The Hard Sell

While the Internet has democratized the buying process for pretty much everything, the new car buying process remains, for many, a frustrating experience.  According to JD Power and Associates, over 60% of Americans said that they hate the new car buying experience. A recent Edmunds.com poll showed that people found that not only was buying a new car more stressful than getting married, they’d rather do their taxes or even give up sex for a month. 

What would it take to put you in this car today?

After putting off buying a new car for a LONG time, it was time to jump back into the fray. My son was starting college, and needed to drive. I had the choice of buying him a cheap, used (and potentially unreliable) car, or giving him my (still reliable) 2007 car, which just clicked over 100,000 miles. Years ago, that would have meant the car was ready for the scrap heap, but today’s cars frequently hit 150,000 to 200,000 miles and higher before that happens. So, I compared buying a newer used car for myself, and decided that I would at least test the waters in the new car showroom.

I found that, in the last 12 years, a lot has changed. It’s easy to get invoice prices, compare features and even get multiple reviews from professional and amateur reviewers, as well as get extensive reliability data from many sources. Providers like Carfax and AutoCheck give visibility into a car’s history. Still, the actual sales experience varies greatly for many customers.

From my last go-r0und, I remembered having to sit for a long time, while the salesperson ‘went to talk to their manager’. I think that may have been a euphemism for ‘I’m going to lunch.’ After several iterations of offer and counteroffer, a number was reached, sometimes more out of exhaustion than actual negotiation. From there, that number magically increased several times, through ‘processing fees’, ‘dealer advertising’ and other unexplainable phenomena. Even then, we weren’t finished. Now, it was time for the up-sell for add-ons like paint protection, undercoating and extended warranties. The car that was just sold as the most reliable machine ever built was now so fragile that it needed 6-year, bumper-to-bumper no-deductible protection (all for a paltry $79.95 per month). Add on the ‘special’ dealer financing, the car nearly doubled from its original advertised price.

This time, it was different. I had already decided that I wasn’t going to sit through endless negotiations or deal with multiple add-ons.  There were enough good used cars available through outlets like Hertz Car Sales and CarMax, that I could walk in, pick one out, and be done with the whole process….and still have a nice, reliable (and affordable) car.  That being said, if I could make it work, I’d rather have a new one. I found a number of buying services that advertised a competitive, no-haggle experience. I compared the services, picked the one that worked best for me, and put the wheels in motion (so to speak). I got prices from 4 different dealers, and ‘interviewed’ them remotely. After reading up on reputations, customer experiences and learning what to look for, I finalized a price with the preferred dealer, and was able to wrap up the entire transaction in a reasonable time…..with an actual positive overall experience. There was some minor up-sell, which I expected, but when I said, “Thanks, but no thanks”, they actually listened.  After the deal was finalized, check handed over, and license plates on the car…THEN the salesperson spent 45 minutes going over EVERY feature on the car. Last time, the guy just handed me the keys.

Having gone through the experience, I think there are some important lessons to be learned for car dealers who want to sell more cars:

1) Be Transparent.  Invoice prices and other details are easily available over the Internet, and EVERYBODY has access to them.  If you are playing smoke and mirrors with the numbers, it’s easy for the customer to get confused. Some of them might buy because they don’t really understand  how much it’s really costing them, but confusion doesn’t generate repeat buyers.

2) Listen to the Customer. When I contacted dealers to tell them what I was looking for, I got a number of responses that ranged from clear, concise answers to vague, ‘come on in and we’ll talk’. One dealer in particular, had said they had a specific vehicle in stock, with a specified price. I made an appointment to test-drive the car….and they didn’t have it available. I asked them if they could get it, and I’d come back in a couple hours. When I came back, they had one ‘just like it’ (it wasn’t), and they didn’t even have the model I was looking for. Since most of the communication was over e-mail, they weren’t even reading, let alone listening.

3) Make it a Win-Win. Too many times, these transactions are seen as adversarial. Dealers sell thousands of cars a year, individuals buy (maybe) one car every several years. Since the dealer has much more experience, the customer only has two tools at their disposal – information and their wallet. If the relationship is adversarial, both sides are looking to gain the advantage, which is going to leave one side resentful of the end result. If you focus on making it beneficial to both sides, than you’ll gain more business over the long term, because that happy customer is going to tell their friends. If they feel like they were taken advantage of….you can bet they’ll be telling their friends…and their friends, too.

The dealer I ended up going with did all of the above, and I couldn’t be happier with the result. I’ve been happy to share my experience with my friends, because I got the car I wanted, at a fair price, and the dealer treated me like a repeat customer from the first interaction. (Which  means that I’ll likely be a repeat customer). That’s how it should work.

What have you found makes for a positive sales experience?

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