Managing the Store:
Surviving the New Retail Environment
By Mike Wiles
Add strategies to adapt to the new way customers shop and buy.
The rural lifestyler who’s never been on the seat of a tractor stops you in the middle of your sales spiel to say that your competitor’s tractor will pick up 75 more pounds than your brand will. The first instinct is to say, “How is that relevant?” You bite your tongue, smile and say, “You’ve done some serious research, I’m impressed! Their tractor does pick up a little more than ours, but ours is heavier and has a longer warranty. If you need more lift capacity, we could be looking at the next model size in our line.”
If you’ve noticed increasing challenges when dealing with today’s customers, you’re not alone. I’ve also been witnessing a shift in customer habits. Recently, I realized the far-reaching impact when a friend from a dealership that sells only industrial equipment commented on the issues he was seeing. He was considering sending his team to workshops to learn how to handle conflicts with the new “breed” of customers. I would have guessed a dealership that almost never deals with the general public would be immune, but no one seems to be. If we’re trying to market to customers the ways we always have, we may be missing opportunities.
Consider this quote from Selling Today, an industry guide, “The customer has supplanted the product as the driving force in sales today. Many of today’s customers no longer care where or from whom, they buy. They are a new generation of aggressive, Internet-empowered customers. They are the new ‘experts,’ confident and determined because they are equipped with purchasing firepower unavailable to any previous generation.”
Before the Internet, customers would visit multiple locations to gather information. This meant relationships could be developed early in the process and salespeople were perceived as knowledgeable about their products and dealerships. This interdependency is gone if you have not adapted to the new consumer. The ability to do extensive research online means customers could know more than you about your products. For comparison, a recent survey shows the average car buyer visits only 1.2 dealerships before buying. That says they’ve done their research and checked features, benefits and pricing online. Unless there’s a bad experience at the dealership that they’ve chosen, they’ll buy there.
Adapting to the new world is an opportunity for the rural lifestyle dealer. Your online marketing activities and social media efforts should provide information to build customer relationships. In my personal experience, there is greater potential for success by focusing more on education and not so much on selling.
When prospects arrive at the dealership, there’s a narrow window to build face-to-face relationships. Complimenting customers on their research is a good start. Then, take the time to fill in gaps in their knowledge. It’s more important than ever to maintain good communication all the way through the sales, delivery and early use period. A follow-up phone call several weeks after delivery will give you a chance to further cement your relationship. It’s imperative that you avoid misunderstandings because today’s customers can broadcast perceived wrongs over the Internet to the entire planet.
Internet-savvy customers fully realize the power they possess and that’s changed the dynamics for the retail world. It’s especially challenging in the equipment business where everyone in the building may interact with a customer. In most dealerships, customers generally have free reign to talk with salespeople, service techs and managers, parts people, accounting, etc. That’s good for transparency, which is highly valued, but it does present challenges to owners and managers.
You now need to step up screening efforts at hiring, so that every team member is diplomatic under pressure and you may need to retrain current employees on these interpersonal skills. It’s critical that after the shopping has been done on the Web and your dealership was lucky enough to be chosen by a prospect, that no one in the building ruins the chances of the sale.
Here’s where we are. The customer now controls the ability to become educated on any product. They will buy on their terms and you must be ready and available at that time and make the entire process a very pleasant one. When you focus efforts on assisting with that process, you will be viewed as a partner and rewarded. You may need to think more like educators and less like salespeople — and become better and more frequent communicators. Understanding and adapting to the new realities of retail sales will help ensure your future is bright.