Unlocking Better Automotive Customer Experiences: Learning Lessons from 1913

In 1913, Henry Ford introduced the moving assembly line to a burgeoning automotive industry, revolutionizing global manufacturing forever. Inspired by an overhead trolley used by Chicago beef packers, the integrated process simplified the assembly of the Model T’s 3,000 parts by creating just 84 discrete, connected steps. These were performed by small groups of workers, assisted by a single rope pulling each chassis along the line. Incredibly, this single innovation compacted the vehicle assembly time from 12 hours to just 90 minutes, enabling labor costs (and crucially, vehicle price) to be radically reduced. The rest, quite literally, is history.

The Integrated Moving Assembly Line: Components move; workers don’t.


Over a century later, it’s peculiar that our data and marketing technologies aren’t more harmonious or impactful

Given the immediate success of Ford’s collaborative assembly line, it’s peculiar that over a century later, our data and marketing technologies (whose fundamental role is to connect every department of an organization) aren’t more harmonious or impactful.

For a host of good reasons, Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) and dealer networks often operate distinct marketing and CRM tools, unable to connect customer insight between themselves – or across their channels and touchpoints. Add to this the common wrangles over ‘who owns the customer once they’ve driven off the forecourt’ and Ford’s utopian vision of connected manufacturing seems distant indeed.

It all adds up to missed opportunity; connecting, understanding and acting on shared information clearly helps marketing, sales and service to perform more effectively, driving business growth. Given the combination of market pressures we face, the industry must capitalize on every available asset, working to understand ‘leads’ as people with individual requirements and preferences.

You might recognize this scenario:

Of course, the reality of these circumstances is usually less binary. And fortunately, it’s all resolvable:

  • In our experience, OEM’s are indeed generating a myriad of leads. However, these prospects are often in the early stages of researching – and will need some warming up to reach conversion – the more we understand ‘leads’ as people, understanding their intent and how to meet their needs during the buyer journey, the more impacting we can be.
  • There is usually major scope for the OEM to increase prospect engagement, especially by improving continuity between digital channels (or call center) into the physical world (dealer). This is about driving more insight-based, contextual intelligence to empower dealership sales staff.
  • Typically, dealer network software – or lead-sharing tools provided by OEMs – do not serve up nuggets of customer journey insight that can be crucial to conversion.

For example:

What (exactly) has the prospect reviewed online?

Have they looked at service plans or financing options?

Is there a P/X in the equation?

And, based on agreed principles, how ‘hot’ is the prospect – where should staff invest the most effort?

Unsurprisingly, many organizations believe that due to opaque objectives, unmanageable data sources, technologies and channels, solving the conundrum of ‘connected experience’ is too costly and laborious. Often, it’s perfect fodder to be kicked into the long grass.

But joining the dots is not as difficult as you might think, and it’s certainly worthwhile. The provision of data-fueled customer experiences is particularly well suited to the (typically longer) automotive sales cycle, positively impacting NPS/CSAT scores, cross-sell efficacy and LTV.

So, how can we be more ‘connected’ – more like Ford’s Assembly Line?

  1. Listen to consumer intent signals, ‘from domain to dealer’

People navigate based on their intentions – whether that’s configurating a vehicle, comparing finance offers or researching servicing FAQs. By joining up the signals your customers emit as they traverse the associated touchpoints (for OEM and dealership), you’ll uncover a world of untapped insight.

According to a recent report by Deloitte*, OEM websites have the most impact on purchase decision, while 71% rated customer experience as the most influential factor in their choice of dealer. So, given that a third of us spend less than a month researching (70% spend less than three months) before purchasing a vehicle, there’s little time to lose in extracting, connecting and mobilizing this intelligence across our channels to inform standout, seamless customer experiences. Don’t let those fish swim away!

Thunderhead ONE helps automotive brands understand, visualize and act on customer signals, developing profiles in real-time.

  1. Understand the insight – and Act on it

Deciphering the unified information, automotive manufacturers and dealers can customize content across their channels to stimulate (or reignite) engagement, guide call center and sales staff and critically, score (prioritize) incoming prospect conversations. Under pressure to meet their increasing targets, sales staff are being empowered to separate the wheat from the chaff a whole lot quicker.

Sales staff are being empowered to separate the wheat from the chaff – a whole lot quicker.

Guided by technology, delivering consistent experiences across channels typically involves the customization of an OEM website or digital communications. Triggered by a significant event, such as interaction with a car configurator or test drive completion, the ambition is to encourage customers along their individual journeys. And while the principle is simple, it delivers in spades: we’ve seen this improve like-for-like car sales by over fourteen times (1400%).

Stepping up a gear, a dealer can also couple its sales and servicing insights. This unlocks further opportunity: providing the most appropriate courtesy car for a customer, suggesting specific accessories or warranty offers, or booking in a weekend test drive. Things get really interesting when we harness the signals to identify potential risk, cutting danger off at the pass. For example, a customer navigating to the ‘How to make a balloon payment’ section of your website FAQs is an alarm bell that should be shared with dealerships – who can then proactively pick up the phone.

  1. Your auto data will unlock even more in the future – think about it!

Automotive OEMs are collecting masses of data, not just through the CRM and dealership channels but the technology within its vehicles. But currently, only a fraction of this is being mobilized – and several manufacturers are wrangling with the prospect of what this could mean for them in the years to follow. This is logical; McKinsey predicts that networked cars will increase by 30% each year: “by 2020, one in five cars will be connected to the Internet**.

Applications might include:

  • Specified warning lights trigger an alert to dealer networks to make contact – and order appropriate parts to remedy a situation
  • Telemetric data provides insight that a particular diesel driver tends to make shorter, urban-based journeys. At the next service, their dealer could suggest that EV or petrol would be more cost-effective (or less polluting, depending on the context) and provide a suitable vehicle for a test drive
  • Based on Social output and website journeys, we can already glean sentiment and score the prospect based on many factors (including their need for finance). Setting virtual boundaries around vehicles in a physical showroom then provides the ability to understand customer flow and genuine potential interest by vehicle.


Our customer engagement platform, ONE, has been honed to make a demonstrable difference to the automotive industry and it’s already been implemented for several major OEMs. Fusing disparate data sources, ONE harnesses connected insight to deliver consistent, cross-channel customer experiences. And being ‘light touch’, ONE can be implemented (and delivering business results) within a matter of weeks. [OK, I hear you say; enough of the sales spiel.]

We should be reassured by the fact that the one thing that consumers value most – a great experience – is within our control.

The automotive sector is facing a tough time for many reasons, including plummeting R&D costs***, rising interest rates, WLTP, political uncertainty and changing consumer purchasing behavior (such as leasing and falling diesel sales).

Long story short, the industry’s feeling the pinch on its (already tight) margins.

What’s reassuring is that the one thing that consumers value most – a seamless, informed experience – is within our control. The data fueling it is most likely in our hands, waiting to be connected and put into action. So it makes sense that creating value from available data is the biggest priority for todays Automotive CEO. As Ford did over a hundred years back, we now need to connect our assets, minimize complexity and facilitate continual innovation to succeed at this challenging time.

ONE Engagement Hub for Auto


*Navigating the customer Journey – UK perspectives from Deloitte’s Global Automotive Consumer Study 2018

**McKinsey: The road to 2020 and beyond – What’s driving the global automotive industry?

***In its Global Innovation 1000 Study2, PwC Strategy& calculated that investment in this field could fall by 19% by as early as 2020

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