Car Dealers Can Talk Their Way Into the Future

Simple conversational techniques can lead to great outcomes.

Matt Muilenburg

August 16, 2019

3 Min Read
woman at desk on phone
Data shows being polite, pleasant and an active listener drive successful sales outcomes.Getty Images

Americans are shifting gears when it comes to buying new cars.

For a variety of macro-economic reasons, we’re in a state of declining auto sales. With that comes the clamor about softening demand.

Yet, in the midst of this turbulence is something exciting – a huge opportunity for dealers to differentiate their businesses and grow customer loyalty long-term. Doing so means embracing a new model of customer service, one built on understanding the art of successful sales conversations.

An analysis of more than 6,000 phone conversations between consumers and auto dealerships across the U.S. shows that many salespeople fail to listen and respond to the needs of modern-day consumers.

That’s bad. Worse, dealerships wind up leaving millions of dollars in sales opportunities on the table every year, largely because they don’t know simple conversational techniques that often lead to great outcomes.

Here’s the rub. Many dealers serve car shoppers today the same as they did decades ago.

But modern consumers are tech-savvy and radically informed. They exhaustively research online. By the time they contact a dealer, they are knee-deep in the buying process. Unlike a generation ago, buyers no longer spend all day walking dealer lots, nor do they want to.

A McKinsey & Co. report puts the number of showroom visits at an all-time low. “Aside from the much-dreaded price haggling, customers are often put off by slow or nonexistent answers to contact requests or the difficulty of getting ahold of a salesperson once arriving at the dealership,” the report says.

That old approach worked in the past when dealers were the information gatekeepers and shoppers had no choice but to be at their mercy. This created a fraught, miserable customer experience; decades on, negative stereotypes about car buying persist.

Now let’s talk about that huge opportunity. 

What if dealers trained salespeople to practice certain conversational behaviors at each touchpoint of the customer journey, so buyers felt heard and understood?

What if learning those conversational techniques led to more retention among sales staff, the very people whose interactions have the power to make or break a sale every day?

And what if that retention among staff inspired more customer loyalty over the years?

Dealers have the power to create their own butterfly effect.

Nothing fancy is required to revolutionize customer conversations. Data shows being polite, pleasant and an active listener are the main drivers of successful outcomes.

The study that analyzed phone conversations found that top salespeople said “please” and “thank you” 99% of the time. They also laughed on more than half their calls, which relaxes customers.

This is no different from what all of us want in our daily interactions, which is to be heard and understood. The game-changer is applying it to an industry where such a model has yet to fully take root and stick.

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The future is no longer about selling at scale; it’s about sustainability, retention and loyalty. Those who invest in creating authentic connections with customers will survive and thrive. (Wards Industry Voices contributor Matt Muilenburg, left)

The rest, sadly, will go the way of the Studebaker.

Matt Muilenburg is the automotive head for analytics company Marchex.

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