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Tess Karesky

Tess Karesky Marketing Research Specialist

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My Story of 16 Test Drives: How to Win Over a Millennial Shopper

Ah, millennials. The generation that is much written about, sought after, and criticized. We at CDK Global have spent ample time on our own research of the generation, trying to understand just what they want from their car shopping experience. This is the digital generation, yet in our recent study on online auto shopping interest, 70 percent of young millennials said they prefer spending more time at the dealership learning and evaluating vehicles over a quick and convenient online process.

As a recent car buyer and a millennial, I can attest to a long on the lot discovery process. After ten years in my beloved first car, I decided that the sun damage from too much time in an uncovered parking spot and old outlines of stickers on my back windows weren’t conveying the right message about me as a professional. It was time for a new car. So, with little idea of what vehicle I wanted and in no particular rush, I started my hunt. This is what I learned from my car-buying journey – and 16 test drives.

It’s a Stereotype for a Reason

When I was finally ready to bite the bullet and test drive a car, I reached out to a dealer online. The car I was interested in was at the top of my budget and I wanted to make sure that the final price would be manageable. So, I asked for the out-the-door price. The dealer responded with a surprisingly reasonable number. Once I arrived, I discovered it was so reasonable because the salesman had taken off several thousand dollars for a down payment before calculating that out-the-door cost. I felt duped and disappointed. Having worked with many great dealerships professionally, I wanted to believe that the stereotype of dealers playing deceptive games with customers was just a bad reputation that lingered from days past. Yet the first dealership I visited did just that. Had he been honest, I might not have shown up, but I wouldn’t have eliminated the entire dealer group from my future searches.

Listen to Learn

One salesman and I built up a nice rapport over our shared interest in an impractical dream car. It was a fun conversation to have while I test drove a crossover that was much more realistic. Ultimately, I decided I was leery of the crossover brand’s repair reputation, but I told him I’d contact him specifically if I found another vehicle I liked at the dealership. I did, and I called him to set up another appointment. Unfortunately, this test drive was also a bust. Understandably the salesman was a little frustrated, despite my reassurance that I’d still keep him in mind. Rather than wait, he took me to a used, luxury, mid-size sedan that didn’t fit any of my criteria. In an effort to make the sale, he had stopped listening to what I wanted and instead, suggested what he would want. “Listen” was one of the top words used in 5 dealer reviews by women, and in pursuit of a sale, my salesman had stopped listening – and ultimately lost my business.

Knowledge is Power

Like many millennials — 83 percent according to JP Morgan — I did plenty of research in the pursuit of finding the right car. From industry articles to Reddit forums, I wanted to know all the pertinent details and opinions on the 14 models I looked at. I was by no means an expert on any one of them, but at least I could say I was reasonably well informed. That was not the case for some of the salesmen I encountered. It astonished me how little they knew about their own brand and models. Worse yet, many weren’t efficient at finding answers to my questions. In the age of smartphones, being able to find information quickly should be a skill that anyone in a customer-facing job takes the time to master. A friendly attitude goes a long way but “I don’t know, let me ask someone when we get back from a test drive” isn’t going to sell many cars.

R-E-S-P-E-C-T: The Dealer You Don’t Want to Be

One dealership stood out from the others as the worst dealership experience, earning the not-so- coveted “So Bad I Wrote Off the Entire Brand” award. Like many women, I was worried about how my gender, age, and lack of car buying experience might affect how I was treated. Despite working in the industry, getting a car on my own was daunting. So, on each test drive, I brought along someone I trusted to help me make a decision. On this particular visit, I brought along my girlfriend, perhaps the most influential voice in my car-buying process. The salesman realized I was the ultimate purchaser and said to her, “I guess I can ignore you then.” This could have been written off as a poor joke, if not for the fact that he did just that. Not only was this rude, it was also short-sighted. Consumers often seek the opinion of others when they’re purchasing a vehicle, and if they’re bringing them along for a test drive, their opinion is likely exceptionally important.

The visit went downhill from there. He failed to answer many of my questions, took ages to find the vehicle keys, and condescendingly explained how to merge onto the freeway. I was seething. It was enough to turn me away from the dealer, but not quite the brand. A week later, my older brother suggested I try a different model from the same brand. Because the same dealer was the closest, he suggested we test drive there but buy from someone else. Reluctantly, I agreed. We worked with a different salesman, who was considerably less rude but had a tendency to defer to my brother. I got a strong sense that this particular dealership treated me differently because of my identity. After the test drive, the salesman assured me that prices were flexible, and seeing as the first salesman insisted that the prices were non-negotiable, I officially was done. When I came with a man that had bought a vehicle before, the dealership told a different story. While it was likely an issue of bad training and company culture at this particular dealership, I wasn’t willing to take the chance of being treated so inconsiderately again. I struck the entire brand from my consideration.

The Chosen One

After months of searching, I finally decided on a vehicle. There were two dealers I was considering. I had already test driven a vehicle at the first dealership and appreciated how they treated me. I hadn’t visited the other dealership, but they had a newer version of the car that I wanted. I reached out to the second dealer for the out-the-door price. The Internet Manager responded quickly with a well-worded email that broke down the vehicle cost, fees and tax. It provided enough transparency that I was willing to make the 45-minute drive to check the car out in person. When I arrived, this time with my dad, the car was ready out front. The salesman was friendly, including my dad in conversation but directing a majority of his attention to me. He was easily the most knowledgeable about the car, a particular surprise given that it was a different brand than the dealership sold. His expertise highlighted features I didn’t even know I would be excited about, like an excellent sound system. When I questioned whether I should consider the closest model in the dealer brand, he listened to my preferences and explained why the vehicle I inquired about would likely be the better fit. He was smart, respectful, personable, and kept his word on the price. He truly earned my business and I was happy to buy my car there. Yes, it was important that the dealer had the car I wanted, but if he had behaved poorly I was more than willing to get the slightly older and cheaper car at the other dealership.

Compared to the number of test drives salespeople go on, 16 is a pretty small number. However, despite their vast experience with customers and test drives, it’s important that dealers remember not to lose sight of the customer’s experience. In our Millennial study, 95 percent of millennials said the bad behavior of a salesperson negatively affected their dealer choice, and 85 percent said a good attitude positively influenced their choice (only 5 percent below the top influencer, a good deal). True to my generation, the salespeople were a huge influence on where I ultimately bought my car. Having the right advertising, online tools, and inventory certainly matters, but on the lot, a positive experience is key. A person that can put themselves in the shoes of their customer and provide the quality treatment they would expect for themselves can be invaluable to sales and customer loyalty, and even earn the business of an incredibly picky millennial.

Marc @ Autobahn Academy

Amazing article. I can't believe how many Salespeople don't know how to deal with milennials. It's freaking simple: don't bullshit. They (we) have a freaking 6th sens for that. Thank Tess. 

Brandin Wilkinson

Great work Tess!

Lisa Farrar

Excellent piece, Tess! I realize that all dealer salespeople have enormous pressure on them. The way you laid this out -- emphasizing adherence to the golden rule -- should serve as a reminder / required reading before engaging with a customer, generation independent. Every touchpoint counts! 

Tess Karesky

@Marc thanks! You put it succinctly and accurately. With so much information at our hands these days Millennials go in armed and ready. I remember one response in our millennial study said he paid about $500 more because the salesperson was so much more straightforward and knowledgeable than the one at the cheaper dealership.

Tess Karesky

@Brandin thank you!

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