September 17, 2015 / 9:14 PM / in 2 years

Back to basics, and beyond: automakers seek to counter China slowdown

A dealer carries BMW's promotional cushions at a dealer shop in Beijing, China, September 11, 2015.Kim Kyung-Hoon

XI'AN, China (Reuters) - As China's economy loses pace and car sales flatline, automakers are having to redouble their efforts to squeeze every dollar from their dealerships - beefing up after-sales and financing services that are a staple in more developed markets.

New car sales still make up a "ridiculous" 70 percent or more of dealer revenue in China, compared to as little as 5 percent in a market like Britain, where dealers make most of their money from car repairs, insurance and auto finance, said an executive at a chain of luxury dealerships in China.

For years, Chinese car makers and their dealers had it easy. As China raced from being an undeveloped indigenous market to being the world's biggest - and a main growth driver for global manufacturers - new car sales sped along at double-digit growth. This year, sales may contract for the first time in at least two decades.

That's prompted global car makers such as BMW (BMWG.DE) to intensify training programs, teaching dealers how to maximize revenue from businesses beyond just selling new cars.

In a classroom-cum-car repair service bay in Beijing last week, groups of BMW after-sales service managers huddled around tables, poring over spreadsheets on repair revenues per model and productivity per service mechanic.

Elsewhere, new recruits learn how to compose follow-up mobile messages to potential car buyers browsing the showrooms. That personal touch can later help drum up repeat after-sales business that might otherwise go to cheaper backstreet repair yards.

"We're under conditions that make us sweat with urgency, so we need to participate more in these mind-expanding activities and cooperate with the manufacturer to find a way to survive," said Xu Dapeng, who manages after-sales services for a BMW dealership in Beijing and attended last week's training.

As car sales in China soared since the mid-2000s, few manufacturers and dealers bothered to diversify their revenue streams. But around 60 percent of all car dealerships now say they're losing money on each new car sold, prompting manufacturers to build out other ways to make money.

BOOT CAMP

At BMW, where deliveries to dealers in China have grown just 1 percent so far this year, this means putting recruits through sales 'boot camp' and turning experienced staff into spreadsheet wonks.

The world's top luxury car maker this month opened its largest Asia training center in Xi'an in Shaanxi province. It is also rolling out online training phone apps and having in-house trainers at dealerships look after basic skills so training centers can focus on teaching more advanced skills.

Training classes have shifted to help dealers identify areas they can change for a quick improvement in results, said BMW's China training chief Xiao Yi.

"They need to know which kind of customers support big margins and have high turnover," said Ma Gang, a BMW training manager who oversees after-sales classes. That way dealers can target those customers in follow-up calls and increase the chance they'll bring in their cars for repairs or a tune-up.

BMW is not alone in beefing up its training effort as the market becomes more challenging.

Lu Cheng, general manager of DZMC Training, who taught last week's BMW class, said there's more demand for such training sessions from all his clients, including Daimler AG (DAIGn.DE) and Porsche PSHG_P.DE. His firm has increased its training staff by a fifth since last year.

GETTING PERSONAL

Profits from selling new cars are being squeezed from competitive price discounting, making it even more crucial to generate steady high-margin income from after-sales services.

After-sales margins in China can be as high as 50 percent - if a dealership is run efficiently - the luxury dealership executive said.

Much of BMW's training focuses on follow-up contact with customers - honing sales reps' SMS skills, for example.

Trainer Lee Yida opened a basic skills session by asking BMW dealer trainees: "What kind of SMS message will move consumers' hearts?" Choosing between a handful of messages, one saleswoman said her group opted for brevity. "Our customers are very busy," she said. "We thought it was better because it was shorter."

Dealers are also taught how to maximize the use of each car repair bay, and ensure that all customers pay for work done.

Training and increased after-sales revenue alone are unlikely to offset the sales slowdown. Volkswagen (VOWG_p.DE) and its luxury brand Audi (NSUG.DE), for example, are scaling back production and making other cuts.

After-sales margins are already under pressure, with average per customer revenue dipping to 3,480 yuan ($546) this year from 4,288 yuan last year for luxury car brands, according to a study by J.D. Power & Associates released in July.

Many dealers in what is still a relatively young Chinese autos industry are untried in after-sales. "It's an area in China that, to be frank, they're not very good at," the dealer executive said.

"Anyone can sell cars, after-sales is complicated," said another manager at a major chain of Mercedes dealers.

Reporting by Jake Spring; Editing by Ian Geoghegan

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