Seven years ago, when I started at Sioux Falls Ford, I knew very little about the car business. I had purchased vehicles before, but was never involved in the internal workings of a car dealership. I was fascinated and absorbed all I could, from vehicle and product knowledge, to how the business was run.
A few months later I was asked to join a forthcoming team of Internet sales consultants. Unlike the rest of the staff, we were to never set foot on the lot. Our job would be to handle all the inquiries from the web. Many of the leads later turned out to be from seriously interested buyers.
The formation of the new team proved a good move and through the spring and summer of 2009, we chugged along. Incidentally, that summer happened to be quite hot in Sioux Falls so being inside was a nice, unexpected perk.
The more I became accustomed to dealership life and my sales team, the more I realized a particular trend with my customers. They were reaching out, through the Internet, believing it was somehow safer, easier, and more on their terms. I think many people are intimidated by car dealerships – and with good reason. Some car dealerships are not the best places to shop and as a result, the good stores, like Sioux Falls Ford, get lumped into the same category.
There are the usual reasons people are hesitant to enter a car dealership: not being shown the best deal, undue pressure, and the fear of actually falling in love and purchasing the car. However, there was one other I observed in both the sales department and later, in service. People are intimidated by the sheer sensory overload of a car dealership.
Think about it? Have you ever been inside a massive service drive? There are people walking about everywhere, phones ringing, cars lined up, staff being paged over the speakers; it can be a zoo. How about a large, pristine showroom? Depending on the day, that can almost seem eerily quiet. And then there is the size of some dealerships. Sioux Falls Ford, for example, takes up a smaller sized city block. It was always in my best interest, when meeting with a customer, to reduce these elements as quickly as possible.
However, in the comfort of your home, you don’t have the sensory overload of a dealership. You research and shop on your own time, in your own way. My biggest challenge was making the dealership seem like an extension of a living room.
These days, a sales consultant at a dealership will most likely encounter a customer that knows as much as they do about vehicles. With regard to product knowledge, the Internet has leveled the playing field. For example, we have an extensive vehicle reviews section and First Look series written by industry experts, Denis Flierl and Rahul Raman. Those articles involve test drives, engine and fuel economy specs, advantages and disadvantages to owning, and pricing and availability.
And we are just one of.
Customers I met felt if they were equipped with such knowledge when visiting the dealership, they were going to get a better deal. Furthermore, it was a way for them to size up the consultant they were dealing with – do they really know their stuff about cars or are they just a slick sales gun?
That’s why you see some dealerships push for sales consultants to get Master Certified from the manufacturer. Granted, you can sell cars successfully with the base certification, but a Master Certification keeps a well informed gear head, who loves cars, negotiates hard, and reads automotive publications on the regular, from mopping the showroom with you.
The challenge today for many dealerships is how to embrace the ever increasing trend. Automakers themselves are looking at changing how their namesake embraces and welcomes potential customers. Some of how this is happening was detailed in a Ford study at the end of 2015.
How do you feel about researching and shopping for a vehicle online? Do you believe it’s an effective and necessary step before heading to your local dealership? The graphic below from our friends at Rawhide Ranch details more about how the Internet has changed the way we purchase cars. After you read through the graphic, make sure you see our guide on the 27 things you should consider before buying a pre-owned vehicle.
*Carl Anthony is Managing Editor of Automoblog and resides in Detroit, Michigan.