so they can experience the brand in person.

Cadillac continues to look for ways to deliver compelling products and experience. Doing so requires understanding the evolving needs of consumers, including Millennials and Gen Z. One important tool in the company’s toolkit is Cadillac Collective, an insight community that allows the company to engage with car owners and enthusiasts on an ongoing basis. The purpose, says Angeloro, is to deliver insight that informs customer-centric decision-making and strategy.

2. Tap into authentic customer relationships to solve key business challenges

Leaders from the industry are already aware of the challenges they’re facing. According to KPMG’s Global Automotive Executive Survey, eighty-two percent of automotive industry executives expect a business disruption in the next five years. Almost sixty percent think that half of today’s car owners will no longer want to own a car by 2025.

Out of this and other research data, a clear picture emerges: the auto industry is facing a few important business challenges. Among them, defining who owns the customer relationship, and maintaining it against tech brands that are encroaching by taking over the customer interface in connected cars.

Scott Miller, CEO of Vision Critical, presented one path to solving these issues: brand authenticity. According to Miller, authenticity requires two-way conversations that foster trust between brand and customers. Customers have to feel like their voice matters; they want to know that their feelings, experiences and needs are taken seriously. Customers don’t want to be just another data point: they want to be valued as individuals.

Miller described three steps to authenticity:

- Knowing what your company stands for

- Understanding how customers engage with your brand

- Reclaiming the customer conversation

Once implemented, Miller explains, these steps lead to authenticity, which in turn inspires loyalty in customers. And we know that acquiring new customers is much more expensive than keeping old ones, so there is real ROI at stake in maintaining customer loyalty by being a truly authentic brand.

3. Don’t forget the post-sale relationship

Speaking of keeping customers, James Reutershan, strategy development manager from Google, shared some customer retention strategies worth exploring.

A sale is not the end of the relationship, according to Reutershan, but merely the beginning. Companies need to anticipate what car owners need and help them get the most out of their vehicles.

For example,Reutershan showed examples of how car owners look online for help with vehicle maintenance, rather than consulting the manual. Car companies should get ahead of the game by offering apps, online guides and other resources that let consumers search for common problems-. This keeps the customer engaged with your brand, rather than looking at outside sources.

Reutershan also emphasized how important it is to engage with customers, rather than ask them for money.

Auto companies need to forge long-term customer relationships

The 2017 Automotive CX Summit highlighted how important is it for automotive companies to let go of old marketing and customer experience paradigms, and to embrace a disrupted (and disruptive) future. As one of our attending colleagues put it, “the customer is now firmly in the driver’s seat. Adapting lifecycle ownership experiences to the evolving customer will be key to success.”

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