It allows us to undertake so much research before visiting a car dealership: manufacturers have their sites where brochures can be downloaded and vehicles can be configured; finance calculators show how much a car will cost per month; and crucially, all the latest buyer incentives are there to see, updated on a regular basis.

New and used car dealers equally have embraced the internet age and eagerly advertise why customers should buy from them; their location, facilities and opening hours, used car stock lists, new car offers and of course, anything that means they stand out from their competitors. Even private sellers have an internet presence through the medium of used car advertising sites.

Then of course there are the online motoring journals and video reviews that enable prospective buyers to get a good sense of what each new model is all about and how it will fit into their lives. Just like their traditional paper-based counterparts, they will often feature group tests that make direct comparisons with models in the same price bracket, or that appeal to the same rational or emotional buying motives.

These peer group comparisons are very useful, as despite the internet and all the information about individual car brands and models that is available online, finding out how similar cars from different manufacturers compare to one another is a challenge that still remains. Just like in advertising, manufacturer and dealer websites avoid making comparisons with their vehicles’ direct competitors.

For prospective customers to find out for themselves how cars compare, the choices are limited. Maybe there is a group test undertaken by a motoring journal that can be tracked down and reviewed online or in print. Alternatively, the specification lists can be printed out and interrogated line by line. If neither of these options is viable, then perhaps a visit to a dealership and a discussion with a sales professional? After all, if anyone is going to know how their car compares to its competitor models, it will be the people who sell it… or will it?

Finding that all important comparison information

Sales consultants representing a particular brand typically know about that brand’s product range. However, this is the information that people can, should they want to, find out for themselves via the internet et al. But what of the comparative? How does the SEAT Leon compare to the Mazda 3 for example?

In my experience, both as a retail customer and as someone who works in the automotive industry, this is where many a sales consultant fails spectacularly. Yes, they can tell you all about the model they sell – think ‘talking brochure’ – but little or nothing of how it compares with any other vehicles the customer is considering. Why is this? Surely as a professional sales person it is their responsibility to be fully up to speed with their competitors? Shouldn’t every sales professional know the strengths and weaknesses of their products and, more importantly, those of the competition? Can they really be selling when they don’t know what they are up against? What kind of a service are they providing to customers?

As already mentioned, all the product information can be sought without the need to visit a dealership. Also, it’s the norm to find that a test drive can be booked online, as can a service. There are also sites that provide valuations for part-exchanges. Customers being so well informed before visiting a dealership wasn’t the case before the internet and social media took off. Now, customers can often be more informed than the sales consultant.

Sales staff and those tricky questions

So where is the added value of engaging with a sales consultant if they can’t answer the questions that we find difficult to answer ourselves? Why can’t they tell us how the models that they represent compare with what we already drive or any other car on our short lists? If they are truly sales professionals, surely they should have a firm grasp on the car market; what’s new, what’s good, what’s bad, what’s coming out soon and what’s about to be replaced. What are the purchase incentives and funding offers available from other brands? Moreover, what are the sales arguments that can overcome competitors’ strengths and any perceived weaknesses in their own model’s specification?

Depending on their role, countless experts both at the manufacturer and at national sales companies or importers spend hours, months and often years benchmarking their new products against the core competitors during development and building up to market launch. As part of new model training, it is usual to have some sort of competitor benchmarking so that everyone attending can return to their dealerships knowing what a great product they will shortly have in their showrooms and how it compares to the competition. Crucially, they will discover where and how it beats the competition.

All of this new found knowledge and experience is great for those attending the training and for the next few months or so, until a competing brand introduces a new model or an existing one receives a ‘product enhancement’, or facelift. Then of course there are the purchase incentives, including financing that could change month by month.

So, whose responsibility is it to keep abreast of all these changes?

Well, as a retail team, isn’t it everyone’s responsibility to take a professional approach to this? Continuous professional development isn’t just a training course. It’s about keeping up to date with everything that’s happening in your world. And the more you do it the less onerous it becomes. It becomes a habit. Fifteen minutes every day, maybe more sometimes, checking out what’s happening in your retail world; the car industry

Sales managers: whatever happened to good old fashioned product quizzes? What about tasking your team of sales consultants with researching given brands so that news updates can be given at sales meetings? Think about how customers have changed their behaviours and how much more knowledgeable they are. Think about the value sales professionals can add if they provide a service that is challenging for customers to obtain from elsewhere. Think about the professionalism of knowing the market place in which you compete and demonstrating this to customers.

As with so much in life, it’s not rocket science; it’s a simple matter of knowing your competition as well as you know your own product, wowing the customer with your knowledge, and then adopting informed arguments as to why that customer should buy from you.

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