The year is 2035. The scene, a ramshackle car dealership with cracked asphalt, a few dim fluorescent lighting fixtures swinging on thin chains and empty jars of Folgers crystals where the keurig machine once brewed single servings of cinnamon vanilla dark roast.
The cars are still perfectly aligned in rows, but no one is hovering over them, buffing out the handprints. If you listen closely, you can hear the sound of nervous breathing beneath the shuffle of paper. It must be the sales staff, but why are they all hidden, crouching behind desks and lingering in the lavatory?
Who has instilled such fear in a once fearless sales force?
The Customers. That’s right – the very people that car dealerships went to great lengths to court. They rose up to become a well-armed citizen militia bent on forcing the automotive industry to run leaner and meaner.
Their micro-technology weapon of choice? Smart phones.
That hellish scenario is only a mere 20 years away, but signs of its impending realization are everywhere. It turns out that a stunning 92% of adults in the U.S. own smart phones – a mini computer right in their pocket. Technology has continued to do the same things it has always done – get smaller and cheaper. This accounts for the fact that 1 in 4 people on the continent of Africa have a mobile device- just digest that for a moment.
Done? Ok, now let’s examine the recent state of affairs in the northern, more sophisticated portion of the continent. Revolution, turmoil, people casting aside years of oppression…Listen, I’m not making any direct comparisons here, but would it be a stretch to imagine the General Manager of your corner dealership delivering a pre-taped address, fist in the air and a tear sneaking out from behind his oversized sunglasses while declaring that the world hasn’t heard the end of Jones Motors?
Alright, perhaps I exaggerate, but the facts are simple; for purchases exceeding $300 in value, 84% of consumers will do some manner of research online and half of those people will revisit the issue on their mobile device. Do you think the average consumer is going to do a little digging when it comes to the second largest investment most of them will ever make? By the way, is buying a car still second to home ownership? Anyone else ever have student loans? But I digress.
Lunch time, standing in line for coffee, sitting in a really boring meeting, all of these are now opportunities for people to inform themselves on the things that matter to them. It has been well documented that the car and the self-image have a strong bond. People care. Car purchases are one of things that people research to the point of exhaustion. In fact, it is estimated that individuals will spend a total of 19 hours researching a car purchase and 11 ½ of those will be done online. And now, customers carry with them a little device containing everything that they could ever want to know about anything, including automotive products and pricing. Not an easy time for the automotive sales associate.
Let’s rewind a few decades. During the latter part of the twentieth century, the dealership in the aforementioned horror movie scenario was gleaming in its brilliance. Well-dressed, confident sales professionals adorned a state of the art facility that was hustling and bustling; industry lexicon slashing it’s way through countless objections, resulting in people reaching for credit cards, or check books and driving off in cars that they weren’t sure they even wanted or couldn’t necessarily afford.
It didn’t matter that everyone brought his or her dad, uncle, or any other domestic support associate to this deal. The dealership held all the cards. They knew exactly what the customer knew and more importantly what they didn’t know. The balance of power was in the sales person’s favor. Uncle Joe who wasn’t going to let his nephew Skippy, get roughed up on rust proofing left happy even when the dealership sold Skippy his car at full sticker- because he just didn’t know. Perception was 9/10ths of the battle and more often than not, the dealership was victorious.
So how did we arrive at this post apocalyptic auto hell-scape a mere twenty years later?
As with anything, there are many factors. Economy, domestic manufacturing costs, trade deficit… In fact up until 2007, the real demon hadn’t even emerged in a significant way. Micro-technology in the guise of Smart phones. They seem relatively innocuous, even helpful in most situations and always a lot of fun. I have this one app where you can say anything and it turns your voice…well we’ll do that at another time.
But yes, smart phones are the latest enemy in a string of micro-technological advancements that have chipped away at the advantage of the average sales staff. Once, there was a time when people would have to plan their visit to the dealership. The day before, they would print the critical stats from websites and head to battle with a few folded, coffee stained pages tucked in purses or pockets.
Today, people drive by your dealership, stop if they have the time, pull up alongside a vehicle they find appealing, slip a free hand inside their pocket and draw their weapon. In a comparative instant, they are given access to reams of pertinent information that may include but are not limited to: customer reviews of the vehicle and your store, cost of ownership per mile, insurance info, the amount your dealership paid for the car and in some cases, even a virtual test drive.
Today 1 in 8 people visit your dealership through a mobile device compared to 6 months ago, when it was 1 in 50.
Progress? More like Armageddon. The percentage of overall site visits attributed to mobile devices has doubled in the last 7 months; the usual visit being an average of almost 5 pages and 5 minutes per visit. Think about it, while you’re watching some rookie sales person mutter motivational slogans to themselves in order to build up the courage to confront this well armed customer in the parking lot, the customer has digested 5 pages of valuable information. Scary.
And just as young Willie Loman is nearing his prospect, panting from his 70-yard jog with tie flapping in the breeze, the customer belts out a demonic laugh, sheaths her weapon and speeds off toward home where she intends to get an internet quote before ever speaking to anyone in person.
How can we combat this? I have some ideas, although they may not be conventional. I assume most of you have been to an Apple store. The store associates are pushing the envelope in the area of man and machine becoming one. A little team of uniformed, laid back twenty-somethings with headsets and these magical wrist devices that allow them to move freely through the store. The fact that they’re usually grinning suggests that there is a higher level of communication going on in that headset than their customers are aware of, but it’s nice to see them having fun either way.
So I got to thinking, why can’t we do that with sales associates in auto dealerships? Of course, the wrist devices would need to be a bit more aesthetically refined, come in a variety of finishes and have enough room to be monogrammed, (at least where I work), but it could work, couldn’t it?
I especially love the headset idea. It’s like a coach quarterback thing. You could say things like “don’t just hand the ball to the customer, make them take it!” Or, “if they mention holdback, run for your life!” But mostly, you maybe able to prevent mistakes before they happen.
I would personally take this one step further. How about cutting a circle 6 inches in diameter and color it in like a rainbow pinwheel. Tape it to a tongue depressor and every time your sales associate runs into a problem, they could just hold it up and pause like your iphone does when you press that little button fourteen times in a second. It just may buy them the precious seconds they need to rebound from the bombardment of facts – spewing from the mouths of the customer team in stereo; because remember – you’ll probably be up against two people, each with their own device.
This brings me full circle to my last and best idea regarding our new sales associate versus the well-armed customer. Bring your dad to work! I’m not suggesting everyday, because the way things are going, all of our parents will be retiring to Wal-Mart, where your assisted living comes with a certain level of responsibility and a nice wad of mart bucks to spend on enormous tubs of precooked bacon, but they should be able to shake free twice a week right? Doesn’t that level the playing field? A customer team each armed with smart phones versus a sales team, of sorts, with one headset, a wrist thingy and an elderly gentleman that may hopefully say things like “can’t you put your phone away for ten minutes while we conduct business!”
If we arm ourselves against our common enemy, we may be able to prevent the post apocalyptic future that has haunted my dreams. After all, we know who’s coming and we know what they’re bringing with them. It isn’t too late to prevent the horror. Isn’t Steve Jobs working on a computerized contact lens that allows the user to surf with a series of blinks and head tilting?
Perhaps we’re already screwed?