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An Insider's Guide to the Customer Interview Step of Car Buying

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Getting To Know Each Other

Every day, thousands of people hit car lots with hopes of taking home their next vehicle.  Whether it's a dream car, a family car or a commuter car, the fact remains that a vehicle is one of the largest purchases in a person's life.  Nonetheless, after years of working in the industry, I became aware that both beginners and experienced car buyers approached their purchases without some basic information and, usually, with a very negative outlook toward the salesperson, the dealership and the car buying process.  Still, they all don their game faces and stroll to the lot ready for battle.

Now, I am a firm believer that knowledge is power, so I am going to help you with your next car.  After conducting your research, you visit a dealership to meet the people standing between you and your next car.

Meet and Greet

Driving on the lot, a buyer notices salespeople patrolling the lot or lingering near the doors to the showroom.  Sometimes, a particularly aggressive salesperson jogs beside the car until the buyer parks.  Already, the tension builds in the buyer's mind.  "Oh, great!  A sleazy salesperson," the buyer mumbles under his breath.  Many dealerships realize that a buyer needs a minute or two to gather her thoughts before a salesperson introduces himself, so they have trained the salespeople to stand back and allow the customer to settle for a moment.  Typically within five minutes, a salesperson will approach the buyer, offering a handshake and a quick introduction.  This introduction is the "Meet and Greet" step in a car deal.  In many cases, buyers venomously resist the interaction.  Nowhere in the business world is a handshake or greeting less welcome.  Fortunately, buyers don't need to fear the salesperson.  In fact, dealerships train salespeople to breakdown buyers' barriers and to build rapport with buyers.  The salesperson wants to sell a car, but he can't start until he has a communicative customer.  Buyers save time when they communicate with the salesperson.  After all, a salesperson is part of every car deal, even if she spends thirty or forty minutes breaking through the customer's opposition first.

The salesperson's goal during the Meet and Greet is moving the customer into the showroom.  Often, customers want to roam the lot and look at the cars.  Unfortunately, roaming the lot is a waste of time.  First, many lots do not have their full inventory on the main lot.  Second, window stickers are the only way to learn the features on each car and they start to look a lot alike after the third or fourth sticker.  Third, most lots keep the cars locked so there is no way to get into the cars without sending the salesperson to get the keys.  Tick tock, tick tock.  Instead of wasting time by going from car to car, a buyer takes advantage of the salesperson's knowledge and access to a computerized inventory by following him into the showroom.

Customer Interview

Once inside, the salesperson leads the buyer to an office or table for the Customer Interview.  Many dealerships use the term "Needs Analysis" interchangeably with "Customer Interview."  Wary buyers assume that the "sneaky" salesperson wants to trick them, but they are worrying themselves unnecessarily.  The salesperson's goal during the interview is determining the right car for the customer.  As mentioned in "An Insider's Guide to Car Buying Research," the salesperson uses two acronyms to guide the interview, FORMA and CAUSED.[1]

Why Are You Asking Personal Questions? 

When the salesperson asks FORMA questions, buyers often ask why they need to answer such personal questions.  In addition to providing information about the car's function, FORMA answers give the salesperson opportunities to build rapport through shared experiences or interests.  FORMA stands for Family, Occupation, Recreation, Motivation and Area of Activity.  Family questions involve the size of the buyer's family, the primary driver(s), names of the buyer(s), spousal (or partner) involvement in the deal, and the number of children along with their names and ages.  Occupation questions do not determine a buyer's ability to afford a car.  Instead, the salesperson is determining if the vehicle needs extra cargo space for equipment or fuel-efficiency for long commutes or sales routes, etc.  Recreation questions tell the salesperson of the need for off-road capabilities, space for camping gear, or roof racks.  Motivation questions tell the salesperson why a buyer is looking for a car.  Is it a need or a want?  Was there an accident?  Is a teenager getting her first car?  Area of Activity questions determine the need for comfort on long drives, fuel-efficiency, or the ability to handle rough or rural roads.  FORMA questions enable the salesperson to apply his knowledge of cars and to narrow down suitable vehicle models.

What Are Hot Buttons? 

