The Art of Pre-Suasion: Putting Auto Customers in the Driver’s Seat

Well before they even set foot in the showroom, customers are interacting with your brand and inventory, and many are likely even to have made the bulk of their buying decision. Dealers are starting to pay attention, because in the absence of convenient access to the information they’re seeking or their ability to do research in advance, customers are unlikely to make a purchase. The more information you give them ahead of time, the more likely they are to buy. And you have about seven days to do it. According to Reynolds & Reynolds, 40% of purchases are completed within one week of initial research.   

Traditional auto sales training relies heavily upon techniques such as face-to-face greetings and interactions, needs assessments to identify which vehicle the customer is interested in, product presentations, test drives, trial closes, active listening, and reflective statements to close the sale.  

Current shifts in buyer behavior toward digital may run counterintuitive to traditional training, but the upside to adapting your sales strategy to meet customers where they are—both physically and in their buying process—is significant. They’ll choose the dealer who makes them feel understood by providing continuity of care throughout the buying process. This involves asking them to enter their information no more than once and pre-populating it through all the vehicle purchase forms, allowing them to readily jump back into the process at any point without having to re-enter redundant information. It’s a winning approach when it comes to service, too. Think of it like a visit to their doctor, who can see their entire medical history in one portal. 

To deliver this kind of intuitive customer experience, you must have a process architecture and supporting technology. The average customer wants access to experts who can validate their research, answer their technical questions, and involve them in the research. Whether it’s connecting customers to an F&I expert via video chat (such as MarketSource’s AskMe™) who can answer their extended service contract or accessory questions, or to a Business Development Center rep via live chat to get a price, these early moments of engagement offer a unique opportunity to pre-suade your customers. Pre-suasion, or the concept of engaging and influencing customers before they come into your dealership, is an essential customer engagement tool that needs to become part of your sales arsenal. We’ll examine pre-suasion further and what forms it takes in a moment. 

Digital Tire Kicking is the Name of the Game

According to Cox Automotive, 70% of customers prefer to shop online than physically going into a dealership. We know from a recent Harris poll that the parts of the process buyers prefer to conduct online include:

Chart showing parts of automotive process preferred done online

That said, Deloitte’s 2022 Global Automotive Consumer Study found that the majority (75%) of American consumers still want to buy in person. And there are parts of the buying process that they are unlikely ever to prefer completing online, such as car inspections (the 2021 Study found that 75% want to see a vehicle before they buy) and test drives (64% require these).  

The data might sound contradictory until you look under the “shop online” hood. Today’s consumers approach car buying the way they do many other kinds of purchases, which involves a blend of online and in-person shopping. The opportunity in front of dealers now is to gauge where those in-store shifts happen so they can deliver an uninterrupted process—every time. Whether they’re interacting with the BDC, a salesperson, or a third-party live chat entity, customers need to be able to pick up where they’ve left off seamlessly. 

Rather than forcing a one-size-fits-all approach on every customer, dealers need to be flexible enough to allow customers to dictate the buying process. In today’s build-to-order market, how dealers get there is an open question. What they can do today is be willing to engage with customers when and in the ways the customer prefers. 

This changing buyer behavior is reawakening dealers and manufacturers to the importance of the customer’s role in the purchase, and forward-looking auto leaders are preparing for that transition by taking a posture of “pre-suasion.”  

Pre-suasion: noun. The art of influencing decisions by capturing and channeling attention.

Putting Customers in the Driver’s Seat

Rather than seeking to change what people think (persuasion), pre-suasion seeks to change what they think about. A term coined in 2016 by psychologist Robert B. Cialdini, pre-suasion is part philosophy, part technology, part sales technique. It’s an art rather than a science. And it has the potential to be significantly more effective than persuasion, which puts sellers in the position to convince a customer to reverse a decision they’ve already made or to push them to decide before they’re ready to.

Pre-suasion is more constructive and empowers the customer. It involves making the information they want to find online conveniently accessible and the actions they want to take straightforward and intuitive. It also involves salespeople validating customers’ research, confirming their choices are sound, and being careful not to dissuade them. It involves providing information at several touchpoints throughout the buyers’ journey. The average customer wants to engage with experts who will validate their research, answer their technical questions, and collaborate with them on research.

Pre-suasion places the key pieces of the buying process in customers’ hands. It allows them to go at their own pace and gives them the time and space to sit with their growing product awareness, their decision, and the terms of their purchase, so they buy when they’re ready. This all makes them feel they’re in charge of the buying process, which, if you do it well, will delight them.

It also gives sellers the chance to eliminate many customer objections before they come to the dealership and to position themselves more as guides and consultants. This is helpful, as the average customer wants to engage with experts who will validate their research, answer their technical questions, and collaborate with them on research.

Your Business Development Center is Now Your Front Door

BDCs, which receive a dealer’s internet leads, have become the dealership’s new front door. When a BDC doesn’t give customers the information they seek, they’ll abandon their process with you and find someone who can. If a customer clicks on a “give me a price” button, and the response they receive is, “When would you like to come in for a test drive?”, you’ve lost them. As you will if they have to wait too long for a response.

Ideally, BDC reps will ask each customer a few questions in addition to answering their presenting query to learn more about their needs. It’s a mistake to mischaracterize BDC staff as clerical. As the first human contact a growing number of customers have with your dealership, it’s essential they receive formal sales training.

Differentiate on Customer Experience

In a largely homogenized industry, dealers can begin to differentiate on customer experience. This is a welcome shift, because it demands a higher level of transparency and draws on the people, process, and technology core to any sales organization’s success. And it’s driving toward a process that helps customers feel like they’re winning. When customers win, sellers win.

How can you achieve this?

  1. Leverage technology and systems that serve the customer and focus on customer experience. These include chatbots, digital billing, and email outreach to the customer base containing links to get more information. Make sure your website has quick and easy interfaces to answer customer questions, search inventory, calculate payments, and submit credit applications.
  2. Be intentional about your customer experience and make it sustainable. Gather data to understand your customers and identify how they’re going to buy. Implement customer touchpoints throughout the buying journey. Instill that the customer experience as a core value in your training programs—especially for sales staff
  3. Equip your salespeople with the right information to answer customer questions quickly. Consider augmenting your sales staff with a virtual customer engagement service that can deliver quick, clear, and factual answers to product and technical questions.

In an environment where customers expect transparency and vehicle price and quality don’t move the needle, mastering the art of pre-suasion can reduce the friction between traditional sales models and fluxing customer buying behaviors. This practice may seem unnecessary in a marketplace driven by restricted availability, but the dealers that pay attention to customer experience now are fostering deeper customer relationships and loyalty that will pay off in the future. As the industry matures, for the current dealer model to remain viable for the foreseeable future, dealers must reach customers where they are. Dealers who deliver a frictionless transaction, whether online or in person, are more likely to foster the trust customers need to feel in order to buy.

Author: Peter Maxwell

Author: Peter Maxwell

Peter is Vice President, Commercial Automotive Client Services for MarketSource. Broadly experienced and deeply knowledgeable in automobile dealership development and consulting, Pete has a keen understanding of how the right people, processes, and technology combine to drive positive results for automobile dealers, OEMs, and related businesses. His can-do attitude is infectious, and clients admire him for his ability to motivate, coach, and mentor people to success.

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