To AI or Not To AI: That Is the Question

By Amy Corr

The days of Artificial Intelligence (AI) as a plot for a futuristic science fiction movie are gone. According to a 2019 CIO survey by Gartner, AI implementation in businesses tripled in the last four years, with 37% of respondents using or planning to use AI, up from 10% four years ago.  

AI assistants can interact with consumers by text and email; the technology can even filter out spam phone calls before the phone even rings inside a dealership.

Communication between AI assistants and consumers is so sophisticated that virtual agents are sometimes mistaken for actual humans.

DCG News spoke with a series of AI companies to learn more about virtual assistants, how they help dealerships and the type of learning curve to expect.

Conversica offers AI assistants to varying industry verticals, including sports, technology, banking, education, and automotive. 

Clients include professional sports teams for help with inbound ticket inquiries and automotive dealerships to assist with lead generation.

“It’s no longer the automotive business, it’s just business,” said Micah Burgess, Vice President of Sales at Conversica. “We handle the influx of leads. We capture inquiries, analyze them, then pass them on to the appropriate department. Internet inquiries are the backbone to business.”

Out of approximately 17,000 dealerships in the United States, Conversica technology runs in 1,300.

Conversica takes a dealership’s service records, for example, and imports them into its AI system. Once completed, campaigns can be created, leads can be addressed, and emails from AI assistants, which dealerships give an actual name, can be sent to customers in varying categories like orphan customers, recalls, and reminders for scheduling a service appointment.

The way consumers research car buying has moved significantly online. If someone works second or third shift and can’t visit a dealership during normal business hours, at least they can go to dealership website and fill out a question box to answer additional questions. This is where AI supports dealerships; a customer can expect a reply in as little as five minutes to a query that came in after hours when no one is working. 

“After hours is a huge part of the sales pitch,” said Burgess. “AI carries the torch for them [dealership] until a live person is in store.”

Marchex helps dealerships increase business by using AI to analyze calls and improve the call center experience.

Try to find a phone number on a dealership website and you might wind up finding a handful, broken down by various departments like sales, service, and parts. This sounds organized and effective, yet Marchex discovered that the average customer calls the first phone number, usually sales, which most likely isn’t the desired department. The realization was 80% of the calls were presumed for sales; only 13% wound up wanting the sales department with the remainder looking to engage with the service department.

Study: 28 Percent of Callers to Dealerships Will Purchase a Vehicle

 

AI machine learning listens to messages and determines where calls were meant to go. It also determines the length of the call, whether the phone just rang, was it transferred and to where, and if the call went to voicemail.

“Manufacturers spent the last 15 years training employees that the most important form of communication is email,” said Matt Muilenburg, Head of Automotive at Marchex. “The disservice was assuming that phone calls won’t matter in the future.”

One Southeastern-based dealership approached Marchex for help with a phone problem. The dealership couldn’t understand why the phones were constantly ringing, yet service appointments were down. Using AI, incoming calls were received and processed. It was determined that calls were not being answered and going to voicemail instead. With a handful of service writers, how was this possible?

When a call would come in, the receptionist would ring all of the service writers when transferring a call. Each one assumed another colleague would get the call and in the end, no one answered. 

The dealership revamped this process by adding a monitor at the receptionist’s desk and cameras at the service writer’s desks. Now, when a call comes in, the receptionist can see who is at their desk, who is already on the phone and who is already working with a customer and then send the call to available person. Sometimes it takes technology to solve a human problem. 

CarLabs.ai works predominantly with tier one automotive manufacturers as well as some local dealerships using conversational AI to interact with consumers before handing them off to a live person.

The company manages kia.com‘s chat service and Honda USA’s Facebook marketing tool in messenger to capture leads and add them to the CRM system.

The more that AI interacts with consumers the more data it can interpret and increase its ability to learn and answer more questions like whether a car comes with leather, towing capacity, and headroom?

Brendan Flynn, Chief Growth Officer of CarLabs.ai, believes it’s also a massive time saver for consumers to speak to via chat box as opposed to phone or email.

“Chat is becoming the most ubiquitous form of method of communication,” said Flynn. “It’s expected from the consumer to message you in a manner they choose. They don’t want to talk or send an email because of lag time. Messaging /chat will replace websites and phones.” 

Psychology and Women Play Large Role In AI

Many dealerships and AI companies work with research companies that use a combination of AI and good old fashioned surveys to predict how and what a consumer will buy. 

Strategic Vision works with OEMs, dealerships and CarLabs.ai to ascertain the psychological experience a person has with their car. Does the car fill a physical need, like holding enough people, things and does it fill an emotional need like an increase in self-esteem? 

“We use AI and machine learning to determine who would buy certain vehicles and what vehicles are most like a customer,” said Alexander Edwards, President of Strategic Vision.

One thing that’s hard to find when communicating with an AI assistant is a male persona. 

DCG News’ unscientific query found that the majority of virtual assistants were given female names simply because more responses are given to a woman with “assistant” in her title versus a male with a management title. Since male-named virtual assistants are less effective, dealerships are encouraged to give their AI assistants a female name from the get-go.

One dealership noted that its AI assistant was so convincing that a customer sent it  flowers at the dealership.

Technology Is User-Friendly, Can Be Used For Training Purposes

Virtual Assistant set-up is relatively fast, depending on what side of the dealership is using AI. For a virtual sales assistant, AI companies only need access to a dealership’s CRM, making set-up complete in a week to ten days. A service assistant will have access to a dealership’s DMS — essentially all the data collected over 20+ years — so setup may take 3-4 weeks. There’s little to no learning process for the management teams using the dashboards for they are similar to dashboards dealerships are currently using.

Training new sales and service employees can also be streamlined; use of Marchex AI, for example, allows dealerships to access call data by department, so if a new sales person joins, data from sales department calls can be analyzed to help train new employees as well as improve current employees productivity.

“Did they [sales person] introduce themselves by name, ask for the customer’s name and number.. did they talk financing or offer service appointments,” said Muilenburg.

One dealership set a goal to have every phone call answered within two rings. At month’s end, if a certain percentage of the calls are answered in two rings or less, management will buy the team lunch.

“People are shy on technology,” said Burgess. “Automotive is late to the game on everything.  People once thought CRM was crazy! Every year the dealer’s understanding of the technology and how important a role it plays in their success increases. It makes our job easier.”