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Vehicle manufacturers boost digital operations amid COVID-19

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SA’s automakers have turned to technology to digitise operations and customer services, as the coronavirus (COVID-19) throws the automotive industry into uncertainty.

The local automotive industry, which was in decline even before the COVID-19 crisis, has taken a massive knock since the introduction of the lockdown regulations due to the temporary halt to production hubs and disruptions to the sector’s global supply chain.

According to Absa, there has been a 25% decline in the automotive sector so far, compared to last year, due to dwindling consumer sentiment and reduced exports.

The sector, which contributes around 7% to the country’s GDP, is one of the worst hit, with a jobs bloodbath looming.

Devastated by the crisis from manufacturing, selling and servicing perspectives, local automakers Toyota, BMW, Audi, Nissan and Volkswagen told ITWeb the lockdown forced them to strengthen their digital transformation initiatives and introduce contingency plans to enable operational efficiency across their dealerships.

Toyota South Africa Motors says its dealers have been forced to adapt their business practices to support the new requirements of their customers during the lockdown. More people working from home and economic constraints resulted in a decrease in footfall to its dealerships, but it has seen an uptake in the use of its newly introduced online services.

“We have had to focus on delivering an e-commerce solution, which has resulted in a faster turnaround on our online leads through our ‘Buy Now’ service that allows potential customers to explore our vehicles across our Web site and our My Toyota mobile app,” says Mzolisi Witbooi, manager, corporate communications at Toyota South Africa Motors.

“Our Web site performance has also been enhanced to include a virtual assistant. We have boosted our user experience by publishing real-time notifications on the Web site to ensure our consumers are updated on any new information via the app.”

To comply with government health regulations and support its dealers with the screening of guests before entry into its premises, Toyota has introduced a COVID-19 Health Check to the Dealer Connect platform – a digital platform which provides customers with digital benefits and engagement tools to ensure the customer experience is seamless.

“Toyota recognises the need to cater for many different types of customer journeys. It is not a one-size-fits-all approach. We will always cater for the face-to-face on-site preference, but expand this to include more digital tools to ensure we are able to deliver convenience, value and speed. This means digital and e-commerce will be a key focus area within the business going forward,” adds Witbooi.

BMW Group SA says during the various levels of the national lockdown, the automaker was restricted in terms of sales, after-sales, financial services, head office-related activities and plant production lines.

The automaker had developed the BMW Digital Sales Platform, a customer-centric retail operation, at the beginning of the year. When the lockdown restrictions were enforced, the company says it ramped up the offerings on the platform to offer customers a seamless online journey to purchase a BMW, MINI or BMW Motorrad model online, via the automaker’s Web site, from their own home.

“The Digital Sales Platform completely focused on the customer is new for the BMW Group in South Africa, transforming us from a wholesaler to a retailer,” says Sibusiso Mkwanazi, manager, group product communications at BMW Group South Africa.

“This is a hugely powerful online platform that can guide customers through the whole process of building, test-driving and financing a new car, as well as trading in their old car. Customers get access to a 360-degree view of the car and its interior, and take a virtual tour, change its colour, wheels, leather, interior, look and feel.”

With a global IT hub in SA, the automaker says it is able to efficiently support the entire digital strategy of all its local dealerships. The Digital Sales Platform will be expanded, with virtual reality (VR) capabilities, as part of the next phase in the development of the Web site.

“The automotive industry is undergoing a radical change, driven by a need for more digital services. Due to the ramifications of COVID-19, we have been busy developing additional functionality for the Digital Sales Platform. This includes an option for home delivery of vehicles, which will launch next month.

“We are currently also developing and integrating into the online journey, additional functionality, where all files can be uploaded, signed and verified online with no paper forms at all. Keeping customers safe is one of our main priorities and we can use our innovative online platform to do that during the conditions of the pandemic,” adds Mkwanazi.

Virtual showroom

In response to the unique challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, Nissan has introduced the Shop@Home service, a full virtual showroom with a 360° virtual tour of the dealership.

The automaker has grouped its digital and remote services under the new digital offering tab on its Web sites across SA, Middle East, Turkey and India, offering services including a video engagement call feature, through which customers can speak to a dealer representative, or request a call back. The full service will go live in the next few weeks.

“The pandemic has had a profound impact on businesses and people, and we are adapting to a ‘new normal’ by providing the functionality needed around buying and owning a vehicle, with the safety and ease of doing so from home or place of work,” notes Kabelo Rabotho, director of marketing at Nissan South Africa.

“Considering the current situation and anxiety experienced due to COVID-19, our concern is to make sure potential and current customers are at ease. We are working on adjusted timelines which are regularly updated as more information on lockdown restrictions becomes available.”

Creating a seamless customer journey through digital solutions and tools to support the rapidly changing consumer expectations lies at the centre of Nissan’s digital strategy, continues Rabotho.

“In addition to our future digital offerings, we are launching an e-retail app in partnership with vehicle digital solutions company Virtuo, which will allow customers to make online purchases.”

Martina Biene, head of the Volkswagen Group SA, says all areas of the business were severely affected by the lockdown.

“Dealerships were closed for more than one month – only a few dealers were operating in the aftersales space to do emergency repairs for essential services. This impacted our production as well as sales and aftersales. As a result, we have introduced certain online services, including the We Connect Go app, the VR training kit for employees and an online trading platform to allow customers to purchase lifestyle accessories,” explains Biene.

The We Connect Go app brings a previously unconnected Volkswagen vehicle into the era of vehicle connectivity, allowing the user to receive the vehicle’s information, including the logbook, fuel price monitoring and service appointments via their smartphone.

Volkswagen had, in the past, introduced the ServiceCam, which enables the service managers to send videos and communicate with the vehicle owner.

“We have already seen a much higher use of our digital solutions. For example, the use of ServiceCam during the COVID times has more than doubled. The next really big thing will be e-commerce for multiple areas of the business. We want to provide a full online sales platform where the dealers can sell new cars, used cars, selected accessories fully online, including a fully online finance application and an almost fully online used car trade-in service,” adds Biene.

Shortly after the lockdown regulations were introduced in SA, Audi introduced Audi Explanatory Videos, for anyone looking to familiarise themselves with the features of an Audi and for consumers to explore new technologies in the comfort of their homes.

“We will also be introducing Audi Connect, an intelligent connectivity and communication solution that will be built into upcoming Audi vehicles to provide connectivity and customer engagement services,” saysTarryn Knight, head of marketing and product at Audi SA.

“The first car to have the technology will be the Audi A4, which is due in SA in the fourth quarter of the year.”

Last year, Audi introduced the Audi Customer Private Lounge, a VR-enabled service that allows potential buyers to virtually customise any Audi model and virtually test-drive it.

By Sibahle Malinga, IT web senior news journalist