Car dealerships need to be training-up product experts as well as great salespeople

By Paul Smith, Director, Traka Automotive

We hear a great deal about changes that are afoot in the dealership world. We know that car buyers take fewer trips to dealerships before making a new car purchase these days. The main reason for this is that a whole lot of online research is going on before they arrive in your dealership.

So, customers are most likely to arrive in your dealership today to ‘go physical’, test driving a chosen vehicle, getting an in-depth briefing on some shortlisted options, or to educate themselves better about financing options and interior finishes.

But after all that online research, they could be a massively qualified lead – if only you could get inside their heads or, more specifically, their web browser history. However, without some very slick marketing automation which feeds their browsing history to your mobile device in the blink of an eye (that’s also coming if you listen to some tech futurologists covering this market), you are not going to have access to that intelligence unless they start talking.

This new dynamic means your sales agents’ listening abilities are the key to initial engagement. It’s critical that sales agents don’t see pound signs in their eyes and begin selling them on that brand-spanking new family estate when they are actually looking for a small car for their daughter who is 21 next month and has just passed her test.

It’s the reason why some prestige brands, BMW and Audi most noticeably, have begun changing the mix of staff they have in their dealerships. So out goes the commission-hungry pack of wolves fighting to get at the fresh sales ‘meat’ and in come product geniuses for an in-depth look at the car(s) of interest to the customer, together with a demonstration of the latest infotainment packages, upgrade options, in-car features and dashboard controls.

This is quite a change for dealerships in HR terms as they need to begin hiring people with attributes that previously they were not looking for. Most DPs know a sales dog when they see one but do they know a would-be product genius? It’s much more difficult. It also may mean higher payroll costs as current heavy dependence on commission for salaries has to be reduced for the genius concept to work.

This move becomes all the more pressing as cars become increasingly sophisticated and functionally-rich. Masses of computing power is now embedded into new cars. For their optimal use, you need to be able to navigate multi-layered on-dashboard menus and many more controls than drivers used to have. The result: like our smart phones, we only put to work a fraction of the functionality that is already at our fingertips.

However, in the absence of being able to ask our car directly how to make a set-up change - although this too is coming down the pipe if you read the latest from the collaboration between BMW and IBM Watson to create the next generation of driver-assistance capabilities or computer-driven ‘conversational interfaces between cars and drivers’ – we still rely for much of this information on the dealer in the first instance. This is a genuine opportunity for dealers to get and stay close to existing customers – they need to grab it with both hands or leave the OEM to fill the education void.

No surprise then that we are seeing an increasing shift to imparting that information in a more digestible visual format through online video demonstrations, 3D walk-throughs and even more sophisticated, or the big budget ‘digital dealership’ big screen configurator experience that we’ve seen deployed in some of the smaller foot-print, high value, urban sites like Audi City on Piccadilly.

If your dealership does not have all this technology set up already you might need to plan for it in your next showroom refresh. In the meantime, beware of information overload at new car handover point. Watch customers’ eyes glaze over as you talk them through the fifteenth configuration option when really all they are focusing on is getting off your forecourt and out onto the open road for the first time with their shiny new car. Why not offer a post-sale in-depth session back at the dealership to answer some of the questions that have cropped up in the first couple of weeks of use?

Alternatively, you could offer them an in-depth immersion experience with an expert in their car’s capabilities. This works particularly well for Land Rover that offers Land Rover off-road Experience days following the purchase of any of their 4x4s.

Porsche famously offer all new Porsche owners a day’s racing experience at Silverstone. These are not only great talking-points which inspire brand loyalty. They also enable manufacturers to show the full functionality and capabilities of the car they have recently bought.

The message then is that dealers need to help their customers understand more about the vehicle they are considering buying, enabling them explore its full potential as well as working through the usual discussions about financing options, trim colours, and upgrade options. Assigning a genius to one new, higher-end vehicle may be one way to start down this road.

Some people may still not be interested in the detail but it is important to recognise that a good portion of those arriving in your dealership already have the basics on the models they are interested in gleaned from earlier internet research and they are looking to go to the next level talking to a real expert.