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Innovation: Lessons From a Car Shopping Experience

My wife and I are shopping for a new car. We know what features we want and have narrowed the field to three different vehicles — the Acura MDX, the Honda Pilot, and the Toyota Highlander (ideally a hybrid). This past weekend we set out to test drive all three vehicles to help determine which of the three vehicle best presented those features – and hopefully move us closer to a final decision. Before I tell you what happened, let me share a quick thought about sales and marketing.

My wife and I are shopping for a new car. We know what features we want and have narrowed the field to three different vehicles — the Acura MDX, the Honda Pilot, and the Toyota Highlander (ideally a hybrid). This past weekend we set out to test drive all three vehicles to help determine which of the three vehicle best presented those features – and hopefully move us closer to a final decision.

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Before I tell you what happened, let me share a quick thought about sales and marketing.

In my view, every interaction between an organization and an individual member of their audience is a transaction, of equal importance to the one immediately prior or the one to follow. Every review, every welcome you receive when you first enter an office, every e-mail or phone call to customer service impacts the decision-making process of your audience on an equally important level. Do that well, and you will be successful. Make mistakes and they will haunt you.

Our experience at the car dealership showed me how true this really is in practice.

Here is what happened:

First we visited the Acura dealer. The dealer was knowledgeable, answered all our questions about the MDX — even making reasonable comparisons to its competitors (and not all of them favorable, which suggested to me that they were probably true and not motivated completely by the desire to close the deal) — and didn’t try too hard to make a sale. We left with a good feeling about the MDX.

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Our second stop was at the Honda dealer. There were so many oddities during our visit that I could go on for several pages, but I will highlight just three of them quickly. 1) My wife and I were sitting in the front seat of the floor model of the Pilot exploring the features when we were first approached by the dealer. My wife asked the woman to tell us more about the car, but the dealer responded instead “Why don’t you go sit at my desk and we can talk” and proceeded to walk across the office to her cubicle – far away from the vehicles. When pressed further for details about the vehicle, the woman said “I don’t really know, the new models just arrived and they haven’t told us anything about them.” 2) We explained our desire to test drive the Pilot, noting that we still had to test drive other vehicles before we made a decision about a timeline for purchasing. The woman responded by asking us to answer a questionnaire (how did we hear about the dealership, what features are we looking for in a vehicle, etc.) – and when our answers did not match with the options provided (the options for buying timeline were today, this week, this month, or two months – and we answered ‘we don’t have a timeline, we aren’t sure when we are going to buy’) she said “well we have to enter something’ and put what she decided was appropriate. 3) After completing a test drive, my wife and I thanked the dealer and prepared to leave. She pleaded for us to wait so a manager could thank us for our visit. The manager approached a few minutes later and said “If I gave you a discount, would you buy?” Some thank you. We explained again that we were not going to buy today and that we had other vehicles to test drive and he responded “Before you go researching things to death, I will give you a Pilot today, for the price I paid for it, no markup. That’s what you are going to be looking up anyway – I’ll just give you that price right now.” We thanked the dealer and walked out, still interested in the Pilot but definitely turned off by our dealer experience.

Our third and final stop was at the Toyota dealer. Just as we had done at the other two dealerships, my wife and I started by sitting in the floor model of the vehicle we were interested in, a 2007 Toyota Highlander in this case, to explore the features. After ten minutes, no dealer approached to offer help. When we inquired about a test drive, we were assigned to a dealer who, like the Honda representative before him, asked us a number of standardized questions about our purchase plans. We made very clear to the dealer that we were interested only in the Highlander and that our goal was to go on a test drive. His responded by telling us that we should instead consider buying a RAV-4, saying it was a vehicle that would match our interests — which is fascinating, since we had just explained that our interest was in driving a Highlander. He asked us question, after question, after question about our preferences – and again, and again, and again, we reminded him that we had come with a single purpose and that was to drive a Highlander. Finally we were permitted to test drive the vehicle. After the test drive, we told the dealer that we liked the Highlander a lot and asked for a brochure so we could explore features and pricing on our own. Not only didn’t he have a brochure to give us, he again pressed his case for the RAV-4. We got up to leave and the dealer notified his manager with a hand signal. The manager thanked us and pressed us on a timeline to buy — never emerging from behind the high counter where he sat, never even rising from his chair. My wife and I discussed the experiences on our way home and agreed that we were most enamored with the Highlander, though we would have to find another dealership to visit if we were even going to consider a purchase.

Our experience is probably far from unique, but it was still largely disappointing. My wife and I made very clear what we were looking for from each dealer we visited – there was absolutely no way that they could not have understood what we were asking from them. The Acura dealer responded appropriately, tailoring his sales effort to meet our needs. The other two did not. Whatever playbook the Toyota and Honda dealers (who, by the way, are owned by the same person) are using needs to be changed.

Are our expectations out of whack? I don’t believe so. The most important thing that organizations can do is listen and learn. Customers engage more deeply with organizations that listen to their needs and respond by providing more targeted information or better value propositions. My wife and I are unlikely to engage with organizations that offer cookie-cutter replies or processes. We have high expectations of the organizations we deal with and how those organizations should interact with us. It is about more than just products and service—it is about the total package.

There are numerous pieces to the relationship you have with your audience—how you initially engage them, how each individual transaction is handled (whether that is a purchase or some sort of other exchange or conversation), how you deliver your product or service, and how well you follow up and connect between cycles. Organizations can’t control every aspect of their audience’s experience, only the ones they have direct contact with. But you sure as heck better do those well. As an organization, you must plan and execute your efforts so that you remain in control and focused on your core goals, while still giving an appropriate amount of input and deference to your audience.

A car dealer wants to sell you a car – I get that. But when we explain that we want to test drive a certain vehicle and will decide later about a purchase, the immediate response from the dealer should be to facilitate a test drive – not challenge our answers to a questionnaire, not wax poetic about the features of another vehicle. Just let us drive the damn car. In short, don’t differentiate by what you do, differentiate by who you do it for – and how well you do it. And don’t buy a Honda or Toyota at the dealership we visited.

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Brian is the author of the forthcoming Media Rules!: Mastering Today’s Technology to Connect With and Keep Your Audience. It will be published by Wiley & Sons in November.

Brian is the Direct of New Media at Cone Inc. • Boston, MA • breich@coneinc.com www.coneinc.com