Saturday, October 22, 2005

E-Mail Doesn't Have to be Antiseptic

JD Powers reports 2/3rds of car buyers research purchases online. Five rounds of e-mail tag illustrate the self-imposed limitations on online sales tactics.

Feeling flush, I decided to shop for a Saab or a BMW online. In 1997, when I bought a Ford Explorer, I called 4 local dealerships, got descriptions of what they had on the lot, made a choice and concluded the purchase over the phone using my American Express card. So I figured that I could click, exchange a few e-mails and make a purchase online.

I was wrong.

I clicked on an Autobytel.com ad and filled out a form. Within minutes I got acknowledgement e-mails from two local BMW dealerships. I’m still waiting for a response from a Saab dealer so either Autobytel, an information and lead generation service for dealers, is void in my area or the local Saab dealers aren’t fleet of foot.

Then I was introduced by e-mail to Maggie Keating of DeFeo BMW and Renee Kim of Prestige Motors. Both sent me e-mails introducing themselves as Internet sales representatives and pledging undying efforts to contact me and “make your experience completely satisfying.”

When I didn’t respond and ducked their phone calls I got another e-mail. This version was slightly more intense. It assured me that each of them was dedicated to helping me and again pledged to satisfy me.

Just in case I didn’t believe them. I got more e-mails shortly thereafter, one ostensibly from each of their direct managers and one from Autobytel, containing surveys asking me to rate my satisfaction with the speed of response and engagement process thus far.

The surprising thing was after 3 rounds of contact … no one talked cars to me. Nobody sent me a pitch or a picture. Nobody loving described the perfect BMW 3 series they had waiting on the lot with my name on it. Nobody told me what a stud I was for considering BMW. Nobody proactively tried to sell me anything.

It was all antiseptic e-mail. No emotion. No color. No pitch. The emphasis was on reassuring me that the online channel was real and that these cyber saleswomen meant business.

Instead of selling me they asked me questions. Some duplicated the form I filled out. Most asked me questions about what I wanted – what packages? What color? What model? Not all the questions seemed to be aimed at qualifying me.

I had no idea what was possible or available. When I said I wanted to buy within 30 days and asked them what was on the lot ready to go and asked them to compare monthly leasing rates with purchase rates, both Maggie and Renee suggested I cruise by bwmusa.com and then answer the questions. Still no pitch, no come-on and no car talk.

Isn’t it funny how different the online experience is from the showroom? On the lot, a salesperson would romance the product, put me behind the wheel, talk up the features and benefits and try everything possible to get me visualizing myself behind the wheel of a fully loaded BMW 325. In real life, if I showed signs of desire, like asking about rates and specifying a 30 day decision-delivery cycle, they’d immediately start talking details, deals and delivery dates.

By e-mail I got the third degree. But no romance, no customer service and no uptake on the signals I was sending. When I asked what they had available, neither sales rep responded by saying, “we have a hot black 325i with leather interior, a killer stereo and satellite radio that we can deliver to your door tomorrow.”

I was looking for them to do the heavy lifting for me and to sell me a car. They were looking to be politically correct and to meet some management-imposed metrics designed to assess the value of the fee the dealers pay Autobytel. The end result was that neither of us got what we wanted.

The moral of this tale --- online should contain the same combination of emotional and logical elements of a real life sales experience. The number of non-serious tire kickers online is probably the same, in percentage terms, as on car lots. So there is probably nothing to lose by focusing e-mail exchanges on selling.

Why bother to engage customers with e-mail that is tepid and process oriented rather than product-centric and sales focused? Think about the psychology of it. If I took the trouble to click, I’m interested in a car; your car. Talk cars to me. Confirm my interest, validate my brand selection, draw me in with eye-candy, the brand values, unique features and benefits and/or the best deals you can make. Nobody wins when we just play e-mail tag.

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I just went through the same thing with Toyota to buy a Highlander Limited... You would think the high volume, lower profit dealers would be all over the internet by now using best practices to build a relationship. Instead, when you try to buy the car, they ask for the details from the form you already completed. As you say, nothing sexy, nothing that makes me want to buy NOW! Instead, these dealers want you to find a generic model online and then come in to visit with them personally like you just walked in off the lot... This is not e-commerce...

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