Harwoods Group’s chief technology officer Archie Harwood has told AM that the business is starting to reap the rewards of a tech revolution after taking decisive action to “take charge” of its car retail destiny.
The West Sussex-based AM100 luxury car retail group realised many of the goals of a two-year, clean-slate transformation of its CMS – and a reimagining of its customer journey – with the launch of a new website last September.
As the results and future goals of the project, underpinned by Salesforce platform and delivered in partnership with global digital agency DEPT, became clear AM spoke to Harwood and group solutions director Ben Green about the sweeping changes.
“We started to realise that life as a franchised car retailer is a partnership and the OEM was the senior partner,” Harwood said of the “significant investment” to transform the Harwoods customer journey in a climate where car manufacturers are increasingly targeting direct sales and closer relationships with their customers.
“But we also knew that we wanted to take charge of our own destiny and that there were huge rewards and potential opportunities to taking the lead with this technology piece, offering new levels of connectivity and improving the omnichannel customer journey into something truly seamless.”
Harwoods counts Aston Martin, Bentley, INEOS, Jaguar Land Rover (JLR), McLaren Automotive and Volvo among its franchises.
Earlier this year the £581.2m turnover (2021) group announced the appointment of former Volvo Car UK managing director Jon Wakefield as chief executive as Harwood moved into the CTO role earlier this year, has established a 26-strong tech team as part of its efforts to transform the way it sells cars.
Harwood told AM that the group’s digital shift had been “a transformation of people, process and tech”.
He added: “Pre-COVID we were aware that footfall was already in decline and while it was great that we were converting that at 30% we realised that the future growth would come from web, email and telephone and we were only converting from those at a rate of 10%.
“We realised that if we didn’t create a strategy and a platform that delivered all the capabilities that the modern customer wants and needs then the business would be headed in one direction.”
He added: “During COVID we were doing around 90% of the previous year’s volume with between 25 and 45% of the headcount. That ultimately gave us the confidence that we could effectively double the output of the business with the application of the right technology without doubling its headcount and footprint.
“This isn’t just about a new website, it’s about applying the Salesforce CRM and layering on top of that the capabilities, the people and the processes that we need to make that customer journey as seamless and connected as it can be.”
Former GForces business intelligence director Green joined Harwoods in June 2020.
He told AM he had been attracted to the project because of its “clean-slate approach” to developing something “truly omnichannel” for the car retail sector.
“The problem in automotive is that there are many different systems that are very siloed”, he said.
“You apply one solution but that just creates another problem because it may not interact with one or a number of others.
“What we have been able to do it take a step back and start again, designing the system that we want with what our customers needed in mind.”
Green said that Harwoods projects took Salesforce’s Customer 360 platform and added an “automotive flavour”.
Data once siloed by brand and location has been brought together in one place to give employees full oversight.
Stock management was one area to benefit from the new fully-connected, cloud-based CRM system.
Harwoods now has a vehicle reservation process that is updated group-wide in real-time, ensuring no confusion over a unit’s availability.
Harwoods has also increased its oversight of the customer journey and, while end-to-end online sales are still in the minority, Green suggested that a more seamless journey was driving consumer confidence.
Employees are able to identify which staff member a customer spoke to on a previous visit and their preferences from previous car searches and services.
Meanwhile, customer accounts and online traceability have allowed Harwoods to identify one customer that made enquiries about 13 vehicles at different group dealerships.
Another household was found to have bought five cars from the business, meanwhile, intelligence that it might otherwise have missed.
DEPT client and strategy director Powell said: “The amount of oversight and customer knowledge that you can achieve with a system like this is incredible. It can play a huge role in customer retention and relationships.”
Allowing finance approval online is also speeding up the sales process, whether a customer ultimately chooses to interact online or in-person.
“Last weekend one customer paid a deposit of £30,000 online. That’s not insignificant and I take that as a show of faith in the platform and its functionality,” Green said.
Harwood said that customers who start an “online check-in process” to explore a car purchase currently go on to buy a vehicle – be it online or in the showroom – demonstrating the lead conversion potential of the system.
Underpinning this is improved engagement, with Green asserting that the bounce rate of the group’s website had halved since September last year’s launch.
Ultimately, the digital transformation at Harwoods has buoyed confidence for the business’s future growth opportunities.
Harwood told AM: “I’m more excited now about the future of the automotive sector, and our business, than I ever have been.
“I think sometimes it’s a question of mindset and I’m really pleased that we were about to claim ownership of out digital journey and map out what I se as a far more positive future as a result.”