Buying shoes online or buying a car – which is the better customer experience?


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There are a finite number of significant purchases we will make during our adult lives. By ‘significant’, I mean a purchase that has a minimum of four figures in it, with the first figure likely to be greater than 2. The first of these purchases will probably be the acquisition of our first vehicle – either car or motorcycle – a pivotal point in our development from teenager to ‘young adult’. We may then move on to purchasing a property – something that is proving more difficult to do for younger adults in the current economic climate, but something we aspire to do all the same. We will at regular intervals purchase a holiday – the older we get, the more expensive this particular purchase becomes as one adult turns in to two, and then potentially starts adding in children.

There are of course other ‘significant’ purchases along the way depending on your interests. Some may buy a boat (if they can afford it). Others will buy expensive and elaborate entertainment systems for their homes. Buying a house is only just the start. Once you have purchased it, you may want a new kitchen or bathroom. It is very possible you will spend a significant sum of money on tradespeople to get the house up to the standard you require.

One purchase that I am a long way from making is related to retirement. It is perhaps the most significant purchasing decision we are likely to make in our lives. What do we do with the funds we have saved in our pension? Explaining annuities is most certainly not a subject for this blog post (or any I am likely to write for that matter), but please take my word for it that deciding on what to do with your hard-earned money for the rest of your life post retirement is rather important.

So why am I going on about these ‘significant purchases’? Let me stick to the big two to explain. If you think about the ‘customer experience’ of buying a car or a house, what immediately comes to mind? Do you ‘well up’ with emotion remembering how wonderful the company was who sold you your last car? Do you think back with admiration to the support and empathic service provided by your estate agent? Are you thinking ‘I cannot wait to have to go through these experiences all over again’?

Speaking from my own experience (although I would love to hear about yours), I sadly do not look back fondly on the experiences I have had spending vast sums of money relative to what I do every day. I have often wondered why the experience of buying a pair of new running shoes online or in a shop is so much easier, convenient and downright nicer than buying a car or a house. The level of service or attention I tend to receive on purchases of approximately £100 is far superior to the purchases I have made of £10,000 or more.

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Think about it – why is it that estate agents have in general such a bad reputation? Of course they are not all bad (my brother is one!) – some are excellent – but a profession does not earn a negative perception overnight. Surely when we are considering parting with huge sums of money, the experience should be exceptional, and superior to what we expect day-to-day.

Regular readers of my blog know that I encourage people to feature as a guest. This post is no exception. I used to work with Miles Tilley. I did not know him personally, but he became a firm advocate of customer experience when he became engaged in the work I was doing. Miles has kindly shared his recent experience of buying a car – it is a great story (expertly written) that brings to life the points that I have been making in this post:

It’s quite simple really – when buying a car, you want to be able to believe and trust the salesperson to sell you the best car at the best price. But what if you don’t even get as far as seeing that salesperson? Coming from Malvern – a small town where little ever happens, becoming 18 and being able to visit the local bars was very exciting for my friends. I was more concerned with turning 17 and finally being able to have my own independence in the form of a car. It meant that I could easily work and socialise out-of-town and 3 months later my driver’s licence changed from green to pink.

Fast forward 6 years, 5 clapped out cars, some savings and a redundancy cheque and I’m now at a point where I want to buy a brand new car. This is exciting for me. None of my previous cars have ever been particularly “nice”, but this was all about to change. Like a child looking through a toy catalogue for Christmas presents, I spent months of flicking through websites and had finally decided that I would like to take my search for a new car to the next level. I wanted to test drive a Fiat 500 S edition.

Sunday morning came and Fiat’s website pointed me in the direction of “Bristol Street Motors” an authorised car dealership in Worcester which comes under the Vertu Motors PLC umbrella. On arrival I browsed the cars for around 5 minutes or so, peering in windows, kicking tyres and wondering how long it would take for someone to approach me and ask if I needed any help. A few more minutes and a little impatience later, I decided to venture inside the dealership – something I always felt should be reserved for the people who wanted to sit down, discuss figures and drive their hardest bargain.

Inside, sat at a large desk, was a receptionist who I approached and asked if they had any demonstration Fiat 500’s in the “S” edition.  Politely she said she’d have to find out for me – Fair enough, it seemed that she wasn’t based in sales and therefore may not know all of the specific models of the car. She then popped round the corner and asked what I assumed to be a salesman who was sat alone at his desk absent-mindedly clicking away. His response was simple – “No, we don’t sorry”

Taken aback slightly at the short and unhelpful response, I asked the lady if they had another dealership that I could visit and was told that the nearest one was in Cheltenham. The conversation ended there, I politely thanked them for their (little) time and left. A few stunned seconds later and I was back in the car. The more I thought about it, the worse the whole experience seemed to be. I wasn’t once approached and offered any help, guidance or even recognition.

Frustratingly, later in the day, I found out that each dealership had been sent a special edition Fiat 500 GQ which had been designed by the men’s magazine under the same name – based on the Fiat 500 S. My experience of working in a sales environment is limited to managing a team of temporary Christmas Sales Advisors for a home shopping company, but even I knew that I had practically handed the salesperson a lead to sell me a car, with the possibility of up-selling me the new more expensive special edition model!

