My wife had to buy a new car recently.
We didn't want to do it, but our 8-year old Saturn was spending more time in the shop than on the road. Our mechanic actually advised against getting it completely fixed--said it wasn't worthwhile. So the thing was making all sorts of grinding noises, especially right after starting up. It was scaring my wife half to death.
This being 2002 we went to the Web. We paid for Consumer Reports to get the best advice. We also asked our mechanic. We wound up considering two cars, the Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla.
We went with the Toyota for one primary reason--the Web. Go to any Toyota dealer's Web site and, once you get past the flash screens, fancy designs and attempts to set cookies (I counted eight at one site just on the home page) click on “new car inventory.”
Here you'll find something interesting. Every dealer seems to have a frame around an identical-looking page. Toyota is running a central database tagged to each dealer.
It turns out this is, as they used to say, a good thing. In just a few clicks you can find out what your local dealer has, and what dealers in all the states around you have. You can then go to the dealer empowered to make a deal on a specific car, at a specific price, or fill out a form and wait for their “Internet specialist” get in touch with you.
My wife's credit union seemed to have a similar set-up. The credit union site linked to Autofinders.com, where we could fill out a form and pick out just the car we wanted, with direct links to the loan we needed. In the end, however, we had to download a loan form and fax it back--seemed a bit primitive but we filled it out, and were quickly approved.
All was bliss except for one minor problem.
Neither Autofinders nor our local dealer answered their e-mail. We filled out the forms to buy the cars but didn't hear back. A willing customer with money in their hands sat on the desk of both these places, and nothing happened.
Frustrated, we finally called the salesman who had given us a test drive of the Corolla. We had the deal the company was offering on our computer. We just needed someone to fill out the papers with us. He called back the next day, and we got the car.
What's the lesson here? It is that technology will get you only so far. You have to respond. When someone e-mails you, you get back to them, immediately, now, pronto. Drop everything.
Jim Sterne had a wonderful riff on this a few years ago, using his own history with Volvo as an example. He showed how, over the course of several years, Volvo went through many site re-designs, and how each time it frustrated his attempts to reach someone who could help him.
The car industry still hasn't gotten the message. Maybe it's because, at the end of the day, we still have to buy cars, and we still do buy cars. Because their Internet departments don't answer their e-mails, we often wind up buying these cars from regular salesmen, by phone, then sitting in offices filling out forms. This leads the dealers to believe “the Internet isn't working,” and they pull back from it still more.
But the Internet does work. We bought our car using the Internet. Most people do. All dealers need to do in order to lower their cost of sales, and capture the savings the Internet provides, is this:
Answer the blankety-bleeping-blank e-mail.
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