Auto Sales and the Dealership Experience
A new round of auto shows is about to begin. There are many appealing vehicles out there already or coming soon to a dealership near you. Their manufacturers continue to work hard at developing new vehicles that you will want to buy.
One area that could use some improvement to stimulate sales is the dealership experience. Lexus, Acura and Infiniti recognized and acted upon this opportunity years ago. While their approaches varied, there was one constant. Treat the customers right from the beginning and sales would follow.
On the other hand, here is an example of what not to do. This is a true story. It actually occurred to me yesterday. Look at it like an inning in baseball: three strikes and you’re out.
I am fortunate to have two cars: one (a Mazda Miata) is for fun and the other (a Toyota Prius) is for economical, practical, everyday use. Lately I’ve been toying with the idea of replacing my fun car, even though it only has about 5,000 miles on it.
My short list of potential fun car candidates includes the Pontiac Solstice, Shelby GT500, Honda S-2000, Chevrolet Corvette, Porsche Boxster and Porsche Cayman S. Today I ran errands in my Miata, hoping to find time afterwards to stop at a Chevrolet dealer to look at Corvettes and perhaps explore the trade-in value of my Miata.
I arrived at a Chevrolet dealership about half an hour before their closing time. A salesman came up to greet me. So far, so good.
I did not identify myself as an automotive journalist. I was dressed casually and driving my red Miata, which is in excellent condition.
The salesman asked me if I was there to look at anything in particular. I told him that I was considering the purchase of a new Corvette with the sport suspension and possibly the paddle shift-actuated automatic transmission, which I’d heard good things about but had never tried.
He said that while they had manual and automatic Corvettes in stock, they did not have a paddle shift automatic. When I asked why, he told me that they just get those in when ordered for specific customers. However, when he took me into the showroom he discovered that their automatic was indeed a paddle shift model. Unfortunately it did not have the sport suspension I wanted. I asked him how long it would take to special order a Corvette. His answer met my needs. Still, so far so good, but not for long.
While I like the precision of a manual transmission, driving with one in our increasingly heavy traffic is not fun. The paddle shift automatic might be a better alternative if it upshifts and downshifts reasonably quickly.
I asked my salesman if I could test-drive a Corvette with the paddle shift automatic, since I had never driven one before. He told me that taking one for a test-drive was out of the question, since their Corvette buyers do not want to take delivery of new cars that have been driven by other customers. I told him that I would not consider buying a car with paddle shifts if I could not drive one first, to see if I like it. He told me that I could only drive one if a used one came in to the dealership. Instead, he suggested that I contact a Los Angeles area dealer, speculating that they might have more Corvettes available and be more open to letting me test drive one. STRIKE ONE.
I asked about whether I would be able to buy a new Corvette from them at a ‘good’ price. He proudly proclaimed that while other dealers were selling Corvettes at up to $5,000 over Manufacturer’s Suggested Retail Price (not for the rare Z-06 model, mind you, but for the regular ones), his dealership would sell their Corvettes for MSRP.
I consider anything over MSRP a bad deal, except for really rare cars, and I told him that I would not consider paying above MSRP. Furthermore, I do not consider MSRP to be a ‘good’ deal, especially when the dealer has done nothing special to earn a full price sale. STRIKE TWO.
Finally, as I was leaving, I asked the salesman for a Corvette sales brochure. He told me that they not have any to give out. He added that the only people who get one (in a special holder!) are buyers. I pointed out that all I was asking for was a regular new car sales brochure, not something special for owners. He confirmed what he had told me. No brochure? STRIKE THREE and YOU’RE OUT!
As I recall, I commented to him that if this was any indication, it is no wonder that some dealers are having trouble selling cars.
If the salesman wondered whether or not I was a good prospect worthy of his time and a test-drive, he could have asked to run a credit check on me (I have excellent credit). Furthermore, I have a clear title on my potential trade-in.
I decided to bring this to the attention of the dealership’s management. I introduced myself as an automotive journalist to the manager on duty, and repeated the chain of events to him. I added that I should not have to try to get a drive in a vehicle from a General Motors Press Motor Pool if I was considering buying a car from them. He agreed and sincerely expressed his disappointment over my experiences at his dealership. He told me that their General Manager would probably phone me the next day.
Thankfully, I did get a call back from the GM the next day. We probably spent about a half hour on the phone discussing things like how the auto industry used to promote new car sales. I recalled how, once a year, valued customers like my dad used to get an invitation from his dealership to a private new model introduction and reception. It was very exciting. The new models were there on display for the first time and I remember how much that made me want for us to buy one – which we often did. These days, new cars are introduced throughout the year and it is hard to keep track of them. Something special has been lost.
The manager arranged a test-drive for me in a Corvette later this week. Perhaps I might even get offered a good deal on the Corvette of my dreams.
I think that more dealers need to work hand-in-hand with their auto manufacturers to develop and implement better systems for selling cars. Dealership salespeople need to consistently do a better job of determining and then meeting their customers’ needs. Fortunately, some already do this very well, so shop around until you find one.
Drive safely and do join me again next time.