Mastering Communication in Automotive Sales

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In our last blog post, we discussed the need to become aware of why fully understanding communication is important. Yet, trying to articulate to our employees the why and how of something as simple as: “Hello, how are you today?” is comparable to explaining the carefully choreographed movements of a black belt martial artist. Without time, context, understanding, and forethought, it is much easier to demand they just: “Go say hi to that guy!”

As managers, we simply need more time to fully describe the nuances behind the 93% of communication that is non-verbal. And because we lack that extra time, we instead send our teams to the frontlines of our dealership and hope their instincts kick in before they run away. This is the problem with our sales floors. By offering even the slightest bit of training, however, we can alter our brute-force approach to the fluidity of a master.

Here are three ways to begin to change our understanding of communication.

Social Expectation

A properly framed introduction should include:

1) Social pleasantries (Hello, how are you?)

2) Exchange of names. (I’m John. What’s your name.)

3) An power exchange and assertion of dominance.

Whether recognized on a conscious level or not, we are expected to adhere to certain social proprieties. This is called Social Control, or the “necessary part of social order. The norms, rules, laws, and structures of society that regulate human behavior.” Often times when trying to come up with new ways of communicating with our customers, a trainer will attempt to alter the initial introduction that occurs in conversation. I disagree with this practice. Of course, “Hello, how are you?” is overused and redundant, but it serves a distinct purpose within our society. We do not ask this question because we want an answer–we ask this question because it is what is inappropriate not to.

By suggesting that we change the way, we introduce ourselves from “Hello, how are you” to something as slight as “I hope your day is progressing well,” we run the risk of throwing off the entire conversation before it has even begun. Many argue that when we ask how someone is doing, we set ourselves up for immediate failure. What if the responder replies in the negative?

“Not good. My dog died. What do you want?”

The stronger a person adheres to the social norms of a polite introduction, the more uncomfortable it becomes for the other person to break away from those norms. The expectations of a properly framed introduction are so engrained into our subconscious that breaking them causes immediate discomfort for everyone involved in the conversation. The level of that discomfort is directly in-line with the gravity of the breach and has a name—rudeness.

When a person breaches protocol, they are being rude. They know it. You know it. Everyone knows it.

This is important because we can use another person’s rudeness to our advantage. Yet, when we are not conscious of those social expectations, we react instead of rebutting.

Rude individuals attempt to assert authority and expect others to conform to their inappropriate behavior. If we are unaware of how to behave in return, we are far more likely to back down and give the dissonant individual control. The skill level of a sales associate can easily be gauged by what happens in these interactions. A skilled sales associate will recognize this power struggle and pivot; a middling sales associate will acquiesce control; a novice will hand control over on a silver platter.

Teaching new employees that it is ok to push back against rude behavior is foundational for learning to gain control in a conversation, and as they practice this skill, they will become more capable of altering their verbiage in their favor. For example:

A seasoned sales associate may ask: “What’s your name?”

In order for a customer to not offer their name after this question would mean blatantly defying politeness. It requires the customer to come face to face with a psychological urge to behave in accordance with social expectations rather than experience discomfort.

A middling sales associate may ask: “Can I have your name?”

This question lacks power and control and opens the door for a customer to say “no”. Ironically, even by responding in the affirmative, the customer is in a position of control because they have allowed the questions to continue.

Let’s play this one out a little bit to get the idea fully:

Scenario 1:

Agent: “Can I have your name?”

Customer: “No.”

Where can the agent go from here?

Scenario 2:

Agent: “Can I have your name?”

Customer: “John”

The agent must again ask permission for more information.”Can I have your last name, please?”

Customer: a) “No.” b) “Why do you need my last name?” c) “I just want to know if you have what I’m looking for.” d) *insert ambiguous spelling of the last name that requires another request for information*

Agent: “Can you spell that for me?”

If your agent has made it all the way down that path with the customer, it is only because the customer allowed it.

Novice: Won’t even ask for a name.

Give and Take

In his book “Ich Und Du” (I and Thou), Martin Buber describes the human experience as two forms of interaction, I-Thou, and I-It.

I-Thou relationships describe the unconditional positive regard that occurs between two souls.

