My Mum Trusts Strangers More Than ‘Trusted’ Car Dealers

The auto industry has a trust problem. 85% of car buyers don’t think that the car they purchased was the car for them. 72% of car buyers feel that an improved buying process would motivate them to visit dealerships more often. So how can the big automotive brands remedy this?

Ben Moncrieffe

Account Director and Automotive Lead for EMEA at C Space

Ben Moncrieffe is a C Space Account Director and Automotive Lead, EMEA. He leads our global Jaguar Land Rover account from our London office, helping the automotive giant shape its future around consumers. Ben joined C Space as an intern in 2012. After landing impact-after-impact for his clients, he became a seasoned and celebrated consultant, eventually being shortlisted for the prestigious MRS Newcomer of the Year Award in 2016. Beyond that, he’s also a petrolhead, cocktail connoisseur, Caterham racer, chocolate hater and part-time C Space DJ.

My mum had a lucky escape recently.

She’d been looking to buy a new car and wanted to avoid the local dealership because she doesn’t “trust the sales people in showrooms.” Instead she went online and found a used hatchback that she liked; it was for sale by the owner, not a dealer. Perfect.

She made arrangements to go check it out. The rendezvous point was an industrial complex in Hanger Lane, a sketchy part of North London. In the taxi there, the driver asked why such a well-turned-out lady was travelling alone to a dodgy industrial park. Alarmed at the answer, he offered to accompany her on her visit. And thank goodness – the owner turned out to be a very dubious chap and the car not much better.

I feel guilty when I think of my mum in that cab and at that industrial site. I wasn’t there to help.  I’ve spent weeks thinking: Cab drivers are all right, aren’t they? And, why doesn’t she trust the sales people in the showrooms? And, why is buying a car so hard?

Then it dawned on me. I shouldn’t feel guilty; the car industry should.

I work with auto manufacturers and retailers, and every day I talk to customers around the world about their experience with them. The perception held by many customers (mum included) is that car dealers don’t want to help you; they want to sell to you.

There are, of course, exceptions, Some people rave about their relationship with their car sales person, how they trust them and have bought several cars from them. I wonder why that exception hasn’t become the rule. In an industry as technologically advanced as automotive – leading the way with AI, connectivity, and shared ownership – it’s crazy how little progress has been made in designing the buying experience around the customer’s agenda.

The underlying issue is inconsistency. AutoTrader’s 2015 Car Buyers Report in the UK found that 85% of car buyers don’t think that the car they purchased was the perfect car for them. AutoTrader also found that 72% of car buyers feel that an improved buying process would motivate them to visit dealerships more often. Automotive retail is leaving customers dissatisfied (so much so that the majority regret their purchase), and it’s also costing retailers (and, as a result, OEMs) footfall and sales.

Again, there are exceptions. Tesla, for example, has eschewed the traditional franchise dealership model, opting instead to sell direct to consumers. Their arguments for doing so are compelling and extensive – including tighter control over inventory, marketing, and the customer experience – and whilst they have yet to demonstrate an ability to achieve a production scale comparative to some of the big guys, they do at the very least have the rest of the industry shaking on its axles. Backed by the major manufacturers, state officials continue to block Tesla’s sales model in eight U.S. states. It seems OEMs are resistant to changing the status quo.

Historically, dealerships and sales people have been incentivized on how much metal they can move off the lot. That means, at a really basic level, the focus is on the transaction, not the customer – right from the beginning. As much as OEMs try to measure customer satisfaction, their eye is on the sale first and foremost, and customers know it.

But perhaps they should change their perspective on what “customer satisfaction” really means.

Automotive consultancy AMCI Inside built on C Space’s Customer Quotient (or, CQ) methodology to demonstrate that there is one very highly reliable predictor of customer satisfaction, loyalty and advocacy: trust. Their 2017 Trusted Automotive Brand Study (TABS) showed that trust plays a key role in automotive decision-making – and those findings hold true in the 2018 study, with trust accounting for more than 50% of a consumer’s choice to repurchase or recommend an automotive brand. Behaviors like showing respect and being authentic drive trust – which in turn drive consumer action.

While this year’s study observed an overall erosion of trust for both luxury and non-luxury dealers (the study looks at brand and dealer trust separately), some have made great strides. Not surprisingly, Tesla is one of the luxury trust leaders.

When consumers can trust that a sales person is trying to help them (à la Tesla) rather than move product and upsell them, they feel more satisfied by their experience. Trust is an emotion, so only by starting with and focusing on the emotional drivers of trust with customers – by both incentivizing auto dealers to build trust and measuring their success – will things shift.

EY it appears, agree. In their 2015 Future of Automotive Retail report, they say that to “transform a customer from a buyer to a brand advocate, trusted relationships need to be built by injecting trust-building attributes in to every customer interaction.”

With the rise of online auto sales on the brink of taking off, OEMs and retailers cannot afford to rely on the status quo. In the UK, Rockar – a hybrid of physical and digital car showrooms – is bringing a new kind of automotive retail experience to consumers. The first Rockar retail store opened inside a shopping mall in 2014. Today, Rockar has a partnership with Jaguar Land Rover. In-store staff are called “Angels;” they don’t receive commission or sales bonuses. Instead, their only job is to spend as much (or as little) time with a customer as they need. “[Rockar] has brought in new customers – younger people, more women and people who’ve never bought a new car,” said Rockar founder Simon Dixon of the company’s success.

Both Mr. Dixon and Mr. Musk have spotted the opportunity and the customer-led demand to disrupt the auto retail status quo. Only time will tell whether the rest of industry will follow suit …  and my mum can stop going to industrial parks in dodgy parts of North London.

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