CAUSED questions reveal a buyer's "Hot Buttons," the features that matter most.  CAUSED stands for Cost (Comfort at some dealerships), Appearance/performance, Utility, Safety, Economy, Dependability.  Conventional wisdom says buyers will have one or two hot buttons.  Cost customers love to talk about price, price, price.  They can't help themselves.  The salesperson counters the cost onslaught by noting that the wrong car won't work regardless of the price.  Comfort customers usually want a luxurious feel.  The salesperson ask about seat cushioning, seat size and material (cloth? leather?), ride smoothness, leg room, head room and telescoping steering wheels.  Appearance/performance buyers want a car that looks good, sounds good, accelerates well and/or handles like a sports car.  The salesperson asks these buyers about engine size, driving style, color preferences, spoilers, and sunroofs.  Utility buyers focus on function.  The salesperson asks questions about cargo space, seating needs, roof racks, and off-road requirements.  Safety customers ask about air bags, anti-lock brakes, car seat systems, safety ratings and blind spots.  The salesperson knows the relative safety of his inventory and asks why safety is so important.  Often, an accident or young children prompted the buyer's concern with safety.  Economy buyers care about cost, but they think more about fuel efficiency than sticker cost.  The salesperson asks these buyers about commute times and distances, interest in the environment, and fill-up frequency.  Dependability customers like to "kick the tires" and worry about breakdowns.  The salesperson asks them about past breakdowns, mechanical inclination, and earlier cars.  Hot buttons are the features that matter most to a buyer, and they tell the salesperson how to sell a car to that buyer.  A talented salesperson uses the hot buttons during her presentation and demonstration of the car and tailors her description around the buyer's interests.  For example, the salesperson notes that LED brake lights (a) cost less than other brake lights, (b) look stylish, (c) work better than standard bulbs,  (d) are more visible to other drivers, or (e) require replacement less often than standard bulbs.  The experienced salesperson pairs his presentation to match the customer's hot buttons, while a less-talented salesperson gives a one-size-fits-all presentation.  Time after time, buyers prefer a presentation that matches their needs and interests.

Areas To Avoid

During the Customer Interview, information flows back and forth between the buyer and salesperson.  Most of the information should flow smoothly, however, some information is private.  Sales managers and, therefore, salespeople want to know the customer's desired monthly payment.  Knowing the desired payment, a sales manager will manipulate the numbers during the negotiation to maximize profit while approaching the customer's desire.  A savvy buyer keeps the desired payment to herself until the dealership makes its first offer.  Even then, the buyer avoids payment discussions and focuses on the price of the car, the amount financed.  In a negotiation, "he who speaks first, loses."

Additionally, buyers should keep the urgency of their decision to themselves.  Even if he needs a car immediately, the buyer does not want to give that leverage to the salesperson.  If a pre-approved loan exists, buyers should keep the terms of that loan to themselves.  The dealership's finance options are often (but not always) better than pre-approved loans, and they WILL maximize their profit if they know that their banks have better rates or terms.  Sure, the buyer can take the matching or slightly better deal and feel like he got what he wanted, but he can also hold out and, perhaps, get an even better deal or more protection added to the same deal.  If the salesperson is creepy, pushy, sexist or inattentive, the knowledgeable buyer wastes no more time, answers no questions and asks to speak to a manager.  There is no need for a buyer to be unsettled or uncomfortable for non-buying reasons. 

At the same time, good customers leave their prejudices at home.  Case in point, a female customer refused to do business with one salesperson because of his weight and called him a "fat a--" in her discussion with the sales manager.  When the manager turned to send for me, the woman also refused to talk to me because she "doesn't work with Middle Easterners."  The first salesperson was a Fleet Manager with years of experience, a long list of repeat customers and a volume-based commission that enabled him to offer lower pricing than all the other salespeople.  I am not Middle Eastern (not that it matters), had a binder full of positive surveys and letters from happy customers and was the dealership's "go-to guy" for the owner's referrals and tough customers.  Instead of refusing to do business with her, the black sales manager who had seen more than his fair share of bigotry in life assigned the most annoying salesperson to her and charged her more than any other customer.  Even though her offer made money for the dealership, it was not the best deal that we could have (and would have) given during a normal negotiation.  She did not buy a car that night, but she did waste a lot of time.

Society trains people to guard their personal information, especially during negotiations.  That training sits on the shoulders of car buyers like one of those cartoon angels.  "Be careful," the angel warns.  "These car guys are sneaky!  They want to rip you off!"  Unfortunately, the car industry created an adversarial environment over several decades, so those warnings aren't baseless.  Today, however, the sales profession has evolved into a more consultative endeavor.  Most salespeople want to help their customers and to make a paycheck.  During the Meet and Greet and Customer Interview steps at the dealership, give your salesperson the benefit of the doubt, avoid talking about monthly payments and be willing to listen to someone who makes car deals every day of the week.  Your visit to the dealership will be shorter, less confrontational, and more enjoyable.

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Bibliography

  1. XUSNLT "An Insider's Guide to Car Buying Research." Infobarrel. 15/01/2014. 18/01/2014 <Web >

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