4 Customer Experience Lessons I Learned from (Almost) Buying a Car

My husband and I recently started talking seriously about trading in my sedan for a minivan or SUV.

On our buyer’s journey, we were able to complete most of the awareness and consideration phases on our own. We researched and compared different vehicles on Consumer Reports and other ratings sites. Then we turned to the USAA car buying service to check out availability and pricing. Once we felt like we had a good understanding of the vehicles we were interested in, we contacted some dealers to take test drives.

The moment we pulled up to the lot, we were surrounded – like vultures to a deer on the side of the highway. I got that dreadful feeling in my stomach as the first middle-aged man approached us with a “How can I help you today?” A simple but loaded question at a car dealership. Then came the bribes of free popcorn, Starbucks, and cookies (which, who can resist?).

I got the same feeling at each of the five dealerships we visited – we even walked out on one who “couldn’t find” the car I had called about earlier. Every experience was the same – same pitch, same pretend interest, same “let me check with the manager.” After the fifth time of hearing “We’re not like other dealerships,” I started to wonder why car dealerships and salespeople are stuck in this sales time warp, while the rest of the world has moved to a customer experience obsessed, value-adding model.

Buyer Beware

Once we left the dealerships the frustration continued as we were bombarded by salesy emails, phone calls, and text messages. I started doing a little research on why car sales haven’t evolved.

Check out this short and witty video by that gives an informative explanation.

I felt relieved and also a little defeated to know I’m so not alone in the struggle. Harvard Professor Leonard Schlesinger wrote a case study in 1989 about service in the auto industry and said, “Nothing much has changed over 25 years. The experience is still generally awful.” And 28 years later, it’s still the same.

Four Lessons From the Lot

What can we learn from these experiences as marketing professionals?

  1. Incentives may be good – Don’t think incentives, whether it’s free coffee or $1,000 off the price, can make up for the horrible experience you’re putting a prospective customer through. On the positive side, providing incentives to your potential and current clients is a nice way to show appreciation, be memorable, and foster relationships.
  2. Meet your audience where they are – If a customer is in the awareness phase, offer them valuable, actionable information that can help them at that stage in the buying process. If they’re in the decision phase then you can start “selling” – but never before. Learn more about how to support your audience through the buyer’s journey.
  3. Listen, learn, and teach – Out of the five dealerships we visited, no one asked us what we are looking for in a vehicle or explained the benefits of one car over another, or gave us an idea of maintenance costs or tips. They were so focused on making the sale they forgot to make a connection. Good marketing is all about listening to your audience, finding out their pain points, and teaching (not pitching) them how your solution can help solve their problem.
  4. Always follow up – If car salespeople are good at one thing, it’s follow-up. But, there’s a better way to go about it. According to a study for Harvard Business Review,71% of qualified leads are never followed up on. Most of the time it’s because the business doesn’t have the tools or doesn’t know how to follow up. Here are some tips for following up with leads:
    1. Whether you use a tool like SalesForce or HubSpot or even an Excel spreadsheet, keep track of your leads and where they are in the buyer’s journey.
    2. Follow up within 12-24 hours of an initial meeting to summarize the discussion and thank them for their time.
    3. Find out how they prefer to communicate (i.e., email, phone, LinkedIn, text).
    4. Follow up consistently and frequently.
    5. Personalize
    6. Provide a variety of valuable information.

Customer Management = Reputation Management

Even though I ended up walking off all five lots without my mom-car (we decided to put it off for now), I was reminded of some very valuable customer experience lessons. I hope that car sales can catch up to the rest of the world. But, in the meantime, their biggest lesson might be how not to treat customers.

We can learn from car sales tactics and try to provide the best customer experience for our clients and leads – keeping in mind where they are in the buyer’s journey.

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