The Rather LARGE Reality Gap in the Car Buying Customer Experience

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Mar 07 2014, Posted by Gary Lee

I recently decided to buy a new car. My 14-year old car was showing its age, and repair bills were quickly adding up. This was my first car purchase in over 10 years, and I was therefore unsure of what to expect from the experience of dealing with car salespeople and “haggling” over price in the dealership.

The Role of the Dealership in the Customer Journey

Pre-Internet Days — The dealership was a place for price-setting. In the 1980s and 1990s (either before the web, or in the very early days of it), car buying was pure agony. It could literally take hours playing cat and mouse games with the dealership salesperson and the ever-mysterious “Oz-like” sales manager hidden in some back room where pricing decisions were won or lost. In these pre-Internet days, the salesperson and sales process were in charge of the path to purchase. Regardless of whether I was ready to buy, I was at the mercy of an endless cycle of price negotiations before the transaction could be made. In these days, the role of the dealership was to sell the most cars at the highest price/margin while haggling with the customer at every step of the way.

2014+ — The dealership should focus on an enjoyable car buying experience. My expectations for purchasing a car in 2014 were simple and vastly different than my pre-Internet expectations. After a few hours of research on both social media and various websites, I was able to narrow down the various makes & models to a handful I was really interested in. Even before I took the first test drive, or entered the first dealership, I had a deep knowledge about my vehicle choices, the prices I could expect to pay, and even the value of my trade-in. As a customer, I was empowered to make a decision, and I looked at the interaction with the dealership more in terms of selecting the final car colors, options and features based on test drives, than wondering what the final negotiations would bring. As I visited several auto dealers in the metro area, I encountered a rather large reality gap between my expectations and the reality of what dealers did to represent the automotive brands and attempt to earn my business.

Dealership Model #1: Sell Like it’s 1977

My experience at the first dealership mimicked the bulk of my dealer interactions. It was a very large dealership close to my home, and they launched right into hard-sell tactics in an attempt to get me to buy. If I was blindfolded, I would have guessed the salespeople were wearing leisure suits and headed to a Discotheque after work (and if you don’t get this reference, you may have been born after 1975). I was never asked any questions that might allow the sales associate to understand where I was in my path to purchase. Otherwise, they would have realized that I had done my research and was prepared to buy after test driving a few cars.

Before I could leave, I was herded into a private office with uncomfortable chairs, gray walls, salesman-of-the-year trophies, breath mints and other decor reminiscent of torture chambers, where I waited for the sales manager to make his grand entrance. Upon arrival, he asked me “what will it take to get you into a car today?”. My response of “just give it to me for free and pay for my four kids to go to college” was neither accepted, nor frankly even appreciated for its absurd response to an absurd question.

When I followed up the next day asking for a quote via email on a vehicle, I was told that they only offered pricing through in-person meetings, not over email. It’s incredible to note that this dealership had just spent a huge amount of money redesigning their physical showroom and entire dealership, but had clearly spent little time or money thinking about why customers come there, how and why they wish to engage, or how they wish to make purchase decisions.

Dealership #1 viewed the experience with me as one of closing a deal same day with hard-nosed sales tactics. The promise of a quick, easy, and fair car buying experience claimed by this, and many other, dealerships definitely failed to live up to reality. The reality gap between my expectations for experiencing and ultimately buying car brand X in the dealership, and what I actually experienced was huge. And I walked away from buying because of it.

Dealership #2: It’s 2014, We Get it

In sharp contrast, a large dealership about 30 minutes from my home grasped where I was in the buying process by asking me a series of questions that included the research I had done online. With that information, the salesperson moved away from being in the path to “purchase on price”, and toward being a consultant to select the model, features and colors I wanted. He changed the conversation to one where he assumed I was going to buy at a price that we both knew was readily available online, and focused on helping me find the vehicle I wanted in order to make the sale. After one showroom visit, we settled on a price via a single email and the salesperson then brought in the make, model and options I wanted from an out-of-state dealer. I was then able to handle everything else by email before visiting the dealership one last time to test drive the vehicle I wanted and to go through a painless paper-signing process in a comfortable office.

Dealership #2 understood the role they played in the buying process and customer journey that I, and most like me, are on today. Before I ever entered their physical space, I already had a list of what I wanted, and what I expected to pay. They leveraged that knowledge to guide me into the vehicle that best met my needs, and never once haggled on the price, which was far below any sticker price, but readily available on the web, albeit on the lower end of web prices.

This dealership was setup to educate, inform, answer questions and help with financing options more so than the traditional sales tactics. In fact, their sales managers were very visible and readily available to ensure customers were being helped, not setting mysterious pricing. Overall, it was designed with the customer experience in mind. They understood how and why I sought to buy from them, thus introducing hassle-free buying that married the in-dealership visit with out-of-dealership communications and deal-setting over email and phone.

The reality gap between my expectations for experiencing and ultimately buying car brand X in this dealership, and what I actually experienced was very small. They were designed in their workflows and even physical facilities to accommodate me as a buyer, and support my buying process. They earned my business and sold a car because of it. Unfortunately, this car buying experience did not represent the norm, but rather the anomaly.

Have you designed your physical spaces and interactions though the lens of customer experiences?

How do your customers enter the market to buy? Is your in-store, or on-premise presence optimized to meet them where they likely are on their customer journey to purchase? What is the need to attract, educate, assure or close customers on-premise? What are the reality gaps between you and your customers? How do you measure these gaps, and how do you fix them to improve sales, increase brand loyalty and other key metrics? InReality can help. Contact us today to discuss how.
Image Copyright: bialasiewicz / 123RF Stock Photo

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