Latest industry views and advice

May 20

What can used car salespeople teach us about customer care and communication?

Ever since the trustworthiness of former US President, the late Richard Nixon, was lampooned by reference to the used car business, car dealers have had a tough time proving their – and their products’ – credibility with the general public.

With the advent of greater consumer power and knowledge, you’d think the used car business would strive to clean up its act in order to survive. However, many used car dealers seemingly remain impervious to the advances in customer service and the greater scrutiny they’re under thanks to the revolution of the online review.

As the son of a former car salesman-turned-sales and customer care training manager, and highly vocal advocate of professionalism in the car trade, I’ve seen the best and worst of retail motor behaviour from the inside and outside.

Which is why a recent foray back into the world of used car businesses was highly instructive in the skills of customer care and communication – not just for car dealers for but for any business handling customers.

Sadly, most of the lessons are extrapolated from what used car dealers get wrong. In the interests of balance, they don’t get everything wrong and the better ones get a lot right; but it’s the worst customer care and communication errors that the customer tends to remember:

  1. Be consistent with your communication: it’s OK to say that you will refund deposits if the sale doesn’t go ahead; but only if the sign on the wall above your head doesn’t say “NO REFUNDS GIVEN ON DEPOSITS”.
  2. Platitudes don’t work: saying “I’m as honest as the day is long” doesn’t instil as much confidence as demonstrating your honesty. In fact, it rather works against you!
  3. Show the customer you care about the core complaintit’s useless reminding the customer of anything else you might have done for them if the core problem hasn’t been resolved. It just looks like evasion tactics.
  4. Be responsive: being slow to respond to a customer problem is pouring petrol on a bonfire. Seek out the unhappy customer and make them feel their dissatisfaction has become your life mission to solve. The longer they’re left to stew, the angrier they’ll get.
  5. Blinding the customer with science: using technical jargon puts the customer at an immediate disadvantage and does nothing to instil trust. The “science bit” might impress or fool a minority, but the majority will walk away.
  6. Handling critical online reviews: these are an opportunity to win over a disgruntled customer. Certainly, responding in the same public forum shows a willingness to be responsive and transparent. However, lengthy explanations of why you’re right and they’re wrong is like putting aside your spade to dig a hole and replacing it with an excavator. If you can take the debate offline and concentrate on solving the customer’s problem rather than pleading innocence in a social media environment, you could create a new advocate rather than guaranteeing a permanent enemy, with a permanent digital record of their enmity towards you.

As buying a car is probably the most costly purchase any of us make outside of buying a house – and probably one of the more potentially emotive – the need for good customer care and communication is crucial. And yet the substandard used car dealer doesn’t seem to walk in the customer’s shoes and appreciate how much trouble the dissatisfied buyer is going to be.

Anyone with responsibility for customers might look at the hapless used car dealer and think “There but for the grace of God go I”. And they’d be right.


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