When a Great User Experience is Ruined by a Lousy Customer Experience

Jim Ross / Thursday, October 17, 2013

I’m about to buy the fifth new car that I’ve bought in my lifetime, a Toyota Prius. This will be the fourth time that I’ve done most of the car buying process online, and so far it’s been a great experience. Unfortunately, I’ll eventually have to go to a car dealership, and that’s where the great customer experience will break down.

The car shopping user experience is better than ever

The user experience of auto manufacturer and third-party websites (such as Kelly Blue Book, Edmunds, and Consumer Reports) is better than ever, giving you the ability to research, build, and price a car with the exact features you’re looking for. It’s easier than ever to find the best possible price that you should negotiate for and to get price quotes from multiple dealers competing for your business.

Auto manufacturers have worked hard to improve the user experience of their websites. They’re not yet perfect, and some are better than others, but they’ve come a long way to providing exactly what customers want, creating an easy and pleasant experience, exciting customers about their cars, and giving them the information they need.

The customer experience breaks down at the dealership

Unfortunately, the online user experience is only one part of the entire customer experience of purchasing a new car. As the term implies, the customer experience includes everything the customer encounters – from the initial use of the auto manufacturer’s website, to brochures, to email and phone contact with the dealer, to the user experience of car dealers’ websites, to the interaction in the showroom with the salesperson, to the final purchase experience, and later to the experience of going back to the dealership for service.

My user experience on Toyota’s website has been great, providing me with a great customer experience so far, but eventually I’ll have to go to the dealership to inspect, test drive, and complete the purchase. Like most people, there are few things I dread more than going to a dealership to purchase a car. Even though I’ll get a price quote online first, I fully expect they’ll try to slip in additional fees, I’ll be pressured to use the dealer financing, and of course they’ll want me to get the stain protection, rustproofing, and extended warranty.

Why can’t the dealership customer experience be as good as the online user experience?

While most products are either purchased entirely online or entirely in a store, buying a car is unique in that it typically begins online and concludes in person. While the online user experience of the car buying process has become better than ever, the in-person car buying experience remains mired in the past with pushy salespeople and feelings of mistrust, anxiety, pressure, and deception.

If the auto manufacturers spend so much time and money getting the user experience of their websites right, why can’t they improve the customer experience at the dealership? The truth is that auto manufacturers and dealers are separate entities with related but different goals. Both want to sell cars, but Toyota (for example) profits when any Toyota is sold. Dealers only profit when they sell a Toyota.

Auto manufacturers also have a much easier part of the process. Their websites need to excite customers about their cars, provide them with information, and entice them to buy. They sell their cars to dealers at a pre-set price. Customers and car manufacturers have complimentary goals. Customers want to find a car they’d like to drive and learn about its features. Car manufacturers would like to show customers their exciting cars and provide information about their features. It’s fun to look at cars online and build one with the exact colors and features you want. Customers are in dream mode, trying out different features, and the cost is only theoretical at that point.

Dealers have the far more difficult task of actually selling cars to customers. Car dealers and customers have opposing goals. Dealers want to sell the car at the highest possible price. Customers want to buy the car at the lowest possible price. Car dealers also have to work with customers on the messy and unpleasant aspects of financing, interest rates, sales taxes, fees, and the reality of having to part with a large sum of money.

The Internet has made the dealership experience worse

The stereotypical car salesman and the poor customer experience at car dealerships existed long before the Internet. Ironically, improving the user experience of the online car shopping process has actually made the dealership experience worse by making it an even more competitive environment for dealers. Because car buyers have easy access to pricing information and can pit dealers against each other with online price quotes, dealers have no choice but to compete by offering the lowest price. Because they don’t make much profit at those low prices, they’re pressured to make up for that elsewhere in financing, trade-ins, additional fees, extended warranties, and selling extra features and services. This results in even more aggressive salespeople contacting customers, trying to keep them at the dealership, and pressuring them to buy immediately to prevent losing them to another dealership.

How can this problem be solved?

Since customers and dealers will always have opposite goals, this won’t be an easy problem to solve, and I don’t have an easy answer. Dealers need to make a profit, and customers need to feel like they’re getting a fair deal. A lot of work has been done to improve the online car shopping user experience. It’s time to begin working on improving the customer experience at the dealer. It’s in the auto manufacturers’ best interests to find a compromise that works best for both customers and dealers.