Virtual greeting a real success at Acton Toyota

Not all dealer-installed options go into cars. Here’s one that is installed on the dealership floor and is being so well received that it makes people wonder why it isn’t standard equipment everywhere.

The folks at Acton Toyota of Littleton have a busy service department— the busiest Toyota service department in New England in retail parts and service sales—and they take pride in providing a smooth customer experience.

However, there was a recurring bottleneck at the service department’s reception desk during busy times.

You know how it is on a busy morning when you’re trying to drop off your car. The day’s routine already is out of kilter, you’re running a bit late, and there’s some anxiety you could do without.

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“The question of ‘Who’s next?’ was a continuing problem,’’ says GM Mike Hills. “Bob [owner Bob Moran] even tried numbering the seats in the waiting room, but then it was like musical chairs.’’

Enter a company called QLess (get it: queue-less?). They have a system of touch screen and line-management technology used in amusement parks and restaurants that adapts nicely to the auto industry.

You could call it the new-age version of the old “take a number’’ dispenser used at bakeries and deli counters.

Arriving customers simply enter their name—first and last—at a self-service kiosk in the service department entrance and immediately take their place in the virtual queue.

An airport-style “Arrivals/Departures’’ board shows the waiting “line’’ by first name, last initial.

“If there are a few people ahead of you, you can hit the restroom, grab a cup of coffee, glass of juice, or a donut without losing your place,’’ says Hills. “The idea seems so simple, but it has all sorts of benefits, both for the dealership and the customer.’’

For one thing, the receptionist immediately greets you by name. “It’s a small thing, perhaps, but customers seem to appreciate the personal touch,’’ says Christina Curren, a combination of appointment-coordinator and concierge. “It breaks the tension. And by eliminating the confusion, the line actually goes quite a bit faster.’’

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When your name gets to the top of the arrivals board, a service advisor welcomes you—again by first name.

As we watched, customers arrived in a variety of emotional stages: a harried mom with toddler, business woman in a rush, older couple having their first experience with the system, and a man (Tom Beaulieu) who enjoyed being a test subject of the system.

Another couple, on a tour of the dealership after buying a new car, had the reaction: “We’ll be fighting to see who takes the car for service.’’

“That’s a common reaction we see in follow-up comments on surveys about service visits,’’ says Hills. There are least five waiting areas at the dealership: a standard open area with sofas and TV, a quiet WiFi room, a children’s room, a snack area, and an upstairs cafeteria. Service customers get a voucher for a complimentary breakfast or lunch.

“It’s interesting that the TV area is the customer’s last choice,’’ says Hills. “But that’s a story for another day.

Acton Toyota now is “of Littleton’’ because the dealership outgrew its original Rte. 2A location and moved a few miles up Great Road and over the line into Littleton.

Word of the system is getting out.

Toyota executives visited the dealership recently, taking notes and photos, for a future edition of the company’s in-house Toyota Today publication that goes throughout the company.

But Jim Lentz, Toyota’s national sales manager, didn’t wait that long. He sent out a companywide email telling how Acton Toyota’s “virtual’’ reception area treats customers like “real’’ guests. Meanwhile, Hills and assistant GM Glenn Hoffman are pondering whether the system should be expanded.

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“We could send a text to tell you your car is ready,’’ says Hoffman, “but we still use the live phone call.’’

However, both Hills and Hoffman can envision similar kiosks in sales and fi nance areas that could be useful during busy periods.

“I see the system in the Verizon stores, too,’’ says Hoffman. “It could be useful at a busy time in the sales department.’’

Meanwhile, a rival dealer, talking about the system, says, “You wouldn’t believe how many deals fall through because the customer can’t get fi nancing. A confi dential kiosk that would help customers get their credit score could help both the customer and the dealership.’’

Sounds like another bright idea.

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