Opinion

The new normal: The ‘phygital’ customer experience

Rajan Amba | Updated on July 05, 2021

The pandemic has altered the retail and after sales experience   -  REUTERS

This is a unique omnichannel approach that combines the convenience of online experience with that of an ‘in-store’ interaction

With an increasing tendency to lean towards everything digital, the Covid-19 pandemic has urged domestic and international industries to reimagine what consumer experience means for them. The auto sector is no exception in this regard. While the post pandemic world has seen a rise in contactless services, some aspects are still better accepted in physical form.

As per a recent McKinsey survey, although the physical experience of service is still valued by customers, they are now more than ever interested in contactless services, as approximately half of the survey respondents were willing to pay extra for this service.

Despite this rise in virtual consumerism, customers continue to prefer in-person experience to gauge the touch, feel, and drivability offered by the vehicle they wish to purchase. This polarized preference has paved the way for a ‘phygital’ experience — a unique omnichannel approach that marries the convenience and immediacy of online with the interpersonal interaction of physical retail and services. Taking cue, many automotive OEMs are embracing this multidimensional approach to improve customer experience in these dynamic times.

The ‘phygital’ approach is fuelling the industry’s efforts to incorporate the interactive elements that constitute an in-store experience in today’s socially distant reality. We are seeing the emergence of highly nuanced digital platforms that not only allow potential buyers to discover products from the comfort and safety of their homes, but also provide a holistic experience by seamlessly executing the entire sales process online.

Reality: Virtual and augmented

Multiple virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) tools are being implemented to create 3-D renditions of car models, helping customers navigate through the interiors and exteriors of a car digitally, in the process creating a lifelike ‘window shopping’ experience.

Tata Motors’ own digital sales platform ‘Click to Drive’ was launched last year with the very same motto and since then has received a very good response. More than 67 per cent of our enquiries are coming from digital sources, as of May 2021, a significant increase from previous years.

Paper catalogues and pamphlets that were originally used to convey product specifications have now been adapted to digital screen dimensions in the form of video brochures — a unique approach that saves paper and accounts for a much more engaging customer experience. This touchscreen interface has also uncovered a range of possibilities that spur customer engagement in general. Lead generations too have now been mapped to apps on mobiles which track a customer’s full buying journey giving insights on follow up dates, specific requirements etc.

At the Tata Motors, the ‘My Leads App’ at dealer sales team end has proven to be revolutionary when it comes to activity alerts, reminders, so on so forth. Additionally, development of new channels through services such as Telegram & WhatsApp provide sales teams the necessary marketing support for distance selling. Collectively, these tech advancements are making way for broader product customisation routes; some of which include digital platforms that gamify online user experience by letting consumers envision and design their own cars.

Home test drives

The pandemic has also drastically altered other steps in the buying process.. Today’s heightened need for safety and social distancing has pushed automakers to come up with innovative solutions. One of these features ‘home test drives’ – a blooming concept where the vehicle comes to the customer’s doorstep, instead of the customer having to go to the dealership.

Automakers have also consciously adopted the ‘contactless delivery’ route to ensure maximum safety for their employees and customers. Tata Motors, for instance, launched the “Sanitized by Tata Motors” initiative to provide fully sanitized cars to customers that can be “unboxed”. Following the same, we brought into concept the delivery of our vehicles in a ‘Safety Bubble.

We also devised the “No Touch by Hand” initiative across our workshops where bio-degradable-disposable covers are put on the steering wheel, driver’s seat, and gear knob of each car that arrives for servicing. These covers are later disposed in front of the customers at the time of delivery.

Digital transactions and contactless payments have also been on the rise due to safety concerns, and in this regard, the digital platform has been adapted especially well by automakers. The online experience significantly enhances customer convenience not only by facilitating cashless transactions, but also through a wide array of associated service features that make it much easier to calculate EMIs and search for loans.

This has been complemented well with various mobile applications that have eased the overall consumer experience in the age of the pandemic. Closer home, the Tata Motors Service Connect (TMSC) app has worked seamlessly to narrow any access or utility gaps between physical and digital service methods.

A tougher challenge that the pandemic raises, however, encompasses the larger process of providing customers with a responsive service experience. Recognising the necessity of empathy and interpersonal interaction, automakers are using digital customer service tools smartly to stay connected and deeply engage with their customers in this socially distant reality.

Several companies have extended warranty and free service periods for their customers, alongside rolling out campaigns that position vehicle sanitisation as an added safety parameter when delivering the vehicle.

Servicing the future

Going hyperlocal is the way to be. Decentralising customer acquisition and engagement at a local level while helping dealers create their websites, social media pages and using other virtual tools can help increase dealer visibility online, aiding to customer actions. In Tata Motors, the hyperlocal approach has been deployed at 90 per cent of our nationwide network to create a connected smart digital ecosystem. We are currently sourcing an average of 2 lakh customer actions per month via this approach.

Furthermore, the brick-and-click retail experience holds immense promise for the future. As we continue our steep trek to economic recovery, the ‘phygital’ approach will be key in using the ease of ‘digital’ to emulate the touch-and-feel aspect that is usually found in a physical experience. The surge in demand for private vehicles is also expected to shine a spotlight on automotive service workshops, as the online model works in sync with the pick-up/drop-off model to make the experience more convenient. Digital intervention combined with visible presence on service bays will redefine customer requirements and future industry benchmarks.

Although the reality is grim today, the earnest efforts of healthcare workers and governments, along with a committed vaccination drive, indicate that the Covid-19 crisis will reach a conclusion at some point. Nevertheless, the changes in consumer preferences are here to stay, with a decisive tendency towards connected platforms and an immersive, interactive, and convenient retail and after-sales experience.

The writer is Vice-President, Sales, Marketing & Customer Care, PVBU, Tata Motors

Published on July 05, 2021

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