The Importance of Customer-centricity: A Conversation

Atul Vohra and Thilo Koslowski

One of the concepts the COVID-19 pandemic has made increasingly apparent is the need for the automotive industry to innovate and transform the customer experience. Today’s consumers increasingly expect to be met wherever they are in the buying cycle with a highly customized and seamless experience – both online and offline. This type of customer-centricity in the automotive space is often as challenging to implement as it is rewarding.

As the global leader in vehicle lifecycle management with operations serving automotive dealers, insurers, repairers, and commercial fleets across more than 100 countries, Solera has a unique vantage point on this evolving convergence of technology trends and customer needs. Recently, Solera’s Regional Managing Director, Atul Vohra, connected with industry veteran Thilo Koslowski to explore the meaning and significance of customer-centricity as one of the most exciting and differentiating aspects of today’s market.

Thilo served with Gartner for 19 years, most recently as the Founder and VP of the Automotive, Smart Mobility, Vehicle Information and Communication Technology (ICT) group. In 2016, he became the Founder and CEO of Porsche Digital GmbH, a subsidiary of Porsche AG. He continues to work as an executive consultant, board member, and investor specializing in automotive, smart mobility, and digital convergence.

Thilo served with Gartner for 19 years, most recently as the Founder and VP of the Automotive, Smart Mobility, Vehicle Information and Communication Technology (ICT) group. In 2016, he became the Founder and CEO of Porsche Digital GmbH, a subsidiary of Porsche AG. He continues to work as an executive consultant, board member, and investor specializing in automotive, smart mobility, and digital convergence.

ATUL VOHRA: I know customer-centricity is something you’re passionate about. But it means different things for different people. What is your definition?

THILO KOSLOWSKI: It does and should mean different things to different people – but the overarching goal is the same: you address the specific needs of your customer at specific points in their journey, such as their need for a product, a piece of information, or a service. This principle is the same whether your customer is the auto dealer or the auto dealer’s customer.

The concept of “customer-centricity” originates in rudimentary CRM databases with an emphasis on capturing information. However, today it’s a much taller order and refers to leveraging specific insights to optimize current and future outreach, customer touch points, meeting customer needs, and packaging your services in a way that best represents your brand.

This approach requires a shift in your mindset. On top of your traditional business, your objective now is to craft and continually refine the customer journey and overall customer experience. You need to combine and continuously refresh your intelligence on both your customer and your products or services to generate and maintain a realistic, dynamic 360-degree point of view.

It’s time to raise our standards when it comes to having intelligent conversations with each customer at each specific touch point. Every customer should be surprised and delighted with the degree of harmony across every interaction. We must aim to deliver a seamless and relevant experience and ensure they derive significant value from every engagement.

ATUL VOHRA: Among the foundational elements of customer-centricity is the idea of customer-specific information. What does customer-specific information mean, how does it fit in, and how difficult is it to implement?

THILO KOSLOWSKI: It starts with the traditional CRM information that helps you understand who your customers are and what interactions you have had with them. But then you take it a step further and bring together all their information from every data source: data that reflects the customer’s interests, priorities, objectives, and concerns. You normalize the data and build unique profiles for each individual customer – a “digital twin,” if you will.

This kind of customer-specific information then becomes the basis for launching new customer-centric processes. In the case of dealerships, you seamlessly combine sales and marketing data with service and fixed revenue operations. Companies that can offer customized, end-to-end journeys in this way will enjoy a distinct competitive advantage that results in friction-free processes and efficient transactions that build stronger customer relationships across a widening array of mobility offerings.

ATUL VOHRA: That’s very interesting and brings me to an important question. Our goal at Solera is to help automotive businesses leverage multiple solutions internally while offering their customers a unified, omnichannel customer experience. We want to empower them to streamline a fractured customer experience into something seamless. What are some of the key steps in transforming an organization into one that’s more customer-centric?

THILO KOSLOWSKI: Yes, the fractured customer experiences you refer to are very common. They’re often based on siloed information scattered across your business and lead to lukewarm customer sentiment as well as a loss of time and money for both parties.

How do you start transforming into a customer-centric organization? Recognize, for starters, that there are many customer touch points throughout the relationship’s life cycle. To present consistent messaging, many things must align. For example, it’s important to equip all your employees with both the right information and the right attitude. It’s best when the underlying intelligence comes from one integrated system, but it is often curated from multiple sources.

Additionally, all aspects of this communication must be delivered to the customer at the right time and in the right format. The time of “blasting information” is over. That type of communication often fails to achieve your goal and can very quickly backfire. Today, you need targeted communication informed by complex, contextual intelligence.

It’s important to start with insightful, accurate, raw data. Then, add in a more nuanced understanding of the customer’s priorities, interests, and communication preferences. Along with all this customer information, you also must include data pertaining to your products and services, their lifecycles, and future requirements such as predicted maintenance. Distill that data into a delivery format unique to each customer. Think useful, relevant, timely snippets rather than inundating them with data. It can’t seem like you’re broadcasting generic advertising. It needs to evolve as we guide each customer’s unique journey from the top of the sales funnel where they’re considering many makes and models through to final vehicle selection and financing options.

Together, this is the biggest challenge. You must take responsibility for all customer communications and ensure they’re both targeted and timely. And, by the way, it has to happen fast! But, if you can pull it off, you have the potential to exert an enormously positive influence. You will have succeeded at taking vast amounts of data, processes, and people, and refocusing it all to generate customer excitement. They will embrace your brand. There are already several companies out there who have succeeded with this.

ATUL VOHRA: Who are some of the companies you think of as leaders in customer-centric thinking?

THILO KOSLOWSKI: Tesla, Apple, and Amazon are good examples. In the past, many companies had a basic level of intelligence telling them a particular customer has, for example, a family. Perhaps they will soon need a family car. But now, some companies know much more. They know their customer might be interested in design or technology, that they prefer proactive communication and updates from your company. This is ideal. These customers WANT to have you interact.

For example, one thing Tesla and Apple have in common is their owners have a strong expectation of – and appreciation for – ongoing updates and improvements. As a result, both Apple and Tesla can “sprinkle some magic” throughout the customer’s experience by continuously reaching out to the user base and adding value, proactively enhancing the experience through software updates that represent ongoing development.

Similarly, there are many dealerships delivering outstanding customer experiences by leveraging data and solutions from companies like Solera.

ATUL VOHRA: In your research, what have you found to be some of the rewards for companies that successfully achieve customer-centricity?

THILO KOSLOWSKI: In essence, it’s customer loyalty — which can be measured in customer lifetime value. This comes from higher retention, referrals, and, of course, cross-selling and upselling. That said, while it’s important to maximize engagement and sales, we also can’t overwhelm the customer. You don’t want to drown them in advertising – or in your data lake.

Apple has built a business that lends itself perfectly to cross-selling. Once a user has a computer and a phone, adding a watch or an Apple TV is a logical extension. Apple has carefully integrated everything from communications to media across all its devices and the cloud, striving to always deliver a unique and consistent experience to all users.

The holy grail is educating customers and prospects on your capabilities without overwhelming them. Trying to force people to look at or buy your other offerings doesn’t work. But if you’re customer-centric, you find a way to tell them about your capabilities in relevant, valuable ways at relevant, valuable times. By intelligently synchronizing your communications to every stage of the buyer’s experience, you’ll find them more likely to take action with your dealership.

Thank you, Thilo. Those are words to live by and a big part of our vision for serving the vehicle lifecycle.