Drop-off service became essential offering

Before last spring, Sellers Buick-GMC performed pickup and drop-off services only when requested by a customer — and it didn’t happen often.

Employees would drive together in a dealership vehicle, retrieve a car for service and drive back separately to the dealership in Farmington Hills, Mich. Vehicle sales finalized in customer driveways weren’t very common, either.

The coronavirus pandemic, which upended dealership operations and prompted permanent changes across the dealership group, deeply impacted this process for the store, and the entire three-dealership group.

“This isn’t about when the customer is asking anymore,” Andrew Haller, president of Sellers Auto Group, told Automotive News. “This is about what we have to offer to the customer. And we need to make sure all of our customers know right off the bat that we have these services.”

Two dealership employees previously handled remote deliveries for the store. Now, six employees focus full time on what the store calls its Delivery Department. A combined force of one flatbed driver, three concierge drivers for pickup and drop-off and two business development center employees manage the program. For vehicle purchases, salespeople reach out to the BDC to coordinate flatbed or driver delivery once the sale is nearly complete.

The first snag in this new process was how employees could maintain six feet of distance when retrieving, returning or delivering customer vehicles.

In May, the store invested in a flatbed truck to perform these services, taking cues from Carvana’s process. That way, customer vehicles could be sanitized before and after they were loaded onto the truck with a fogging process. A seasoned salesperson rides along to help customers fill out paperwork upon delivery.

So far, the dealership group has purchased two flatbed trucks. One lives full time at Sellers Buick-GMC, and the other may be allocated to the group’s Subaru store. The group also sells Isuzu vehicles. “It was not cheap. But if somebody told me that I needed a fleet of flatbeds because that’s what our customers want, we’ll buy a fleet of flatbeds,” Haller said.

The flatbed at Sellers Buick-GMC delivers about 10 vehicles a week to customer homes and is occasionally engaged for a service pickup and delivery.

Outside of vehicle delivery, many other processes have changed at the Sellers Auto Group during the pandemic.

The stores had been working toward a more robust digital retailing process, meeting regularly in what the group calls its “Reputation Room.”

The conference area morphed in November 2019 from a conference room used for marketing meetings to a place where employees throughout the dealership could provide input on the group’s digital transformation, according to Claire Slaughter, marketing director for the group. It is owned by her father, Sam Slaughter, a former chairman of the Detroit Automobile Dealers Association.

“COVID really made us press the go button” on a new digital retailing process, she said.

The previous tool was essentially a “lead generator on steroids,” Haller said. The new one helps customers pick up the process in store exactly where they left off online, and houses most of the customer’s paperwork.

The group engaged new vendors as well, Slaughter said, adding that the decision to use Prodigy software for the digital retailing tool was made in the Reputation Room by employee consensus.

Three of the four Internet department employees were shifted to salesperson roles, Haller said. Internet leads were then opened up to the sales floor, where all 18 employees handle physical and digital traffic. One of the store’s F&I managers has worked entirely from home since June 1, videoconferencing with customers and verifying paperwork through dealership software.

Other features added for safety, including remote check-in for service appointments and touchless payment options, have also added to positive customer feedback.

Slaughter said most of what the group has changed in recent months might have happened anyway.

“I think we find silver linings,” she said. “This actually makes a better customer experience, take COVID out of it.”

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