I-It refers to the daily transactional encounters we have with one another.

Nearly all interactions that occur in our lives are I-It.

These are the give and take between yourself and the driver next to you in your commute, your boss in the morning meeting, or the grocery clerk on your way home at night. By understanding that our job, as salesmen and women, is to create positive transactional experiences, we will become more comfortable offering information and expecting reciprocation.

As I train, I use this example:

Customer: “I’m looking for a Rav4.”

 Agent: “I can help you with that! First, what’s your name?”

 Customer: “John.”

Agent: “Hello, John. How do you spell your last name?”

Customer: “S-M-I-T-H”

Agent: “Thank you, John. I do have some Rav4s available for a test drive. When are you planning on stopping by?”

In each moment of this conversation, the customer and agent are participating in a reciprocal relationship. Information is requested and only provided after information–and social protocols are–returned. The power exchange in the above interaction is subtle yet telling. He who asks the questions has the control.

Customer: “I’m looking for a Rav4.”

Agent: “I have some Rav4’s here on the lot.”

 Customer: “What kind?”

Agent: “I have an XLE, XSE, and Limited.”

Customer: “What colors?”

We should expect, and demand, a proper introduction for every conversation that happens within the walls of our dealerships. And we should explain why. Every sales team member should understand that at the root of every interaction is transaction. They are only working efficiently if they are asking as many or more questions as they are answering.

Defining Expectations

One of my biggest pet peeves in business development is the unarticulated expectation of “Would you like to stop by for a free appraisal?” This is the laziest form of appointment setting possible. When we use our powers of persuasion without fully communicating what the customer can anticipate, we manipulate them for our gain and position our company for failure.

Every conversation with a potential client should include a clear and unmistakable understanding that everyone is there for one purpose—to transact. If your team is not comfortable doing this, it is because they are not trained on how to do it or are not bought into what they are selling.

Unless you are offering a free service with no intention of upselling, then you are lying to your potential customer, and they know it. This creates immediate discord and opens you up to a loss of control.

Let me be clear—you have control of the conversation when you are genuine, honest, direct, and forthcoming. If you veer off this path, you create Cognitive Dissonance—or the discomfort that occurs when a person is confronted with a misalignment of their values or beliefs. A simpler way to put this—you are losing face.

Do not engage in conversations with potential clients without clearly defining what you expect from them and what they can expect from you—and then learn how to do this with tact.

A recent incident at my dealership included a long-term customer, a brand-new desking manager, and a 24-year-old sales associate. The customer wanted to avoid coming into the building as he had never before been required to; the new desking manager told the young sales associate that in order to buy a vehicle, the customer would need to be there in person. The sales associate had been livid and later recounted to me:

Him: “The customer will never do business with us again because the desking manager didn’t want to work with him.”

Me: “Why on earth would the customer even think we didn’t want to do business?”

Him: “Because I told him.”

Me: “Why!? Would you tell him that?”

Him: “I was told to.”

I put my face in my hands. “You told him that the desking manager didn’t want to talk to him unless he was there in person?”

Him: “Yes. What else was I supposed to say?”

Me: “Mr. Customer, I understand that you are used to buying your vehicles a certain way. However, my manager is the only one here today, and to offer you his full attention, he wants you to stop in as soon as possible.”

Him: “Oh. I didn’t think of that.”

Are we setting ourselves up for success? Are we utilizing brute force? Or the precision and beauty of a black belt?

Learn and grow

The complexities of human communication are so vast that entire fields of science are explicitly devoted to their understanding. By merely relying on our instinctual talent for communication, we miss the chemical, physical, and psychological interplay occurring. They are not something that can be learned overnight, but they are necessary tools of our trade.

Even if our time in the automotive retail industry is a transient moment on the way to our end goals, we can still take advantage of this knowledge. As leaders and influencers within our industry, we must responsibly learn and teach communication. If for no other reason than it empowers those who have placed their livelihoods in our hands.

It is not enough to tell our employees to “Go say hi to that guy.” We need to understand and explain how to say hello in a manner that converts a proper introduction into a long-term loyal customer. This is the responsibility we accepted when we took our positions as thought leaders in our space.

Charity Ann

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