In our fortnightly interview series, Under the Bonnet, we seek out the opinions of movers and shakers in the used-car market – those that have been there, done it and got the oil-stained t-shirt. From leading car dealers, to manufacturers and the foremost finance brokers, we get under the bonnet to discuss the news, views and market trends shaping our industry’s future.
Steve McLaughlin is the Director of Essex Car Company, the Rainham-based car supermarket that starred in Channel 4’s documentary series, ‘The Dealership’. A motor industry stalwart since 1985, Steve discusses how the digital revolution has been a blessing and a curse for car dealers, increasing advertising costs, and why Oodle is a different beast to other car finance companies…
In this digital age, in what ways has your dealership evolved in the last few years?
It’s really about turning around the best car and the best finance product proposals as quickly and efficiently as possible. In the digital age everyone wants their car straight away, and for us, even if we have offered the customer the best possible deal, if we don’t turnaround a car quickly, we’ve lost the customer.
Our dealership hasn’t evolved hugely in the last few years. We did a documentary for Channel 4 called, The Dealership. It brought us into focus with a lot of people we’ve never managed to reach before. It had a big impact on the business. We really increased our sales and although The Dealership was five years ago, we still have people coming in and talking about it.
Perhaps the biggest thing we’ve noticed is that our staff are getting younger. We’ve taken on young, enthusiastic people which is good for us. My sales manager is only 23, for example. They are very digitally savvy. We now employ someone to just deal with the digital side of the business, which back in the day would have been unheard of. We didn’t have that three or four years ago.
What are the biggest challenges you’re facing?
The problem we have now is that when someone comes and looks at a car; if they’re not taking the car straight away, they will go home, have a think about it, research other dealers and other vehicles. Whilst we want customers to ensure the deal is the right one for them and research all of the options available to them, even when the best deal is on the table, if we can’t do it quickly, we will lose out. This is why we need finance companies who can turn our deals around quickly and efficiently.
Does the gradual move online concern you? If so, why?
I’ve been in the industry for 30 years and in the last few years, we can be sitting there selling cars to customers and while we’re talking to them, they are looking on Auto Trader for other cars. It was never a problem a few years ago. Someone would come in to buy a car, and you were probably the only dealer in the area, and they didn’t really want to go shopping around. Over the years we have improved our processes and now customers who have searched online come to us because we offer great cars, the best product and speed & efficiency.
Does the increasing advertising costs of car search websites concern you?
Unfortunately, costs have significantly increased over the years but it’s an investment we need to make to bring in new customers. We look at some of them probably five times a day to check our prices. It has changed the market and you have to embrace it or you won’t move forward. All these people that moan are usually the ones not selling the cars! We’re spending twice as much on them but they do bring the business in.
Is the introduction of autonomous and electric vehicles a challenge or an opportunity for the UK car dealing community?
We’re wary of it as we have to re-tool and rebrand everything, but ultimately, you know it’s coming, you know the move to EV is going to happen, so you just have to embrace it and evolve with it.
Is the uncertainty over Brexit having an impact on your forecourt footfall?
Not at all, we’re busier than ever! We’ve just had our busiest month ever. In January we sold 139 cars. People look for excuses don’t they, but no, it hasn’t impacted us. Quite the opposite to be honest.
What do you look for in a finance provider?
We look for the best finance deal and who can turn around the deals the quickest. Oodle understand that speed is important to our relationship as it is important to improve efficiencies that ultimately benefit our customers. We want companies that can keep pace with the way we work. We can have a deal accepted and paid out in less than 10 minutes. We’re all about deal and delivery. People come in and see us as a one stop shop. It’s about offering our customers the best and most efficient service possible. Helping them drive off in their chosen cars; that is the modern way and a way that finance providers have to support.
In what ways does Oodle support you?
Oodle has supported our business since we started working with them. They are turning the customers chosen finance proposals around faster than ever and they’re very dealer friendly too. They get involved in our operations whereas we hardly ever see other finance companies. Oodle is in visiting us all the time. I’ve also spent an afternoon there to see how it all works and they’re very keen to get involved with us in order to make things even more efficient for us. We’ve gone from three-hour payouts to about 10-15 mins payouts. This makes a huge difference to the service levels we are providing to our customers.
Having spent some time with them, I feel better about dealing with them. They are very young and forward facing.
There aren’t many companies that will let you talk to the main man. When I was there seeing them, Jonny and Phil were with the staff, talking to the staff, talking to dealers, they were not hiding away in an office somewhere. The pair of them are very involved in the business, they are not hiding behind a desk. I’ve got great hopes for Oodle and we want to do a lot more business with them. They are a very likeable company.
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