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What Are Your Customers Thinking?

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As unfortunate as it may be, I’m sure none of us are capable of reading customer minds. If you were, you certainly wouldn’t be reading this. Recently however, I was able to experience something almost as good – I got to be a customer!

Here’s the brief backstory. My oldest daughter has long fantasized about owning a Camaro. She’s been saving her money, listened to her auto experienced father, and opted for a pre-owned vehicle. She has very specific wants in term of color and equipment, most notably represented by the fact that she’s very proud of her ability to drive a manual transmission vehicle (taught by her loving father, of course) and wants a six speed. Obviously this is a rather unique vehicle that is going to require a larger market area search than would be typical.

Based my company’s research, and the feedback we’ve gathered from our work with dealership Internet prospects, she is a very typical young adult vehicle purchaser. She knows exactly what she wants, and is very inflexible on her requirements, right down to the color and wheels (black, with silver). She began her search using a 250 mile radius on the used vehicle listing websites, and eventually moved onto a 500 mile radius. When she located a few cars that met her criteria, she asked Dad to look into them. Here’s where the real story begins.

I sent very thorough website inquiries to eleven different dealerships through their own websites. In these inquiries I outlined my interest in their vehicle, including the facts that it was for my daughter, that she had no trade, had $6,000 cash down, a bureau score in the upper 700’s, and wanted to do something right now. In short, this should have glared out as a very good lead, especially on a vehicle that most Midwestern dealers would like to be out of before the temperatures plummet.

The range of responses I’ve received so far has really surprised me. Five dealerships never responded – AT ALL! It’s been our experience as a company that helps dealerships fix Internet sales departments that this is typically caused by two things: One, the dealership CRM is assigning the new lead incorrectly; or two, the used vehicle leads aren’t monitored by the factory and so the requirement for a timely response, or apparently ANY response, is ignored. And incidentally, in almost every case I did include my office phone number.

Of the six dealerships that did respond to me, three of them sent a series of canned auto-responses that ignored the information I included in my inquiry, and in short did nothing to convince me of why their vehicle and dealership was a good place for my kid to drop her 18k. In fact, one of the auto-response emails I got said “Is this a good email address to reach you at?” Yes, I’m being serious. In general, the responses described the dealership’s commitment to taking care of me, which certainly wasn’t evidenced by the complete lack of a personalized response to my inquiry.

Three of the dealerships did a very good job with their initial email response. They specifically addressed my inquiry, they indicated that they were familiar with the vehicle and promoted how nice it was (including references to it having “a clean CarFax,” and being “a one-owner trade-in,” things that most prospective used car purchasers like to hear). Where they lacked was in their follow-up to their initial reply. I responded to all of them, and made offers fairly close to the asking prices listed on the websites. In only one instance did a dealership engage in some kind of online negotiation with me, the others used the “come in to get your best deal” philosophy.

Honestly, even though I make my living helping dealers do a better job with online shoppers, I was still disappointed by how poorly my leads were handled by most of the dealerships I contacted. As a company, we have found that typically, used vehicle departments tend to be less proficient in their handling of Internet leads than their new vehicle counterparts, probably because of factory applied (albeit often not helpful) pressure to respond to online inquiries.

What lessons can we take from this? Simply put, a lot of dealerships, dealership managers, and dealership salespeople are having a difficult time accepting that Internet vehicle shopping has changed the way people are selecting their cars. Like it or don’t like it, it doesn’t really matter. The process has changed from one where dealerships could control a prospects buying experience, to one where the customer has almost total control of everything. “Come on in to get your best deal” is always worth a try, but dealerships that cling to that mantra as their only philosophy are going to lose sales to dealerships that aren’t afraid to tackle these buyers head on, by giving them what they want and need to make the decision to buy.

What’s the end of the story? Well you can blame Dad, but she’s still looking. The one we (OK, mostly me) liked the best, from the dealership and salesperson who worked hard to get her business, got bought up by another six-speed Camaro fan before we could put a deal together online. And before you chortle and say, “See? That’s why you shouldn’t try to negotiate online!” remember, she’s ready to go, but she isn’t in any great hurry. She knows we’ll find one, exactly like she wants, at what she (OK, me again) considers a good price. And the dealership that did a good job has already sold one vehicle, the others did not.