Ever think you’d be competing with a garden hose? In a sense, you are…because the same people buy both products. And as IBM’s Bridget van Kranlingen has said, “The last best experience that anyone has anywhere becomes the minimum expectation for the experience they want everywhere.”

Keep that in mind as I share this story. One of my colleagues needed a hose—something light and flexible to clean out her atrium. She noticed she could message with Home Depot about this instead of digging through their website, and she got the advice she needed via text. A couple of business trips later, she realized she needed to actually buy and use that hose before getting too busy again! Messaging the Home Depot rep once more, she asked for directions on how to find that hose in her local store so she didn’t waste time. They sent her the exact aisle and a location finder, all via messaging, to make her store visit as efficient as possible. It was a seamless continuation of their earlier conversation.

That’s conversational commerce: allowing consumers to talk to businesses on their own schedule, via familiar messaging apps and using natural language to take action.

And it’s shaping your car shoppers’ expectations.

How to Prepare for This Type of Car Shopping

I’m not saying that everyone will start buying vehicles without coming into a dealership. (In fact, the person in the garden hose story didn’t buy online either.) Conversational commerce is all about connected retailing—connecting the online/digital experience with the in-store experience and making the transition as seamless as possible.

For example, imagine a car shopper wants help narrowing the decision between a new or used hybrid. She likes the new vehicle warranty, but doesn’t exactly understand what she’s missing out on if she chooses the certified pre-owned model. Instead of trying to decipher the answer on her own or waiting to come in, the shopper could tap to message with the dealer. She can ask questions in her own words, get the help she needs immediately and be guided to the next step in the purchase process without wasting time.

Many dealers have moved in the right direction by incorporating consumer-to-business messaging into their digital footprint. But as this new approach to shopping takes root, you need to think through the following:

  1. Make it easy to converse. The point here is that you don’t want to limit shoppers in how they connect with you. Be ready for the conversation however they want to have it. Keep your phone and email, but make sure you also offer chat and asynchronous messaging like SMS and Facebook Messenger (which allow shoppers to continue a conversation up until, and after, purchase). Remember the garden hose. That conversation happened entirely over SMS. 
  2. Offer more direct, conversational pathways. Shoppers don’t usually start their search on your website. They “google” it. They search aggregate sites (Autotrader, Cars, Car and Driver, etc.), Facebook Marketplace and/or brand sites for options, pricing and reviews. So they should have an easy way to start the conversations that can lead to deals from all those touchpoints—wherever you advertise or have a presence online. Look into messaging options for those off-site locations and consider how to tie it all together for the easiest management. 
  3. Turn your “regular” ads conversational, too. A lot of money is spent to grab the attention of car shoppers in various media, so why not make their next step an actual conversation with your team? Add text messaging to your Google AdWords campaigns and Google My Business account. This allows shoppers to start a conversation right from their search results! You can also add text calls to action to print, TV and radio ads. 
  4. Integrate messaging into your digital retailing process. However you decide to help shoppers save time (like filling out forms to value their trade or apply for credit), include a way for them to message for help as needed. You can then guide them through whichever step they are stuck on, moving them through the buying process. You can also push digital retailing content, such as credit apps, while the digital conversation is happening. 
  5. Focus on real conversations. The shopper is inviting you into their personal communication space (often their smartphone screen); respect it. In conversational commerce, the focus is on answering their questions first and being the expert. Gathering lead details comes second. After all, the point is to help them take care of everything you can right there. 
  6. Maximize your availability to have those conversations. Since conversational commerce happens on the consumer’s time, you don’t want availability to be an issue. Some hardcore salespeople want to connect with every opportunity, even after hours (mobile apps for your messaging platform make this easy). No matter how gung-ho your team of experts are, though, they’re going to need backup at some point. Look into Live Advisors, people who can message with shoppers on your behalf after business hours or whenever your team is too busy…and send the most serious buyers to continue the conversation with your sales experts.

Despite all the things that have changed in car buying, what it comes down to is simple: No car was ever sold without a conversation. How will you enable car shoppers to connect, converse…and buy from you?

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