What’s Missing in the Car Buying Process? A Customer Point of View

October 8, 2019

I spent the entire month of September shopping for a new vehicle. I started the month excited by the prospect of a new ride and ended up on a more confusing journey than expected, as most dealership customers experience today.

Here's what I knew going in:

  • I needed something larger than an Explorer
  • I wanted a third row and bucket seats in the second row
  • I had employee discounts from both GM and Ford available
  • After researching online, it was down to a Ford Expedition or Chevy Tahoe.

Here's what I needed from a dealer:

  • Verification that their Expedition or Tahoe had bucket seats in the second row
  • A test drive
  • The ability to use my discounts to get the best deal

That should be simple right? I had already been online so I should have been able to identify the bucket seats on my own from home, but not one of the dealer's websites had the ability to search for “bucket seats,” “Captains’ chairs” or even “7 passenger.” To make things more complicated in the Explorer the model with bucket seats is called a "6 passenger," but in an Expedition it’s called a "7 passenger." Several dealers used stock photos for their new vehicles that aren’t accurate representations, others had low quality photos, and a few had some photos just none that clearly showed the second row.

I had to contact the dealer at this point, so I filled out a web lead form and called and listened to all of the prompts before talking to a human. In three cases, I never got a call back (unbelievable in a market where new car sales are declining). I did get a few responses though and was able to move to the test drive.

The test drive goals were simple:

  • Confirm presence of bucket seats
  • Confirm more leg room (kids no longer kicking my seat)
  • Confirm stroller and other necessary stuff fit
  • Ensure new vehicle fits in my garage

A few dealers tried to force me to go through “their” process. They didn’t answer (or even read) the questions I had sent in advance. I understood what they were trying to do. They were following a script that they were trained on, but it made the experience more complicated than it needed to be and quickly frustrated me. One of them even took me back 20 years and told me I had to come in to get my questions answered and that “the best price was available in the store only.” These folks illustrated the difficulty the industry is having adjusting to the new world. I was a ready-to-sign sale. It doesn’t get any easier. All I needed was access to the car. By standing literally between me and the test drive, they lost my business, but more importantly they reinforced stereotypes that hurt our industry, that the dealership is not an easy or fun place to do business and salespeople aren’t here to help, they’re here to “sell” me.

The best dealers listened to me. They responded to the requests in my email (my preferred method of communication) and had the vehicle pulled up and ready for a test drive. I was able to quickly get in the vehicle drive it to my house, pull it into my garage, test my requirements and get it back to the dealer all in about 30 minutes. After one test drive with each, I eliminated the Tahoe as leg room in the second row was about the same as the Explorer.

Here’s where the complexity went to the next level and even the good dealers struggled to help me. Admittedly my access to discounts was unique, but I have to imagine that everyone wants to understand discounts and deals that could apply to them and that every financial situation is unique.

In my case, I wanted to leverage a few different rebates/incentives:

  • “A Plan” (employee discount)
  • “Lease Loyalty” (currently leasing a Ford)
  • “Conquest” (also leasing a different brand in my house)

As we dug in, we found that there was not only a rebate on a specific model, and specific trim, but on a specific package. That detail was not clear online, only if you spoke to an educated dealer. Not all dealers knew of the available rebate, I actually had to prompt a few I shopped. The other challenge was, once you knew of the rebate on this package you couldn’t possibly search online to find it. It requires knowing that the rim and headlight combination is the key to what qualified this vehicle. Once you know the level of discount depends on the rims and headlights, the lack of consistency in how different dealers advertise their prices on new vehicles created yet another level of complexity and confusion. Some sites show MSRP, some show price net every available discount and not one site allows you to filter past package into this particular variation of the specific package that would actually deliver the highest total value for me. This was not only difficult for me, but for the Ford dealers I was working with at this point, who all genuinely wanted to find me the best deal possible.

In the end of the ten dealerships I engaged with, two of them handled things extremely well. Only one had the available vehicle that qualified for the additional rebate and I took delivery the last day of the month. If I had been a less motivated customer, I may have given up much earlier in the process. I may have decided to get a pre-owned Expedition from Carvana or Vroom and skip the hassle. Customers have lots of options today that didn't exist before. The OEMs still have a heavy influence on how business is done with new cars. The complex and ever-changing rebates and incentives don’t make things any easier for consumers or dealers. The dealer fully controls how they want to run their pre-owned operation though. Opportunities to simplify finding, trying, and buying vehicles on the used car side are in abundance. The appeal of a pre-owned vehicle is increasing. Had I not had all of those rebates and incentives and been in a lease friendly state that new Expedition would have been about $30,000 more than a 1-to-2-year-old Expedition that looks nearly identical. If a customer can get last year’s top model delivered to their doorstep, how willing are they to endure a poor experience? In this new world of “digital retail” how can you simplify all of this for your customers and future proof your dealership?

Here are a few recommendations:

1.) Impeccable Merchandising - Start with having all of the data you possibly can available on your VDPs. If a key piece of information like a unique package qualifying for a rebate that month is available include it in the description and make it stand out. When you demo a vehicle, take it home and see if it fits in a standard garage. If it does say that.

2.) Photos That Answer Questions - Keep a set of golf clubs, a stroller, and 2 car seats at your dealership. Take photos with these items in the vehicle and include them online. Make sure features like second row “bucket seats” are clearly pictured. If it is equipped with Wi-Fi think about including a picture of an iPad on Wi-Fi in the vehicle. Any parent knows this is an important feature.

3.) An Educated Staff that Listens - What is the customer looking for? What hurdles do they have to buying this vehicle? They can’t just be experts on your vehicles, they need to be experts on your competition's vehicles so they can address the market comparisons. They need to know if the second row is substantially smaller or if the payments are over $100 higher on average. They need to know why you’re the place to buy a car from. Do you have free service loaners? A 7-day return policy? What makes you different than price alone?

4.) A Pulse On Your Competition - Do you actually look at their sites and shop them regularly? Don’t simply rely on your pricing tool (the same pricing tool everyone else is likely using) to make yourself stand out. How can you make yourself unique in a sea of commodities? When a customer calls your competition, do they get a prompted voicemail? Make sure you have a live person. When someone calls your competition, do they force them through a rigid process? Listen, be transparent and simply answer their questions. Does your competition take a long time to call back a lead? Focus your team on urgency. Does your competition send canned auto respond emails? Make yours real and personalized.

5.) Understandable Payments - Ensure your customer fully understands why their payment is what it is. Don’t assume they understand how term, rate, down payments, residuals, rebates, etc. work. Most people don’t. Don’t assume your site (likely the same site all of your competitors are using) is doing a good job here. It isn’t. This is true with both used cars and new cars. Your competitor may have quoted a payment with more down or due at signing. They may have quoted a payment with a longer term or a rate the customer can’t qualify for. Remember, seek first to understand then to be understood. If you don’t take the time to ask questions and fully understand your customer and what’s important to them, they likely won’t fully understand you and what you have to offer.

Doing these things alone won’t solve all of your problems. But they will make an immediate difference with your team and your customers if you implement them. Simplify the process for your customers and you’ll be surprised by the positive results. Driving the changes needed at your dealership is difficult, but necessary to ensure success in a consumer-centered world.