The allure of shiny new things has certainly been tempered by the global shut-down, but desire is only diminished, not entirely dispatched. We can look, but not touch. The virtual showroom has been an essential means of specifying cars for many years now, with ‘configurators’ proliferating across every brand that allow you to paint, trim, specify and spin the model of your choice to an exacting specification. Ordering is then a click away, with some companies going further by giving you an immersive VR experience of ‘your’ design before pulling the trigger on production.

But what of luxury brands? Almost since the automobile’s inception, luxury has equated to bespoke, a process that demands hand-holding and special treatment along every stage. Bentley are diversifying their traditional online offering into a service that goes a little bit further, with actual interaction between potential customer and one of the car-maker’s design team. Brett Boydell, head of interior design at Bentley, explains how it works. ‘We’re effectively allowing customers to directly access members of the design team,’ he says, ‘we’re always looking for ways to improve the customer experience and they’re often bamboozled by the amount of options available.’

Bentley interior

Bentley Flying Spur customised interior

The Bentley Co-Creation program began long before phrases like ‘self-isolation’ had even entered the language. However, as Boydell notes, ‘it was always intended to be a digital process. We have to combine these appointments with our day to day work and although this is more challenging with different time zones, Co-Creation is something that can be expanded into the virtual world.’ The original system was about extending Bentley’s personal relationship with potential customers. After making contact through their dealer or the Bentley Network app, the customer is invited to take an interactive survey that results in their very own mood board, showing their interests, favourite colours, materials, combinations, atmospheres, etc., from a stock selection of imagery chosen by Bentley’s own design team. ‘We then create a specification alongside this mood board, using their suggestions and send it back for comment,’ Boydell explains.

‘Sometimes they just say we’ve done it. But other times it starts a conversation about making a much more daring statement.’ Typically, this involves creating a screen sharing session and setting up Bentley’s online configurator software so that so a designer can ‘sit’ alongside the customer as they run through the options. ‘Of course, they can also work by emails and texts if they like,’ Boydell says, but the instant feedback available through the website is the best approach. ‘We want customers to not only enjoy the creative process but also to love their cars. They’re an expression of their personality,’ says Boydell, ‘where we often find this approach is most successful is when we’re launching a new car, simply because there are no physical examples of the model on hand to distract them.’ While customers like the design-led process because of the confidence it engenders, it also emboldens Bentley’s many worldwide dealers. It’s hard to conceive buying such a bespoke object as instant gratification, but some markets demand a healthy stock of vehicles for exactly this reason.

‘We have to uphold the standards of Bentley,’ Boydell concludes, ‘it’s a different individual experience for each customer.’ There are a vast number of combinations; the new Flying Spur’s interior has 17 main hide colours, 11 secondary colours and 5 interior colour splits, for example. Having a designer on hand is the ultimate in customer service, pointing the way towards bold ideas and – gently – reigning in more outlandish ideas. But if even that’s not enough, Bentley’s digital co-creation team is more than happy to hand a customer on to the Mulliner department, where the sky truly is the limit. The customer, after all, is always right. §