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CIO interview: Conal Furie, innovations director, Jardine Motors Group

The motor trade is often seen as behind the times in technology, but a lot can be done to improve the customer experience with cutting-edge tech, says motor group’s head of innovations

The motor trade needs to move with the times. Years of underdevelopment in IT have meant the customer experience is poor compared with the web giants, according to Conal Furie, innovations director at Jardine Motors Group.

“Look at the disrupters like Amazon Prime, which moved from one-day to one-hour deliveries,” he says. “The motor trade is a dinosaur by comparison.

“Modern customers don’t want to wait a week for a car delivery – and they want to book in for a service now.”

The problem is worse when a car is being repaired, he says. For example, take a vehicle that has been booked in for a routine service and, while it is on the ramp, the engineer discovers something else is wrong.

Repairs could be streamlined if the engineer could video the fault, says Furie. A quote with the embedded video would then be emailed to the customer, who could digitally authorise the work to be done.

The benefits of this are two-fold: the work can be carried out at the same time as the service, which improves workshop efficiency, and it also improves the customer experience.

Furie has been in the motor trade for 16 years, working previously at Arnold Clark and the Vardy Group. He joined Jardine last September as its innovations director and admits the job title was “last minute”. For Furie, the role of technology head is more than keeping the lights on for a business.

The challenge for the motor trade is that its IT dates back decades. “The motor industry hasn’t changed its technology from 20 years ago,” says Furie. “We have systems endorsed by manufacturers and they all work in a similar fashion, so it is hard to get an edge without bespoke development.”

The motor trade is a high-volume, low-margin business and in the past it has been one of the first to be hit by any economic downturn. “In years gone by, some groups used to make all their sales in August,” says Furie. This was traditionally the month when new car registration plates came out. “They would make hay while the sun shone, to make as much money as possible,” he adds.

Systems left to languish

Even though new car registration plates are now issued twice a year, for Furie, the industry has lacked the appetite to invest in IT. “Money is spent on buying more stock to make more money, so core infrastructure and data systems are left to languish,” he says.

Furie explains his role as head of innovations, rather than IT: “How can we focus on the customer and provide colleagues with better tools, to reduce effort and stress?”

One of the first projects Furie has overseen at Jardine Motors is the use of automatic number plate recognition (ANPR) to improve customer service. “We are trying to improve the customer experience by making it more personalised,” he says.

When a car is driven into one of Jardine’s premises, its number plate is read, and this triggers a welcome process. Staff on the forecourt are alerted via a tablet device that the customer has driven in, so the customer can be met as they drive on to the premises. And at the reception desk, the customer is greeted by name with a hot beverage based on their preferences from previous visits.

Furie says the system is now being piloted at the company’s Milton Keynes Audi site.

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Furie is a strong believer in the value of data and is critical of the motor trade’s track record in this respect. “There is a lot of difficulty around data. The value of data is a bit lost,” he says.

Although the motor trade collects plenty of data, in Furie’s experience, none of it is particularly useful because it is not always easy to determine its accuracy. In other instances, he says data is simply used poorly.

For example, he says: “Every time a valueless marketing email is sent out, it devalues the brand.”

According to Furie, motor trade companies sometimes take a short-term view of the data they collect. “They take a big bang approach and throw money to generate data at a single point in time,” he says. “Does it create value – or are we burying opportunities?”

Furie says it would be “genuinely nice to provide a digital customer journey”, but, in his experience, there has been a general lack of vision in the motor trade to get the digital customer journey right.

Seamless customer interaction

At Jardine Motors, Furie hopes to start joining up the dots to make a more seamless customer experience. “We are working on a single CRM [customer relationship management] with one customer linked to one vehicle record,” he says. “Every time you make a phone call or web enquiry, we will see a complete view.”

Furie believes the motor trade must get better at helping customers understand what they want. “Tech, to me, is only part of the puzzle,” he says. “We need to get data from the customer and then there is rapport building, which is when all the really useful information starts surfacing.”

This stretches current CRM systems, which Furie feels do not usually hold enough detail about the customer.

He would like to see the ability to capture a conversational stream non-intrusively, which could then link into the CRM. “It becomes a narrative that allows you to build a highly customised customer experience,” he says.

Digital ink, combined with some form of shorthand, is among the technologies that Furie believes have the potential to enable motor trade sales staff to capture quite a lot of information at speed.

Changing the retail experience

Furie is not a fan of the way the motor trade sells cars online. “We have very traditional websites and there is no way to give customers the ability to order cars online,” he says. “There are a lot of people who don’t like haggling and are happy to do things online.”

Multi-channel is another dilemma facing the motor trade, he says. “You have a contact centre, a website and showroom, and these have to be linked with the same data,” he points out.

This is a challenge across all areas of retail, and one that is not easy to fix, says Furie. “A lot of customer want something very specific that you may not have in stock. Our systems don’t always offer the best inter-branch capabilities.”

A shift in mindset is needed from the salesperson trying to match a customer with the stock available, to one where the customer’s priorities are paramount, he says.

Augmented reality

Among the areas of retail that Furie find truly impressive is augmented reality, such as the setup at Audi City in London. “At Audi City, there are few models in-store,” he says. “It is a showpiece, with 3D configurators, so unshowroom-like.”

For Furie, Audi City is a very new concept for the motor trade, where people tend to get behind the wheel of showroom cars. Yet when he visited the London store, it was full of customers.

“Websites are very 2D,” he says. “Augmented reality, virtual reality [VR] and immersive experiences are the future. To sit inside a [virtual] car and touch and change trim levels is a really powerful tool.”

And he believes the technology already exists to create truly breathtaking augmented reality retail for the motor trade. “Early VR systems were very pixelated, but we now have 4k display technology,” he says.

The PC gaming industry already sells seats that vibrate, says Furie. “So it is just a hop, skip and jump to enhance the virtual test drive experience.”

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