Chapter II of BBC TopGear India and Exhibit’s online conclave concludes successfully

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For the first time in the history of the Indian automotive industry, sales numbers across the country were a big fat ZERO thanks to the COVID-19 outbreak followed by the strict lockdown enforced by the Government of India. Zero sales is perhaps one of the most rudest shocks to the industry in recent times, but with that said, all two- and four-wheeler manufacturers are now gearing up for the world post-Lockdown 3.0 and are beginning to restart operations in terms of manufacturing, assembly and at a dealer level as well. Business strategies would be re-worked, marketing tactics would be revisited given the marked change expected in consumer behavior and spending preferences. For Chapter II of our online conclave, we invited some of the top leaders from India’s leading automotive brands to engage in a discussion and understand their plans, while also trying to decode how the world will shape up post-Lockdown 3.0.

Panelists: Shashank Srivastava, Executive Director, Maruti Suzuki India Limited, Naveen Soni, Senior VP, Sales, and Service, Toyota Kirloskar Motor, Sohinder Gill, CEO, Hero Electric and Devashish Handa, VP, Sales, Marketing and After Sales, Suzuki Motorcycle India

Moderator: Ramesh Somani- Chief Editor and Publisher, BBC TopGear India and Exhibit

[Ramesh Somani]: Zero sales last month, I’m sure you must be rubbing your eyes in disbelief. So what customer-centric initiatives are you planning to boost sales? 

[Shashank Srivastava]: Very right, this was never expected. I have been in this industry for 30 years and have never expected zero sales in a month. But events like these happen once in a hundred years and we are just part of it this and have to face it. But unlike many people who are fearing the zero, I call it the power of zero. The power of zero to my mind is that there is a lot of new learning from this unique experience for us as professionals. Zero sales do not mean zero demand, there would be demand. Car buying is a discretionary purchase and requires a lot of positive sentiment. Sentiments can change rather quickly and hopefully going forward we will prepare ourselves better to cater to the masses when those sentiments change.

[Ramesh Somani]: Do you think an increased demand in personal mobility will help the automotive industry to bounce back?

[Naveen Soni]: We do not wish to exploit the customer’s viewpoint of using personal mobility over shared cars. That is something we do not desire. We want people to be happy, we want people to be coming in to enhance their mobility needs and then enjoy our products. Having said this, yes there will be a shift in personal mobility from shared mobility, we have to watch the new demands and requirements and adopt new normal very carefully. This is a once in a hundred-year opportunity for us, to reinvent ourselves as professionals and understand what is the new normal.

[Ramesh Somani]: Going to fuel pumps and grocery stores has been a nightmare in this lockdown, are you expecting a massive shift to electric mobility?

[Sohinder Gill]: The first move will be towards two-wheelers and there are three options, new, used and electric. People who are looking for purchases will consider economic viability as well as the cause effects on nature. The COVID-19 has shown us how a small virus can hail down the economy and people will start making environment-friendly choices, probably also agree if it has to be mobility – why not electric?

[Ramesh Somani]: Do you think small capacity motorcycle will see an increased demand once the lockdown is lifted?

[Devashish Handa]: We feel commuter motorcycles should benefit once the customers start coming in. We would expect the recovery of commuter motorcycles and scooters to be faster and they cater to the same buyer and the same need, but largely in the urban market. The premium end of the market does not depend on the demand and use of public transport, so that segment would recover steadily.

[Ramesh Somani]: How have you been keeping sane in these times?

[Shashank Srivastava]: I have realized there are a lot of things that needed to be done at home. Many activities and chores I would take for granted are now being seen as everyday essential activities. There is a lot of thinking on how the world has changed and started to work from home.

[Sohinder Gill]: I used to take pride in thinking I was the first mobile phone user or laptop user, but suddenly in the last few weeks I have realized that I am virtually illiterate. With Zoom and Skype and so many other platforms available over these years I have realized in my organization, I was not at all using them the way it has been used in the last six weeks and the potential that these platforms have to make our lives simpler is unbelievable and that is what I have been looking into so far.

[Naveen Soni]: When the whole thing started, one of my friends called me and said “Welcome to the retirement stage” but after a few weeks of settling in I can prove him wrong by the amount of work I have been working from home. It is also a great time to catch up on my yoga sessions and me and my wife have resorted to Google Duo to participate in online classes.

[Devashish Handa]: I caught up with a little bit of sociology and history but interestingly, I used to envy my college friends who used to work from home. But now I have realized there is nothing to be envious about. It’s much better to be at work and work than to be at home and work as well.

[Ramesh Somani]: With walk-ins expected to go down, how are you planning to take forward customer test drives?

[Shashank Srivastava]: It’s not just about the test drives alone, the entire car-buying journey can be divided into 28 touchpoints and the trends were going digital. Depending on the dealer and location around 17 to 21 on those touchpoints were already digital. But the current situation has made customers desire for the remaining touchpoints to be digital as well. So it is not about the touchpoints, the entire buying experience is moving towards a digital experience. We have a digital platform for test drives that manage inventories and schedules test drives automatically.

[Ramesh Somani]: Do you think offering more discounts will help boost vehicle sales? 

[Naveen Soni]: It’s not luring the customers into our dealerships that we look forward to. If the customer has made their mind they will look for offers. Before COVID-19 the customer response and thought process is changing. There will be mobility needs and all of us are here to serve those needs. There is going to be a change in the customer thought process which needs to be mapped in our future business strategies. All our existing activities have to be bucketed into three categories – stop, continue, and change. There are things which we have to stop, few things will fall into the continue bucket and most of them will need to be changed, adapting to the new normal around us.

[Ramesh Somani]: Does the lockdown affect your motorsport plans for India?

[Devashish Handa]: We have been scaling up our efforts on the Gixxer Cup, it has become one of the most popular motorsport events in the country. But this year we may have to relook and reconsider our motorsport plans.

[Ramesh Somani]: One book and one show that you have picked on in the last few weeks. 

[Shashank Srivastava]: This book by Roger Penrose – The Universe in a Nutshell, has really got me wondering how small our world is compared to the entire universal existence that it. 

[Sohinder Gill]: Only BBC and CNBC would be on during the days.

[Naveen Soni]: The Bhagavad Gita. I’ve been meaning to read this for a long time and have finally picked on. I also happen to share the same birthday as Rishi Kapoor and have watched some of his latest releases on Netflix. 

[Devashish Handa]: Not one but two shows, this is the first time in my life I watched something on OTT, very diverse shows. One side I was watching Money Heist and on the other side I was watching The Crown. 

[Ramesh Somani]: Do you see more EV-centric initiatives coming from the Government?

 [Sohinder Gill]: One thing is clear and the question of whether we need cleaner energy is put aside. There are positive changes happening. The Government is planning on peaceful co-existence of BS6-compliant vehicles along with EVs. But business and companies should start using EVs as their fleet and populating roads with these cars so people take notice and consider them as the next option.

We also conducted an online poll for the 480 people who had participated. We asked them if they would wish to purchase a car/bike post the lockdown. Interestingly, 52 percent will wait till the month of July before they visit, 18 percent would visit a showroom once the lockdown is over and the rest will not purchase a car/bike at all!