I did actually end up visiting Bristol Street Motor’s sister dealership in Cheltenham, where unfortunately the experience wasn’t much better. This time I waited for 15 minutes before I was acknowledged by a rushed salesperson with “Give me 2 minutes and I’ll be with you”. Eventually I did get to test drive a car similar to the one I wanted, but again this was delayed further by having to stop for fuel. (Why wasn’t this done before?) Post-test drive, I was told that unfortunately, the salesperson had another appointment with another customer, but he (so kindly) offered to email me a quote which would “probably be tomorrow now”.

As frustrating as this whole situation was, I don’t feel that it wasn’t entirely the salesperson’s fault. He admitted that he was rushed off his feet due to having “skeleton” staff in on Sundays and that he had worked 5 Sunday’s in a row. I’m not a service delivery expert but you would assume that Saturdays and Sundays are going to be the busiest days for buying cars (especially during the summer months where people get out and about more). If you know Sundays are going to be busy, why not manage a rota to include more staff on this day?

Annoyed and frustrated, I headed for my local Nissan dealer to look at a second car which took my interest and I’m happy to let you know that not all car dealerships are the same. Within 30 seconds of looking at the car I liked, I was greeted by a young sales person who shook my hand, introduced himself as Jamie and asked if it was that particular model I was interested in. 3 minutes later I was inside being shown around the model in more detail and 10 minutes later I was test driving one. I left the garage with a detailed quote of the model I wanted with all the extra specifications that I liked, and Jamie’s business card to give him a call if I wanted further information.

The whole experience reminded me of a speech Ian Golding once gave where he said that customers will go back to the places (or companies) where good memories are made. Now I may not necessarily buy the car from Jamie, (I’m quite hard to please and I wasn’t particularly blown away by the drive of the car); but I would however consider Nissan for future purchases and even recommend them to other potential buyers. The whole experience was quick, easy, non-pressured and not once did he start a sentence with “My boss would kill me if he knew I was telling you about this incredibly good but top-secret deal that we have…”

A couple of years ago, Fiat launched a trial initiative where you could actually purchase a Fiat 500 wholly online which was supported by a small number of pop up stores in shopping centres which contained an example model. Although this may have been a PR stunt, I’m amazed that Fiat – one of the largest and demonstrably forward thinking car manufacturers in Europe does not have more involvement in the way its cars are sold in franchised dealerships.

In an industry where competition is rife and potential Car Buyers are looking to spend thousands of pounds on a product that is so integral to daily routine, Car Dealerships should try not to get ahead of themselves. Maybe Vertu Motors’ mission statement about providing “an outstanding customer motoring experience through honesty and trust” is a bit too low-level and requires them to step back and review their strategy. As we all know, you can provide the best sales and aftercare process, but if you can’t acknowledge your customers and get them through the door, it’s unlikely that they will hang around for the latter stages of the customer journey.

An alternative title for this blog post is ‘bigger does not always equal better’ – a reference to the fact that the bigger the purchase, the better the experience does not necessarily become. The ’emotional experience’, or in other words ‘what we remember about the experiences we have’ is a key factor in determining loyalty and future buying behaviour. Miles experience clearly shows how a poor experience will inevitably damage the credibility of the brand, and drive a valuable customer to a competitor. The fact that a significant purchase is more likely to be remembered than normal day-to-day interactions, means that it is even more important to ensure that your customers remember the experience for the right reasons.

I must re-iterate, there are exceptions to the rule in every industry. Fords of Winsford (http://www.fow.co.uk/), a used car specialist in the North West are famed for their customer experience. We purchased our last car with them – it is by far the best experience I have ever had buying a car. However, they seem to be the exception rather than the rule. I can only hope that the automotive dealers and estate agencies start/continue to build customer led strategies, rather than purely sales driven ones that out the customer at the bottom of the list of priorities.

Many thanks to Miles for sharing his story. You can follow him on Twitter at @lezjc

I would also be delighted to hear of any examples of great experiences related to significant purchases.

2 thoughts on “Buying shoes online or buying a car – which is the better customer experience?

  1. Why are car dealers often like Solicitors because too often neither of them value their customers even if they call them clients!
    I bought a new BMW last January. Do you think I have heard from the dealer since? The answer is no, so what do I think? The dealership could not care less about me. Now go to the area I work in, Solicitors practices. If you ever need to use a Solicitor, after the matter is finished, do they speak to you again, probably not until another matter arises in a year or two or three. Do you consider yourself to be a valued client?
    My conclusion is neither class of business has good customer relations so why should I remain loyal? You can guess the answer.
    Having got that off my chest, whatever you do, do not ask me about BT customer relations.

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  2. Buying a car is inevitably soured by the fact that you have to negotiate on price. The salesman does it every day, whereas you do it once every three or four years. So you always come away thinking that you’ve somehow, ever so slightly, been done over.

    Also, in this day of just-in-time manufacturing, why is it beyond the wit of man to be able to build a car to order and have it delivered to a dealership in four weeks or less?

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