Less negotiating, more explaining: The new world of auto sales


Customer Charlie Johnson talks with Tom Schweiss, Internet sales manager at Audi Silver Spring. (Jeffrey MacMillan/For Capital Business )

When Tom Schweiss first began selling cars 11 years ago, it wasn’t unusual for him to spend eight hours walking the showroom with a single customer.

He would lead them around the sales floor and show them three, maybe four vehicles. He’d patiently answer questions about basic amenities, such as whether they could get a leather interior or whether the sunroof and power windows came standard.

Fast forward to 2014, and Schweiss is facing a very different kind of shopper at Audi Silver Spring.

“They’ve come in and it’s, ‘How many millimeters between the fender and the tire?’” Schweiss said. “The questions are insane.”

This is the new world of sales, in which customers are going online to arm themselves with information on a product before they set foot in the store. Once they arrive at a shop, they often know exactly what they want and they expect to get in and out quickly.


The Audi Sales Assist app. (Jeffrey MacMillan/For Capital Business )

Studies have shown that consumers are using the Web frequently to research all kinds of purchases, from big-ticket items such as cars and home improvement goods to smaller ones such as consumer electronics and apparel. And this practice has tipped the balance of power in the marketplace.

“When sellers know a lot more than buyers, you’re in a world of buyer beware,” said Daniel Pink, a District-based author who has written about the changing auto sales business in his book “To Sell is Human.” “When there’s more or less information parity, now the sellers are on notice.”

This climate is pushing retailers everywhere to rethink what it means to succeed as a salesperson. And this changing dynamic is perhaps nowhere more evident than in the auto industry.

“The Internet has leveled the playing field,” Schweiss said. “People are better informed.”

Those eight-hour stints Schweiss used to spend with a customer? Those have dwindled to about two hours. The arduous haggling? Greatly reduced, now that the Web has created so much transparency about price. And those complex questions about a vehicle’s nitty-gritty details? Schweiss and his colleagues are using technology to plug any gaps in their knowledge so that customers still get the information they need.

An app for the salesperson

Audi Silver Spring is sandwiched on a crowded stretch of dealerships on the aptly named Automobile Road. As Schweiss paced the airy, high-ceilinged showroom on a recent Tuesday morning — winding between a sporty A5 coupe, a Q5 SUV in a color dubbed “monsoon gray,” and a $89,695 RS5 convertible — his iPad Mini was always in hand.

The tablet is loaded with Audi Sales Assist, an app the automaker rolled out in January. It was developed at Audi of America in Herndon, where a department known as Audi Academy works to build training programs and tools to help dealership employees adapt to this era of hyper-informed customers.

The app lets salespeople show consumers side-by-side comparisons of vehicles and provides videos and illustrated diagrams to help describe complex features, such as the quattro all-wheel drive system. As they explain such offerings to customers, the app allows them to scrawl with their fingers on the touchscreen. (The result looks something like the Telestrator drawings on “Monday Night Football”).

The app is loaded with the kinds of details that highly informed customers might be after. As a result, even if a salesperson doesn’t know the answer to a question, he or she can look it up quickly.

The app is also meant to expedite the time it takes to complete a sale, since today’s well-prepared shopper expects to complete the transaction quickly. Schweiss said the app helps him and his colleagues shave time off the process because he can stay in place with the customer.

“We could be sitting in one car, and she says, ‘What does the upper-line car give me?’ Instead of me running back into the dealership, getting the key, finding the next level of car, now we can compare it right here,” Schweiss said.

In addition to helping salespeople better support knowledgable customers, Audi Academy leaders are convinced that incorporating technology in the showroom helps position them as a forward-thinking brand.

“If you look at the majority of our customer base right now, made up of Gen-X and Gen-Y buyers, these are people who expect technology,” said Justin Goduto, sales training developer. “It’s a demand, it’s a component of their life.”

A turning point

Just as the Web is helping to make shoppers more knowledgable, it’s also enabling them to be savvier about pricing.

When Charlie Johnson came to Audi Silver Spring to purchase an A4, the Waldorf resident said it was “empowering” to know that she had a clear idea of how much she would and should pay.

“I came with a file. I came with a briefcase full of stats on each of the vehicles that I had researched,” Johnson said. “It was pretty much, ‘I’m not going to haggle with you.’”

This transparency could be creating something of a turning point in the sales industry, according to Chris Donnelly, managing director at Accenture’s retail practice.

“Potentially you’re moving away from price as a marketing lever,” Donnelly said, and moving to a dynamic in which service and experience are the key differentiators among competitors.

Though this climate may give dealers less wiggle room on price, they say it has had the positive outcome of driving up customer satisfaction rates.

“That’s good for both parties,” said Kevin Reilly, owner of Alexandria Hyundai. “The market is really going to set a price that’s fair to dealers and customers.”

Customer communication

To keep up with today’s shoppers, sales teams are also trying to figure out how to manage the sales process across a wide range of platforms. Consumers might want to communicate by text message, instant message or e-mail, and each format calls for a specific tone and style.

As a sign of how essential these conversations have become to the sales process, Ourisman Automotive of Virginia now has three to four staffers at each of its local dealerships whose job is simply to respond to e-mail and Web communications from prospective customers.

Troy Nieves, director of Internet sales at Ourisman, is also watching for patterns in how shoppers are surfing his site and the sites of his competitors.

“When they’re doing their initial searches and their initial research, they’re doing it on a desktop,” Nieves said.

But, he often notices that they’re using their smartphones from the showroom floor to see if they can get the same car for a better price at another dealership. Accordingly, the company is focused on delivering a user-friendly Web experience on both devices.

Over at Alexandria Hyundai, after years of seeing increases in e-mail sales inquiries, “We’ve seen a real spike in phone calls to the dealership,” Reilly said.

Reilly theorizes this is because millennial-generation shoppers are flipping through the inventory on their smartphones and pressing the call button when they spot one that they like.

Together, these changes in consumer behavior are shaping a new generation of auto sellers.

“The salesperson who is more product knowledge-oriented and does a soft sell is going to thrive today and in the future,” said John O’Donnell, executive vice president of the Washington Area New Auto Dealers Association.

Sarah Halzack is The Washington Post's national retail reporter. She has previously covered the local job market and the business of talent and hiring. She has also served as a Web producer for business and economics news.
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