In June, CarNow raised $30 million from Battery Ventures, an existing investor, bringing its total raised to about $55 million.
Dealers need to bring their A-game every time a customer shows up in their digital showroom, and they must remain flexible.
With this new influx of funds, CarNow CEO Andrew Park quips, “We can build a lot of slingshots.”
What he really means is just like David slayed a giant with a slingshot, the funding will help CarNow conquer any giants in the automotive space. Though the Atlanta, Georgia-company already has software that streamlines digital sales in 4,500 dealerships across the country, the additional capital will help CarNow scale operations for continued innovation and expansion.
Park says the time is right for growth. The pandemic injected new life into digital retailing. When COVID-19 shut down businesses in 2020, dealerships realized they needed to move to digital—and fast.
“Automotive dealers are among the most entrepreneurial people out there,” Park says. “They’re quick to move and to adapt, and they quickly embraced technology to get them through that time. In one month, we had to get 500 dealerships live.”
Consumers also adapted, he adds. Buying a car online differs greatly from ordering electronics from Amazon or groceries from Amazon Fresh. Car buying comes with many choices, from pricing to financing to F&I products. Most customers need support as they navigate the purchase process. But before the pandemic, many dealers only used their digital presence to attract customers to the physical dealership.
“Consumers’ trust in this process grew during the pandemic because for a while it was the only way to buy a car,” he says. “We saw our customers’ chat and text messaging functions grow as the economy shut down. Consumers were ready to do things online, but dealers needed to put tools in place and embrace digital interactions instead of always expecting consumers to come into the dealership.”
Digital Retailing Tools Advance
The willingness of all involved to embrace digital retailing didn’t always exist, Park maintains.
Park and co-founders, Tim Cox, Bidhan Patnaik and Saurav Biswas, launched CarNow in 2014 with a messaging platform. The company began with messaging because the founders rightly believed that the complex automotive transaction requires human assistance.
“If you leave customers to their own devices, they will start the process but abandon it because they don’t know their trade value, have credit questions, or need to know more about features,” he says. “I liken it to leaving a physical showroom unmanned where you let the customer come in and look at cars. They have all these questions. Instead of answering them, you ask them to leave their name and number and tell them someone will follow up. That’s the equivalent of what’s happens online in many dealerships, even today.”
Consumers also see the prices online as a starting point for negotiations. They expect to negotiate and work with the dealer in person. “Most consumers believe if they go into the store to discuss a deal, the dealer will be more flexible in their pricing, throw in some extra accessories, etc.,” he says. “This give and take rarely happens online. Most dealers let consumers move through the process on their own and expect them to come to the dealership to wrap things up.”
This disconnect led CarNow to innovate a way for dealership personnel to treat online customers the same as those who stand in front of them.
CarNow first added a mobile messaging application for the conversation side of the process in 2014. The company put chat functions on dealer websites and began building a foundation for digital sales. Initially, they encountered a lukewarm reception to the platform.
“The industry just wasn’t ready at the time,” he says. “Mobile was becoming bigger and people started communicating via text and instant messaging, but in automotive we were still working with phones and in-person transactions.”
Though digital retailing skyrocketed in other industries, automotive remained stagnant. Park explains buying a car is not a self-serve service purchase. Digital automotive sales require sophisticated tools to solve the sales process at a higher level than an Amazon purchase. Credit approvals, trade-in values, F&I programs and other aspects of the sale must be addressed, he says.
CarNow worked through these needs by adding a live assistance component. “We realized that for a dealership to be successful selling cars online, there had to be live assistance,” he says. “We realized a live assistant would get consumers over the barriers and humps that caused them to abandon the process.”
Dealers took to this advanced product offering quickly. And as their use of the platform grew, so did the platform itself.
“Our platform included chat and text messaging, then as we opened up that communication channel, we added in inventory integration, model data from OEMs, and rich media, like video. We started building workflows inside the messaging platform, and began to innovate,” he says. “As we did that, we gained a much larger footprint, got OEM certifications and built our digital retailing system.”
Today CarNow offers the following platforms:
- BuyNow, a digital retail platform with a simplified shopping experience to help dealers close more deals.
- MessageNow, a platform that recreates the dealership showroom online and conducts live chats to keep customers engaged.
- ConvertNow, which uses artificial intelligence to gather customer information and create a complete picture for dealership staff. It allows unassisted test drive and service scheduling.
- PriceNow, a payment calculator that gives customers payment information, while giving notifying dealers in real time when customers work payments on the website.
“We give them real-time visibility into what the customer is doing on their site,” he says. “We alert them so that they can send a customer a message when they go through certain parts of the process. Let’s say a customer is playing with payments. Our software provides visibility of what they are doing and allows the salesperson to send a targeted message through chat. For example, they might give them a financing offer or higher trade value in real time.”
Dealers can supplement that interaction with a pre-owned manager saying, “We’re giving you this price, but if you want to bring your vehicle in, we’d love to work with you.”
Park adds CarNow’s roadmap to results will include new offerings, currently in alpha testing and moving to beta soon. “These are things that will keep dealerships standing out from their peers, where they can use X, Y, and Z to their advantage. We have a huge opportunity in front of us.”
Make a Mindset Change
Even though CarNow provides the right tools, Park warns technology is not all that’s required to close a digital deal. He explains dealers also must start treating digital interactions the same as in-person sales.
“They will have better success once the mindset becomes the same, whether it’s an in-person or digital sale,” he says. “This is a people business. Every sale starts with a conversation in the store. The same thing should happen online.”
Dealers also must adapt digital sales to individual customers. He explains consumers differ in what they feel comfortable doing online. One customer may want a total digital sale, while another feels uncomfortable sharing financial information for a credit app online.
“There needs to be flexibility in the process,” he says. “Dealers need to bring their A game every time a customer shows up in their digital showroom, and they must remain flexible. As soon as you start up a conversation, you need to build trust just as you would if they were in front of you at the dealership.”
Selling cars when there is high demand and critically low inventory also challenges online sales, adds Park.
Some dealers keep old inventory online because they want customers to engage with them. Others put up inventory that is ordered but hasn’t arrived. “There are some obstacles right now,” he says. “But in the end, if you have a dealer who treats customers really well inside the store and online, that dealer will have more customers buying vehicles.”