Motorcar retailing needs to change its approach to meet future needs
While ‘moving metal’ is the UK motor industry’s primary intention, through its nationwide dealer network, writes Iain Robertson, he questions whether, or not, it is a business that is well enough armed for the future and doubts it seriously.
It could be said that the traditional motor dealership is a haven of questionable integrity, hell-bent on making up the numbers, slamming through the deals and ticking boxes like few government departments ever have done. While they all commit to providing a customer experience that is unforgettable, mainly because they are scored on those premises and their retrospective bonuses are dependent on them, when you ask the customer about the more memorable aspects, the reports are genuinely mixed.
The entire retail industry has complaints files jammed to capacity, with independent consumer bodies having little choice but to cherry-pick from the tarnished gems to reduce and resolve them. However, the motor business, mainly because of its stature, mostly because of the financial sums involved, has to shoulder a hefty percentage of them. The big question is, does it change its perspective? Is there any single specialist that can make more than just a notional difference?
It is sad to report that the real stars are largely unsung heroes, a factor that bears much coincidence, in one speciality arena, with a Lincoln-based on-line operation that works with military precision. Forces Cars Direct (FCD) is a company that has celebrated its 16th Birthday recently and that knows its market to perfection. It scores exceedingly highly on independent review site, Trust-Pilot, and with single-mindedly good reason: it understands its market.
Serving the Services
In the good old days of Duty Free Goods and British Forces Postings Overseas, nearly every car manufacturer worth its salt dealt in both diplomatic and armed services sectors. There were sound commercial reasons for it but it was also a service provision that has become diluted, since overseas garrisons were forced to cut their numbers significantly.
However, the organic development, by ex-serviceman, Steve Thornton, who served in Germany and the Middle East, of a vehicle supply business to his former colleagues has created a service-led operation that is on-the-money, as far as the future of vehicle retailing is concerned. As he recalls: “I bought a new car in Germany in the mid-1990s and not only felt thoroughly ripped-off by the 34% APR but that the back-up service I received was negligible. I believed that a better way was possible.”
Bear in mind that these forces personnel have flown a flag bravely and proudly for their home nations. As we know only too tragically from recent situations in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, some return as body-bag ‘collateral’, with others having to deal with disabilities almost beyond belief. Steve Thornton was determined to provide a better quality of service to service personnel at all levels and his associations with SSAFA (the tri-services, armed forces charity), RAFA (Royal Air Forces Association) and Forces Pension Society extend beyond the cynicism more usually attached to charitable links. As the recent receipt of a prestigious Armed Forces Covenant, Employer Silver Award, recognition of the depth of FCD’s service provision is evident.
You serve? You save!
While setting-up a business in 2001 may have seemed a lofty ambition, Steve has never lost sight of his ultimate aim, which is reflected in its steady but consistent expansion. Yet, almost as an adjunct, its most important aspect is not the ‘moving of metal’ but the ability to satisfy the motoring requirements of his customer base, all of which possess a positive connection to the services.
Of equal importance is the simple fact that Steve does not differentiate between the squaddie serving today, or the airman who flew a desk during his National Service. Satisfied customers of FCD include senior Naval officers, and top brass Army and RAF personnel. However, in just sixteen years, Steve has saved all of them around £50million by way of careful negotiation, with the bulk of the UK motor industry and, by forging judicious partnerships with other services providers, a comprehensive range of support services comes as part of the deal.
Steve Thornton considers that it is the combined duty of him and his team to fulfil the transport needs of his forces’ clients. Fascinatingly, by creating a virtual car dealership, his company is actually performing a revolution that is highly positive and an example for the future of the entire car retailing business. It is of little wonder that manufacturers, importers and their agents are beating down his doors, keen to establish a relationship. They all want a slice and they can perceive what Steve sees: a specialist in an honourable market segment, satisfying customers in ways that are laudable but are scarcely being touched across the rest of the industry.
That is the bottom line. Forces Cars Direct is setting a standard and flying a flag for customers, regardless of rank, that deserve it. In doing so, the company is involved in a virtual arena that allows true customer service to flourish and loyalty to develop. As a model for the future of the motorcar business in the UK, this company has it sussed and it is ahead of the game by a considerable margin.
It hardly matters what is the depth of your relationship with the Armed Forces, Army, Navy, Air Force, Royal Marines, TA and even civil service personnel are all areas that can benefit from an association with FCD. It is a largely selfless organisation that has saved its ‘customers’ around £50million in the past 16 years, although very few people even know of its existence.