Lessons From A Car Salesman

Posted on November 19, 2008

Honda Civic Hybrid

I bought a new car last weekend. And although my experience was not an unpleasant one — no stereotypical high-pressure car salesmen — I came away with some impressions about customer service in general. These ideas aren’t anything new — rather, they reinforce the idea that the differences between a junior salesperson and a senior salesperson are really quite obvious, and that good customer service techniques can be applied to any industry.

  • Customer service is a human endeavor. Car dealerships usually have a nice showroom, and the one I was at had a comfortable waiting area with a big screen TV. However, this is only one step above a hospital waiting room. Remember that customer service ultimately involves a relationship between two (or more) humans.
  • Address the concerns of your customers. If a customer asks a question, you need to answer it. When a customer explains his needs, you need to find a solution that fits and explain why it fits. If a customer has concerns, you need to address them and explain how they are being addressed. Most car salespeople are good at this; they’ll ask you what you’re interested in, what car you currently drive, etc. If you’re concerned about gas mileage, they won’t show you a full-size SUV.
  • Be friendly and confident. Simple things like smiling, making eye contact, and being attentive makes a huge difference. Being able to speak with confidence comes with experience and knowing the product backwards and forwards. Master salespeople are great at covering up their foibles, or even using them to their advantage. The junior salesperson that I worked with was caught offguard that there was no power steering reservoir under the hood. This could have been leveraged into touting the modernity of the engineering, or a laugh about how fast the technology changes.
  • Maintain the line of communication. We always get busy helping other customers or doing other tasks. Let the customer know when you’ll get back to him, and be sure to do so, even it’s just to give a status update or a revised time estimate. After waiting 20 minutes for the junior salesperson, I had to go to the sales manager to get his attention. He apologized, and got the information about my old car and started putting together the pricing proposal.
  • Empathize with the customer. Put yourself in the customer’s shoes. Actually using your own products helps. The business manager at the dealership explained how even he has to pay for administrative fees. Sure, it didn’t help bring down the cost, but showed some empathy with my situation.
  • Too many cooks spoil the broth. Minimize the number of people that the customer has to interface with. The junior salesperson I talked to gave me the contact info for the sales manager, which is good. But I ended up talking to the sales manager more in the long run, plus the business manager that performs the finances and finalizes the sale. The salesperson could at least be a single point person that leads the customer through the process.
  • Don’t use lists as a crutch. A defined process is good, but don’t look or sound like you’re reading from a script (even if you are). Honda has a pre-delivery checklist that they give the customer that shows every point of inspection and customization that they performed, and the customer has to sign off that they received the manuals, was shown how to operate and maintain the car, etc. And they clearly have a process in place for following up with support and to request referrals, but it was obvious when they were following a script.
  • Make a good product. If your product is good enough, customers will stick around to finalize the sale even if your customer service falters. But making the whole process good makes them want to come back and recommend you to their friends. :)

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