SAN FRANCISCO -- Auto dealers are pillars of their communities. They sponsor Little League teams. They fund scholarships for disadvantaged children. They donate vehicles to first responders. They pay their taxes and fly big flags.
So why do so many consumers drive out of dealerships feeling uneasy -- even if they got the car they wanted at roughly the price they wanted? What explains the fact that year after year, Gallup polling consistently finds car salespeople near the bottom among professions when it comes to honesty and ethical standards, narrowly ahead of members of Congress?
As dealers this weekend rightfully celebrate their contributions to the economy and the free-enterprise system, the polling numbers should serve as a sobering reminder of what they have yet to accomplish.
In 1977, Gallup found that only 8 percent of respondents rated car salespeople “high” or “very high” for honesty and ethics. In the latest survey, about a month ago, that number was -- wait for it -- 8 percent. Meanwhile, a full 45 percent in the latest poll rated them low or very low, not much better than the 47 percent in 1977.
That is to say, for all their good works in the community, and for all the cars they’ve sold to “satisfied” customers, they haven’t managed to shake their reputation as, well, shady.
(The “Seinfeld” rerun I happened to catch on a recent late night satirized this very issue. There’s a reason the undercoating-pitching, Twix-stealing dealership employee is such a recognizable fixture of popular culture.)
The persistent trust deficit is no laughing matter. It has given rise to an entire industry that now sells dealerships access to in-market consumers who should have been theirs to begin with. It’s now a cadre of faceless, algorithm-driven third parties -- some of them only five, 10 or 15 years old -- that have earned the consumer’s trust, rather than the family-owned local community institutions that adopt highways and pay for the high school band uniforms.
It’s not hard to understand why. Even as they quietly trade customer data for dollars, the third parties bring a measure of transparency to a purchase process that feels, to a consumer, like a series of charades intended to widen the dealer’s margin:
The trade-in negotiation in which the vehicle’s every fault is exaggerated for effect. The manufactured suspense of the walk to the sales manager’s cubicle. The hour of captivity with a stranger inside the F&I office. The service coupon book that spells out a far more aggressive maintenance schedule than what the owner’s manual recommends. The not-so-subtle pressure to fill out the CSI survey with all 10s-out-of-10.
It’s an assault on the emotions, and it’s why customers so often drive away in the car of their dreams feeling so nauseated, so vulnerable.
Did I just fall for something? Are they laughing at me back at the dealership? What just happened to me?
We’ve heard the “dealership of the future” described in terms of architecture, technology or workforce mix. Dealers around the country and across brands are investing billions of dollars in facilities to make customers feel more comfortable with better chairs, brighter lighting, computer workstations and coffee bars. Or they’re building websites that move more of the transaction online, letting drop-down menus and computer code tackle the difficult work of building consumer trust.
Go ahead and spend the billions. Your dealerships will be better for it.
Every step you take
But to really make customers more comfortable, take a close look at every step of the transaction that you put a consumer through, and figure out where that trust is leaking out. Better yet, take a close look at the customers as they are going through that process. Have they suddenly stopped smiling? Are they hesitant to answer questions? Are they glancing about as if to locate the nearest exit? Are their hands shaking with every signature?
You’ve sold them a vehicle. But what have you taken from them in the process?
Every sale is a measure of success, as is every perfect CSI score. These metrics allow dealerships to assess their product, gauge their progress and measure themselves against one another.
But the Gallup numbers matter, too, because they suggest that if consumers could choose the way they purchase a car, many of them wouldn’t do it at a dealership at all.
Cars are an emotional purchase, and dealers’ behavior has a lot to do with those emotions.