Ford mobile units to help health care workers

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Ford Motor Co. began testing mobile service vans at a handful of U.S. dealerships last May. After hearing from customers who appreciated the chance to get their oil changed or new brake pads installed at home or work, the automaker this year started expanding the program to 198 stores using Transit vans upfitted with basic repair equipment.

It couldn’t have come at a better time.

The coronavirus pandemic is forcing dealerships to get creative to better serve customers who are largely confined to their homes. In some instances, the opportunity for remote service is aiding doctors, nurses and first responders in their battle to contain the virus.

Bill Knight Ford in Tulsa, Okla., did just that for a local medical lab that uses a fleet of eight EcoSports to transport COVID-19 test kits.

When the lab called inquiring how to quickly service their vehicles, dealer principal Bill Knight gathered two technicians and two service managers and drove to the lab’s offices.

The crew was able to change oil, rotate tires and swap in new air filters on all eight EcoSports in about three hours on a Saturday, while taking precautions with gloves, goggles and disinfecting materials as they were working on the vehicles.

“This is what we’re here for,” Knight told Automotive News. “The van really added a lot of energy to the team when we realized we could do something to help. It really gave us purpose.”

Knight said he’s extended the offer to local doctors and nurses, making them aware they can schedule appointments to have their vehicles serviced in hospital parking lots. He said the work on the EcoSports was covered under a Ford Protect warranty, but he planned to waive convenience fees for those in the medical community. “We’re not looking for this to be a profit center,” he said. “We’re looking for it to be a service.”

Two Rivers Ford in Mount Juliet, Tenn., which received a mobile service van in mid-February, has seen an uptick in the number of customers calling to have repairs done at their homes as they practice social distancing. “We had no idea what an asset it would be, not only to our company but to the community,” said Tammy Jacobs, the dealership’s marketing manager.

Even before the virus outbreak, Two Rivers was working to offer more convenient ways to sell and service new vehicles, Jacobs said. A tornado struck the region, causing a number of customers to need repairs or new vehicles. “We’ve always tried to be the most convenient dealership to do business with,” she said. “We’ve seen hard times and we smile through them, keep a positive attitude and do whatever we can for our community. That’s served us well so far.”

Although the pilot is still in its early stages, Ford is not new to mobile service. It has been operating a fleet of 100 Transit vans in the United Kingdom since 2017.

“You have to be able to meet your customers where they want to be met,” said Nick Thomson, Ford’s customer experience activation manager.

“We’re not being compared against automakers. We’re being compared against Amazon and the other tech companies. If you can’t deliver it immediately, you’re looked at as behind the times.”

Thomson said the company has received positive feedback about the program so far and that most dealers who use the vans see a significant bump in service business and customer-satisfaction scores.

The coronavirus, he said, has amplified the need for dealers to think outside the box and update their business model.

“I really believe we’re on the cusp of changing the automotive customer-service industry,” he said.

McLarty Daniel Ford in Fayetteville, Ark., doesn’t have a mobile service van, but it’s working with a local physician to upfit some vehicles to help sick patients.

Dealer principal Russ Daniel said the doctor reached out last week wanting to buy three Transits and install portable chest X-ray equipment that would allow him to examine patients’ lungs for signs of the virus. The dealership is working with an upfitter to make that happen.

Daniel argues that such a situation is an example of why dealership sales are essential during the crisis. A number of states have instituted shelter-in-place orders that allow dealerships to continue servicing vehicles but prohibit sales.

Daniel’s store remains open but has instituted new cleaning and disinfecting procedures to keep workers and customers safe. Still, he said, the store is pivoting even more to a “concierge” model where dealership employees go directly to the customer, making house calls for vehicle pickup and delivery.

He has added staff to handle calls related to that part of the business and shifted some marketing dollars to promote it.

Daniel will consider adding a mobile service van in the future and said the need for such offerings will grow even after the pandemic subsides.

“This will change the way everybody does business,” he said. “Everybody’s going to have to be a little smarter. Even when this is over, consumer confidence may be a little low. We have to pivot and make sure we’re reaching our customers. Those programs like mobile service are going to become paramount.”

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