Originally posted 10/6/2010 on DrivingSales.com

For most of us, the fair season has come and gone. As I’m writing this, my son is at the county fair in the rural Michigan town where my wife and I grew up. Like most fairs in the Midwest, it’s all about 4H and Future Farmers of America; kids showing off their pigs, goats, and cows (consequently, my niece’s rabbit is Grand Champion). Like most other fairs in the Midwest, local businesses set up shop, politicians are there to shake hands, and all of the food is available on a stick. The car dealers all come armed with Mustangs, Duramaxes, Chargers, and the omnipresent balloons.

Then there are the carnival rides. Personally, I don’t ride anything that can be assembled overnight. The kids, however, go crazy over them. The one ride that always intrigues me most is bumper cars, or Dodgem, as it’s known in fair parlance. There are always three or four maniacal, fuzzy lipped, teens chasing down a dozen other people.  One would think the whole point would be to live out one’s favorite traffic jam fantasy, and just plow through everything that gets in the way. That’s where the intrigue comes in: everyone drives away from each other.

As I mentioned in a previous post, I perform a lot of mystery shopping. One of the biggest fumbles I consistently see is that dealer personnel don’t ask questions in their email responses. Over these last few weeks, I’ve come to realize that most dealer personnel don’t seem to be good at answering questions either. A lot like Dodgem, a customer tries to bump their email into a dealership, only to have his or her efforts dodged.

First, let’s put ourselves in the customer’s comfy shoes. As John and Jane Customer, we work hard for our money and we don’t want to pay anything more than we should. We go to the Gap when things go on sale, and we go out of our way to Costco to get a 55 gallon drum of shampoo to save a few pennies per ounce. When it comes to cars, we are blissfully unaware of dealer allocations, regional option groups, and targeted residuals. Our grandpa was somehow able to order a L72 big block Malibu with dog-dish wheels and no air conditioning. When we drive by the dealership, we see an endless sea of vehicles with infinite possibilities.

Now let’s get back to reality. As dealer personnel, we know that manufactures build what they want, when they want. Our dealers still shotgun it and order what they think people want. In all actuality, most customers have no idea what they really want. This is how many good salespeople make great careers by becoming a valuable resource to their customers, then their customers’ families and friends. They know all of the subtle intricacies and help their loyal customers select the right car.

Is there any reason why the digital-age should change this? Absolutely not! If a customer was sitting in front of you and asked if a Grand Cherokee had full-time four wheel drive, you’d explain the difference between Quadra-Trac I, Quadra-Trac II, and Quadra-Drive II. But somehow in the email world, the response is “…we have plenty of Grand Cherokees to choose from. When can you come to the dealership to drive one?” Why not just answer the question: “The new 2011 Grand Cherokee is equipped with three highly sophisticated AWD systems. Are you looking for something to take you through the snow or do you plan on going off-roading? I can walk you through which system might be right for you” (that response took 57 seconds to write). Which email do you think is going to solicit a response quicker?

Before you sell a car, you need to sell yourself, sell your dealership, and sell an appointment. If Toyota is not building Spruce Mica Tundras, let the customer know it. If Honda only ships two-wheel drive Pilots to your region, say so. If Fiestas with manual transmissions are in short supply, then give the customer a heads up. Facing these questions head-on allows you to build rapport, add value, and start a dialogue. It makes you that valuable resource, thus making it much easier to sell yourself, sell your dealership, and sell an appointment.

The next time a customer emails you a question, think about bumper cars. Imagine your competition driving away madly from potential customers, while you square up for a head-on collision. Think about what you know and what the customer doesn’t. Make yourself indispensable in the shopping process. Now take your right foot, slam down the pedal, and go in for the hit!