“A year ago, America’s Car-Mart didn’t have a customer experience department,” Darshan Lundy, Director of Customer Experience at America’s Car-Mart, told us at the beginning of our recent conversation.
Darshan explained to us their strategy behind the new Customer Experience department and how it has become the heart of the company. It has broken down barriers that existed between departments. Customer Experience, Marketing, Sales, IT, and Collections now work as one to turn prospects into buyers, and buyers into repeat customers.
One thing was clear—other enterprise dealerships can learn a lot from America’s Car-Mart. But we were left with one question: what happened last year that triggered this new approach?
The answer wasn’t what we expected.
Since they started in 1981, America’s Car-Mart has grown to 150 locations in 12 different states.
Most of the customers who buy from America’s Car-Mart have experienced some kind of financial distress. But like anyone else, they’re looking for a reliable vehicle to get them to and from work, to pick up their kids from school, to simply live life.
“Your credit score doesn’t define you at America’s Car-Mart,” Darshan told us. “What does define you is who you are and what you’re capable of.”
And that’s not just talking. America’s Car-Mart has been proven to offer lower interest rates and shorter terms than other buy-here-pay-here dealers in the industry, according to Experian market averages.
Despite the dealership’s impressive growth over nearly 40 years in the business, they discovered a major problem last year.
Leading potential buyers to a dead end.
“If you wanted to talk to Car-Mart, you either got in your car and drove down to the dealership, or you called our main number and it would get sent to the corporate office,” TJ Pike, Senior Director of Marketing and Digital Experience, told us. “So there was this huge gap between us and the customer.”
In addition to that huge gap, there was a bigger problem.
“There’s a whole dignity aspect to this,” TJ told us. “As you can imagine, a lot of our customers are apprehensive about even coming into one of our dealerships and opening up about their financial distress. Many of them have been treated differently by society because of their financial situation.”
America’s Car-Mart was missing out on potential customers not only because of outdated communication methods but also because they weren’t giving their customers the anonymity they needed in order to feel comfortable. People often feel the same way about going to a dentist, a lawyer, or an accountant. It’s not easy to share intimate details about your life when you’re looking a stranger in the eye.
Leaving poor communication in the rearview.
“I was working on a project where we started sending out payment reminders via shortcode text messaging,” Brad Tomlin, Director of IT, told us. “It turns out, customers were constantly trying to reply to those payment reminders, but we couldn’t reply back since they were built on shortcode texting.”
That was their lightbulb moment. If customers were trying to respond to these simple payment reminders, imagine what else they’d want to do through text. What if customers didn’t have to physically come into the dealership or call in to explain their situation? What if they could start a conversation by simply sending a text to America’s Car-Mart?
While they were searching for the right solution, they happened to get a phone call from someone at Podium. They went through a demo and saw that Podium would give customers the ability to start a conversation with America’s Car-Mart by sending a simple message. And no matter where the customer started—whether on car-mart.com, Google, Facebook, or another channel—all of those messages would come together in one, shared inbox. They could text back and forth with their customers, and they could even collect payments through text.
“We were like, ‘You know what, we can do this centralized,’ Darshan told us. “We can do this from our corporate office and take a lot off the dealership’s plate while still making sure our customers have a consistent but exceptional experience.”
That’s when they decided to create the Customer Experience department. That department now fields new leads coming in for all of their 150 locations, with the same focus our local associates have to build lasting relationships with the people in our community. Once the lead is ready, the Customer Experience team simply assigns them to the right associate at the right dealership—all within the Podium platform.
“This has allowed us to bridge a gap that existed before where we were losing people because they were not comfortable coming in to share their story,” TJ told us. “They’re able to do that now. And that’s pretty powerful.”
America’s Car-Mart has bridged the gap between their business and their customers. But they’ve also bridged a gap that existed within their own company. Marketing, Sales, IT, Collections, and Customer Experience now work together as one to attract new customers, put them in the right cars, and keep them on the road with us.
Before ending our conversation, we asked everyone on the call to summarize what Podium means to their respective teams. Here’s what they said:
Darshan Lundy, Customer Experience – “Because we did not always see things through the eyes of our customers, opening Podium was a very humbling experience. It allowed us to see the gaps in our communication that we continuously overlooked. At the end of the day it’s about what our customers want and what their expectations are.”
TJ Pike, Marketing – “From the marketing side there are two things. Understanding the customer pain points for me personally is a gold mine. We’re trying to move from a promotion marketing environment where it’s all about me and what we can do, to what are the customers’ needs and what do they truly need help with. Podium now allows us to capture those needs in real-time. My team then springs into action developing and sending solutions-based communications across our marketing channels. And second is the response time. Before Podium, we had a ‘contact us’ form that collected an email address and a phone number on our website. It could have been days before anybody got back to that customer. Now our response time has been cut down to minutes and hours.”
Dustin Edwards, Sales – “For me the biggest thing is the opening up of different forms or channels of communication for our customers. Before Podium, it was always by phone, or the customer had to come to the store if they wanted to do business with us. Starting text messaging has been huge, and to me it’s just opening up a number of forms of communication and texting was a big, big way of doing that. To me that’s where Podium really has taken us to another level of really a different touchpoint for us and being able to set up those appointments, get them to our locations, get them to our General Managers and to our sales associates, and being able to find the right vehicle for them.”
Josh Meltzer, Collections – “As people were furloughed, put on reduced hours, or had to quarantine, we began using Podium to let our customers know we were here to help. Within about a two and a half week timeframe our collections came right back in line in terms of our delinquency numbers. Podium gave us a new avenue of communication with customers regarding collections and really opened our eyes to a better, more comfortable way for customers to communicate during a stressful time.”
Brad Tomlin, IT – “My big thing is, I want automation. I want efficiency, ease of use, good API layers, and things like that. Working with Podium’s technology stack has been very easy. Podium was easy to get a hold of, easy to work with, and if we ask for things and they make sense, they try to add them to the product.”