For one New Jersey car dealership, it is all about pivoting at this time of COVID-19.
New Jersey’s Benzel-Busch car dealerships have stayed ahead of the curve by using technology to interest potential car buyers, in addition to placing them virtually behind the wheel, according to Joseph Agresta Jr., president and CEO.
Benzel-Busch, which has three dealerships — two in the Garden State and one in Orange County, New York — is utilizing the technology that it’s been employing for quite a while, and doing so effectively. “We were kind of faced with an immediate shutdown,” said Agresta.
“Things happened so quickly as you can imagine,” he added. “We started putting some communications out about the coronavirus near the end of February, just preparing our team a little bit for things we were starting to see. Sure enough, we went into a quick shutdown from that point forward; week by week, we saw things really deteriorating very quickly.
“Fortunately,” he continued, “we did not think we needed to scramble as badly as you would expect, because a lot of the technology were pieces that we were already using. We adapted more quickly. We’d been using our online selling tools for probably about two years, but we were using them in a more organic way: Customers would gravitate towards them as they wanted to. We were kind of letting customers find their way through the process. And that was actually helping us understand where the business was going as well. We know that technology, as it continues to develop, is pushing all of retail towards much more of a digital process.”
Help From Looney Advertising
With help from Montclair-based Looney Advertising & Branding, which oversaw Benzel-Busch’s website overhaul and transition to digital sales, the dealer has generated 1.7 million social media impressions, and site traffic has increased 34 percent since the COVID-19 lockdown.
According to Sean Looney, president of Looney Advertising, “Digital marketing has been a key driver to sales, and will continue to be critical. We have driven traffic through digital and social [media] at a very high rate. As far as future purchases go, and with showrooms reopening, there will be consumers that still want to come into the showroom and ‘feel’ the car, so digital will continue to drive that traffic, but the showroom will be part of the experience.”
Looney created conceptual videos for Benzel-Busch’s new COVID-19 resources, including “Express Car Buying,” which allows customers to virtually select and customize the vehicle of their choice; “Complimentary Valet Service”; and “360ₒ Sanitize,” the industry’s first deep clean that eliminates 99.9% of bacteria, germs and viruses for three to six months.
Benzel-Busch uses multiple tools. In-house systems include website technologies, digital sales tools and some of the video chat capabilities within the company’s CRM [customer relationship management] tool. “We’re trying to use as many of the different options as we have,” said Agresta.
As cars are high-ticket items, Agresta and his team want to be sure their customers are making all the right decisions, he said. There are a lot of difficult steps in the process of buying a vehicle where assistance is needed. He initially thought that he’d just make the tools available, let the prospective buyer find them, and then build the process as things progressed. But the shutdown created an opportunity for Benzel-Busch to really push their tech-based method as the way they do business.
Contactless Buying Process
“In a very, very safe, contactless way, we’re able to take these tools and walk a client right through the process.” There is a human touch, though. An account representative is present online with the buyer. “They’re doing it remotely, providing information and stepping into the process as needed. And that is actually the nicest thing about the tools that we are using. We have designed them to be on the channel. We really don’t care what kind of form in which you’re interacting — it can be on the phone, on a video chat, it can be directly online, or it can be in the store — and we can pick up right where we’ve left off.”
The process can be short or lengthy, depending on the customer. That being said, Benzel-Busch’s focus is actually on safety. “I really think that is the differentiator for what we’re trying to do right now,” said Agresta. “Really trying to keep people safe. Not just our clients, but our own team.”
The key to Benzel-Busch’s current success is the virtual test drive, which customers can do in a number of ways. Even though the true emotional experience of touching and smelling the car cannot be replicated, various aspects of the experience can be. Manufacturers have been good about providing prepackaged, informative walk-around and test-drive videos that can be sent to clients.
Videos typically show a salesperson doing a walk-around of a car and then test driving it. Agresta admitted that the process isn’t seamless, but added that “it’s not a bad substitute for the real thing. It does give you a good feeling for what the car’s going to be all about.” Benzel-Busch also offers an actual test drive after purchase. If the car is not to a customer’s liking, he or she can cancel the deal or select another vehicle.
“One of the things we’ve seen through this whole pandemic,” said Agresta, “is that what customers are looking for right now has changed dramatically. I think it will probably be the case for the foreseeable future, where safety is almost a new form of luxury.” Before anything is discussed, folks are asking how the process works. “We’ve tried to adapt,” he said, “as quickly as we could.”