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Don’t Go Breaking Their Hearts

Sell Cars When, Where and How Customers Want

The true definition of a customer-first mindset is meeting customers where they are. In the digital era of transparency, dealers increase market share when they acknowledge that customers have taken control of the buying process. 

At some level, being transparent is accepted by most dealers. However, a successful transition from online to in-store purchase execution is where most dealers miss the mark. 

The Caffeine Connection 

This past January, AutoFi was fortunate to speak at Southeast Toyota’s (SET) dealer marketing meetings. It was a whirlwind trip with six locations and insane logistics. While in Charlotte, NC, an event occurred which resonated so much with the automotive shopping experience that it could not be ignored.

Coffee cups hearts AutoFi Blog

The meeting was hosted at the Charlotte Marriott City Center, connected to a Starbucks. Retail automotive vendors and dealership employees drink a lot of sub-optimal coffee. It’s not uncommon to drink the four-hour old pot sitting in the dealership service lounge or the massive urn of warm water suspiciously marketed as coffee at most hotel conferences. 

The industry runs on caffeine. As a result, the AutoFi team is serious about a couple of things, coffee being one of them. At least at this hotel, one could grab a mediocre brew, in a rush, from Starbucks.

Part of the convenience of ordering coffee through the Starbucks app is that the process is exactly the same at each store, with little to no wait. The coffee looks the same, tastes the same, and is ready at the same spot on the counter within each location. It’s a seamless and smooth customer experience. 

This time, however, there was no coffee at the counter where it should have been. After waiting for what felt like an eternity (probably 180 seconds), it was time to ask what had happened to the app order. The barista’s response was, “System’s down. Get in line. ” You can imagine how that was received. Forget the coffee. 

Often, this is the standard customer experience for a dealership that’s using digital retail without the right systems and processes. A customer thinks the car was just purchased online and arrives at the dealership, documents in hand, anticipating the vehicle’s delivery. Generally, customers are enthusiastic about having gone through what, so far, has been a much better purchase process

The Faceplant

Unfortunately, this is where sales momentum goes awry. Customers are greeted by a salesperson with the traditional, “Welcome to the dealership. How can I help you”? To which he or she responds, “I bought a vehicle online, and I’m here to pick it up”. The salesperson then asks, “What kind of vehicle are you looking to purchase”? Frustration sets in as customers explain that their cars have already been purchased online. Typically, a salesperson leaves these buyers alone on the showroom floor for 15 minutes or more while scrambling to figure out what happened. 

This is the typical digital retail customer experience when the process is treated as a lead source or limited to an “internet program”. Relegating digital retail to the “Internet” or “BDC” departments insulates the rest of the dealership from the process and is a recipe for disaster.  

These customers have made a substantial online commitment in trying to buy a car, and expect that the process will be significantly better than the traditional vehicle purchase. And then they are told to wait once they enter the store. 

How should this experience go? 

Top-performing AutoFi dealers manage this process by simply being prepared. The car is cleaned, gassed, and parked in the dealership’s delivery area with the customer’s name on a hangtag proudly displayed from the rearview mirror. The deal jacket is organized, with key sales paperwork prepared to mirror the online deal. The customer is greeted warmly and provided with a quick overview of the process. Typically, this includes: an inspection of the new vehicle and any trade-in vehicles if applicable, a review of protection options, and finally, a detailed delivery. Top dealerships complete this process in under an hour. This takes less than one-third of the time spent completing a traditional vehicle purchase. 

Where’s The Disconnect?


Relegating digital retail to the Internet Department is a mistake. You have to think of it as a part of a broader set of systems and processes. If you are only thinking of digital retail as an Internet Department/BDC initiative, you’re missing the whole point and will make it worse for customers.

Perhaps it comes down to semantics. The term “digital retail” is almost as bad as the term “omnichannel.” It’s not digital retail – it’s just retail. It’s selling a car where, when, and how consumers want. 

Consumers expect a rewarding online experience. They weigh in with their dollars. Turning on a website widget isn’t going to magically transform a retail dealership’s operations or pump dollars to the monthly financial statement. 

Customers are looking for a less painful path to purchase. Lasting success happens when dealerships approach the digital era with a customer-first mindset.  

Therefore, when a customer purchases the car online, it’s mission-critical that a smooth transition happens between the online and in-store experience. If dealers fail to deliver here, they risk breaking their customers’ hearts. 

A disconnected process is not an option. Your customers want to buy cars. Make it easy. 

AutoFi combines best-in-class technology with industry expertise to help dealers select digital retail efforts that are meaningful to the customer and successful for the dealership.  

Set up a demo today and discover how to give customers what they want in a purchase experience.