There cannot really be any industry more forward looking or a bigger embracer of change than the motor trade. Despite having had almost nothing but bad press and controversy over the years, we are still improving technology, are at the forefront of environmental evolution and, most importantly, produce some really great cars which drivers continue to love, get emotional about and are perhaps represent one of the best experiences of pure freedom in the world today. OK maybe I’m getting a bit carried away and, of course, I have absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with designing or building these great cars, although I have had some fun trying them. I do, however truly believe that no industry has done more to improve their reputation than the makers and sellers of cars. Despite the fact that most of the news associated with cars in the last few years has been bad and always expensive, the business continues striving to improve customer service and make the experience a more positive one and the industry has certainly invested heavily in these areas.
I need to come clean at this point I have been in car sales for many years, some in new, some selling to business but mainly in used. And there’s that word USED, my wife once said to me at a party, when a guest asked how I made my living, said to me ‘do you have to tell them you sell used cars, it’s so embarrassing’. Of course I was shocked, I had always been proud of the fact that with pretty limited success at school and no real career prospects, that establishing myself in cars and making a good living from it should have impressed people, but it seemed to have done the opposite. My wife was actually ashamed, though she didn’t mind the money or nice new demo I drove her around in.
Although I was saddened by her reaction I can’t say I was totally surprised as we had an only slightly better name than estate agents (the bankers of that era). You see instead of providing great cars at a fair price and giving positive customer service with honesty and integrity we actually just got sent on sales courses which trained us to do just about anything to get the deal done. This approach was effective on the bottom line but clearly not designed with the future in mind.
I’m ashamed myself to say I was part of a culture where selling cars to people at any cost and treating customers with utter contempt was the norm rather than the exception. I remember saying to a senior bean counter one day that if we carried on providing such poor customer service that maybe not today or tomorrow but eventually buyers would desert us and find a showroom that would give them the all round service they deserved. The problem in those days was the choice was nowhere near what it is today and so it took a long time and a lot of lost profit to make the penny drop and encourage the industry to take a good look at itself and change. Although when I paint this picture I no way intend to tar every car sales person or dealer with the same brush, but it is fair to say that sales techniques that would nowadays be regarded as ‘dodgy’ were commonplace across the board. As I stated previously the industry has and is investing heavily in change, change in attitude, change in process and most importantly in the franchise arena a change in culture. The fact that Consumer Direct is still receiving way too many complaints, specifically about used cars, means there is a hell of a long way to go and improvement must be a constant goal.
Besides car makers becoming obsessed with brand image and therefore fanatical about portraying a positive vibe around their product, they have also undergone radical change in their partnerships with their dealer network. In assuming control of databases and monitoring and tracking how all customer enquiries are being handled they are introducing customer workshops and video mystery shopping to name and shame and drag dealers up to the required standard.
As the old guard of salespeople have realised that everything they do will be measured and monitored some have realised that it’s time to retire to the country. When I started, the manager just gave me a desk and a phone and let me learn the hard way, sales people today don’t even speak to a customer until they have completed weeks of training and become FSA approved. Many in the trade say that the skill levels of modern day sales staff and the personalities just aren’t there anymore, but from a customer perspective with the empowerment they have gained from researching product comparisons on line the fear and trepidation of entering a car showroom is just not there anymore. That’s not even mentioning the 82 different varieties of tea and coffee they can have whilst enjoying the state of the art facilities.
Today’s sales people have to record so much information about prospective customers to ensure that they buy the right car, and with companies carrying out exit surveys whether you bought a car or not, they may be in danger of over complicating and encumbering what should be a simple process.
With the setting of agendas and the providing of “golden moments” as I have heard they now do, the customer may be just as easily scared off if all they want is some information. One thing is definite and needs to be worked on much harder by all concerned is product knowledge. The modern salesperson has to have in his armoury an intensive understanding of the product they are selling for as soon as a customer knows more about the car than they do, the game is truly up.
One thing is for sure phrases like;
‘What do you need to think about?’
‘Will drive you to a cash point if you don’t have the money on you’
‘Your wife makes the decisions does she?’
‘If you don’t buy it now the car will be gone by tomorrow’ and
‘this deal will only stand for today’ among many other gems which I am sure have been uttered by salespeople up and down the country many times over the years, are being replaced with the red carpet treatment and customers really having the choice and freedom to make their own mind up in a non-pressured environment.
This can only be a positive, mind you I still don’t think my wife would be impressed if I told people that I as now a seller of “previously enjoyed” cars even if it does sound slightly better than ‘used’.