Automotive News Fixed Ops Journal: Artificial intelligence supports work of dealership service advisers

Openbay Staff

June 16, 2019

Artificial intelligence supports work of dealership service advisers

Alysha Webb

Visit the service drive at Volkswagen Pasadena in suburban Los Angeles, and you will likely be approached by one of the dealership’s five service advisers. But if it’s a busy day, you can check in with one of the virtual advisers at the service department entrance, in the form of two gray kiosks.

Using software from GoMoto, a kiosk confirms your identity and your appointment if you scheduled one. It notifies you of open recalls related to your car or truck, shows the service specials of the day, asks what repairs or maintenance your vehicle needs, may recommend added work and solicits other requests or comments. Finally, it arranges transportation if required, updates your phone number and email address, poses several survey questions and gets your signature.

“It is the next level of service,” Steve Ross, Volkswagen Pasadena’s service manager, told Fixed Ops Journal. “It gives customers something they didn’t expect at a dealership.”

Virtual service advisers are increasingly popular offerings by software suppliers to new-vehicle dealerships. While the technology can vary greatly among vendors, the pitch is the same: to provide digital products, based on artificial intelligence, that enable human advisers to focus on working more efficiently with service customers.

‘Major win’

Lee Harkins, owner of M5 Management Services, a dealership consulting firm that specializes in fixed operations, predicts that virtual service advisers “will change the future of the business in a positive fashion.”

Virtual service advisers at new-vehicle dealerships take different forms, but all use artificial intelligence to conduct complex conversations with service customers. Among varieties of the technology:

  • Kiosks that can check customers in and offer customized service recommendations
  • Pop-up boxes on dealership websites that can answer customers’ service questions around the clock
  • Software that mines a dealership’s database to initiate email ?conversations with service customers and follow up on their responses

“The No. 1 motivator of a [service] purchase, behind need, is convenience,” Harkins says. “Any time the processes improve the transaction, it’s a major win for the store.”

Vendors and dealers insist that virtual advisers aren’t designed to replace human ones, but to help speed things along. While you check in with a virtual adviser, they note, a flesh-and-blood service adviser can be conducting a multipoint inspection of your vehicle. They say the convenience virtual advisers offer helps dealerships boost their service business.

Nearly 500 new-vehicle dealerships use GoMoto kiosks, which can be integrated with most dealership management systems. An indoor kiosk costs $1,200 a month to lease; an outdoor version $1,600. Or dealers can buy an indoor kiosk for $6,000, or an outdoor one for $15,000, and pay a $750 monthly service fee.

Enthusiasm for using the kiosk to check in varies by customers’ demographic group, says Karl Zerrenner, Volkswagen Pasadena’s general manager.

“Young people, 30 and under, are using [the kiosk] like it is a natural thing,” he says.

The kiosk uses machine learning to customize service recommendations to individual vehicles, says Todd Marcelle, GoMoto’s CEO. For example, he says, the kiosk knows what additional service work customers at a Chrysler-Dodge-Jeep-Ram dealership are most likely to authorize.

“We pull in a lot of different data and work with OEM and vendor partners for details such as declined service history to personalize the upsell,” Marcelle says.

Silko Honda in Raynham, Mass., has used a GoMoto kiosk for six months. The kiosk typically takes a minute to check in a vehicle, says Geoff Ewell, the dealership’s director of operations.

Kiosk users are asked whether they want an appraisal of their vehicle’s value. Five to seven percent accept the offer, Ewell says, presenting increased opportunities for trade-ins.

During some weeks, Ewell adds, more than 22 percent of kiosk users buy additional products or services. Last winter, he says, the kiosk asked customers whether they needed new tires and wiper blades. While harried human service advisers can rush through a check-in and skip some recommendations, he adds, with a virtual adviser “it is 100 percent penetration 100 percent of the time.”

In response to inquiries posed by the kiosk, Ewell says, 89 percent of users at Silko Honda said the device made check-in easier and 98 percent said it answered all of their questions.

Conversation starter

A new virtual service adviser, Openbay Otis, operates on a dealership’s website instead of a kiosk. The product’s software uses machine learning to conduct two-way written conversations in a pop-up dialog box with service customers on the website, says Rob Infantino, CEO of Openbay, an online auto repair marketplace.

The Openbay Otis virtual adviser can answer customers’ service questions 24/7.

Otis can answer service-related questions around the clock; about one-third of conversations with customers occur when a dealership’s service department is closed, Infantino says. If the virtual adviser can’t handle a question during business hours, a human can take over.

“We are helping business owners align with how modern-day consumers like to interact,” Infantino says.

About 90 percent of Openbay Otis’ 200 current customers are independent repair shops, Infantino says. But he adds that Openbay is working with dealerships to meet their needs, and says its customer base among franchised dealerships is growing fast.

The product’s basic software costs dealerships $50 a month and provides such things as service menu pricing and recall information. Additional features, such as appointment scheduling and two-way text messaging, cost extra.

Honda Village in Newton, Mass., has been testing Openbay Otis for nearly a year, says Service Manager Joe Panichella. It is more user-friendly than the online appointment software provided by Honda, he adds

“It is all about instant gratification,” Panichella says. “If [customers] are surfing at 10 p.m. and they need a brake job, someone gets back to them with an estimate.”

Otis generates about 10 additional customer emails to him daily, he adds.

Force multiplier

It can be tough for a handful of service advisers to maintain contact with tens of thousands of customers in a dealership management system database. The software provider Conversica says its virtual service assistant product, launched two years ago, solves that problem.

“Our artificial intelligence can have 20,000 conversations going on at any given time and each one is individual, one on one,” says John Ruble, Conversica’s vice president of strategic partnerships.

The software can mine a dealership management system to initiate an email conversation with a customer who hasn’t returned for service in, say, a year, and invite a visit. When the customer responds, the virtual assistant can answer questions, schedule a service appointment or turn the customer over to a human adviser.

Each dealership service department chooses a name for its virtual assistant. A female millennial name gets the highest engagement across all customer demographics, Ruble says.

Conversica also offers a digital sales assistant. It has some 1,000 dealership customers; around half subscribe to both the sales and service assistants, Ruble says. A dealership that buys both products pays $2,400 a month. Either product alone costs $1,800.

Human touch

Employing virtual service advisers can pose problems. A dealership’s service satisfaction score is based largely on the quality of customers’ personal relationships with advisers. But dealers and vendors say virtual advisers always allow humans to take over conversations with customers.

At the same time, advisers may not like feeling they are competing with computer software. Zerrenner of Volkswagen Pasadena says his advisers are evenly divided on the merits of the GoMoto kiosks.

“I am hoping that when we get into our summer selling season and we really get busy, the service advisers will see the benefit,” he says.

Tom Andrews, a service adviser at the dealership, calls the kiosks a “great idea — in the busy periods, they allow us to spend more time with customers.” He adds that he isn’t worried about being automated out of a job.

“People still want to talk to people,” Andrews says. “You won’t get rid of me.”

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