At what is surely the most uncertain time in the lives of millions, the only thing certain is that there’s no rushing back to life as we knew it before the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic hit. The widespread impact of the virus has thrown all plans out of gear, and changed the way we approach daily life. For the automotive industry, one major – and immediate – change has come in the form of carmakers going online with car sales. As India slowly gets back to its feet and tries to follow social distancing guidelines that it has been largely unfamiliar with so far, another aspect of the automotive universe is having to evolve as well – the business of car servicing.
During the nationwide lockdown – which began in the month of March and is still in place as Lockdown 5.0 – all car showrooms and service centres across India were shuttered, and at least in the initial parts of the lockdown, servicing cars was just not possible. Vehicles not being driven for days on end understandably resulted in issues for many customers, but carmakers found a way to reach them and address their problems.
Subhajit Roy, Senior General Manager and Head Customer Care at Tata Motors, tells us how the company set up a special helpline for those who own Tata vehicles and have been actively involved in fighting the pandemic.
Subhajit Roy, Senior GM & Head Customer Care,Tata Motors
"Our regional service assist team has requested for special permissions in several cities to provide maintenance and services for vehicles that need repair. For Tata Motors customers who are providing essential services during the lockdown, such as the police and healthcare professionals, we sought special permission from local legal authorities for providing vehicle maintenance service to them. Between 23rd March and 27th May, we serviced 212 vehicles of customers who are providing essential services and are working on the frontline of the pandemic," says Roy.
Partho Banerjee, Executive Director – Service at Maruti Suzuki, tells us how India’s largest carmaker took to social media to educate the masses about keeping their cars healthy during the lockdown.
Partho Banerjee, Executive Director – Service, Maruti Suzuki
"Customers across India have been facing some challenges with their parked vehicles, which include breakdowns, battery discharge specially the lithium-ion batteries, flat tyre among others. We are focused on educating the customers during these tough times and so far, we have tapped 30 million customers through our social media platforms," remarks Banerjee.
Renewed focus on hygiene
As the focus shifts to minimising human interaction to limit the risk of spreading COVID-19, more customers are asking for their vehicles to be sanitised, and are wanting service personnel to exercise a greater degree of caution when working on their vehicles.
"Customers have lately been requesting sanitisation of their vehicles. In order to cater to that request, we have introduced a special initiative titled, ‘No touch by hand’. Under this initiative, we have introduced bio-degradable disposable steering wheel covers, along with driver seat and gear knob covers. These covers are put when the vehicle enters the workshop for servicing and are disposed in front of customers at the time of delivery," says Tata's Subhajit Roy.
Image credit: Tata Motors
Maruti Suzuki, too, has witnessed a sharp increase in customers asking for their vehicles to be serviced at their homes, says Banerjee.
"We have seen a significant increase in the customer demand for our service on doorstep, service on wheels and pickup & drop facilities. Furthermore, we introduced new safety SOPs for our workshops in line with the government norms and have trained over 80,000 members and introduced 20 new SOPs to ensure maximum hygiene, sanitisation and safety standards."
Contactless the way forward
Like contactless car purchase platforms, carmakers are also going the contactless way when it comes to servicing cars.
"There are some customers that have requested for contactless servicing. In such cases, we at Tata Motors are ensuring arranging vehicle pickup and drops and providing the status of the same to our customers on our customer service app and by SMS. Additionally, we are also accepting online payments to reduce physical contact," says Roy.
Maruti Suzuki, too, is taking steps to ensure customers need not necessarily visit the workshop for a routine service request and is strengthening its online platforms.
Image credit: Tata Motors
"Contactless processes are the need of the hour. We have focused on strengthening the digital car service experience with online job card opening, online customer approval, documentation and invoice processing," says Banerjee.
Appointments are a must
For jobs that may require the vehicle to be at the workshop for more than a day, carmakers are having to anticipate the kind of service requests they’ll get in these times, and having to coordinate with customers well in advance as they, too, are working with limited workforce and resources.
"In most cases, we are delivering the car on the same day to the customers. However, if the vehicle arrives at the workshop at a later time during the day, it is kept at the workshop overnight. This also applies to vehicles that require battery charging. Vehicles that have been severely damaged due to an accident are returned within a span of 3-4 days. Additionally, due to the lockdown, we are constantly in touch with customers regarding their appointments, so we can make arrangements for spare parts and manpower accordingly," says Roy.
"As per the latest government norms, we are working with approximately 50 percent of the manpower employed across 60 percent of our dealerships. Today, we have over 2,800 workshops operational. To ensure complete customer and employee safety, we introduced online booking of services based on time slots to maintain optimum hygiene across our dealerships in India. Currently, we service 30,000 vehicles per day as compared to 50,000 cars at our full capacity before the lockdown," adds Banerjee.
Image credit: Tata Motors
Even Hyundai India announced it had opened nearly 1,000 of its workshops by the beginning of June, and had serviced over 1 lakh vehicles across 530 cities in the month of May, once the lockdown was eased in select parts of the country.
Business of servicing cars will flourish
Both Roy and Banerjee have similar views on what happens to mobility choices post-COVID-19 – more and more people will opt for a personal vehicle over using public transport such as trains, buses, shared taxis and so on, which in-turn will mean service centres will have their hands full.
"The coronavirus pandemic has brought about a significant change in the perspective regarding transportation usage in the minds of consumers. Due to the impact of COVID-19 and the implication of strict physical distancing norms, we anticipate that there will be a considerable decrease in the use of public transport and shared mobility. The demand for personal mobility will increase due to the customer’s need to ensure personal safety. Therefore, we anticipate that vehicles visiting workshops will increase in the near future. We also anticipate major digital intervention in the service sector. The customer may request for all service coordination to take place online," says Roy.
In a similar vein, Banerjee says, "Keeping the current COVID-19 situation in mind, we believe that more consumers will prefer travelling by their personal vehicles instead of using public transport options. Further to the COVID-19 outbreak, the new normal will be defined not just in car servicing but across business verticals in the world. Digital car buying, contactless experience and servicing will see a major growth and we expect a further increase in the demand for doorstep, pickup & drop services."
When it comes to buying a car, it still remains to be seen if more and more buyers choose to log on for their next four-wheeled purchase, seeing as how buying a new vehicle still is such an emotional – and momentous – occasion in the lives of most. What does seem more certain, though, is that once they’ve bought a car and it’s time for it to visit the workshop, they may just opt to conduct a digital transaction from the comfort and safety of their home and let the personnel at the service station complete their work, largely eliminating the need for physical interaction of any sort.
Would you be comfortable having your car serviced without heading to the workshop yourself? Do you foresee any concerns that could crop up? Let us know in the comments.