Time for car empire to strike back

It's finally time for my beloved to replace her aging Peugeot with a new used car, so she's been trolling through thousands of online car listings and visiting heaps of car lots.

It's a process that's both time consuming and emotionally fraught.

The problem is she's married to a car guy, and a narrow-minded one at that. In the early days of our marriage I sought to "help out".

A chronically bad call as it turned out.

Twelve years ago she wanted a small station wagon, so I helped her into a Subaru WRX STI. While technically a station wagon, the STI accelerated like a fart in a bottle, sounded like a full-grown chainsaw race and got her followed by teenagers in hoodies: none of which were key criteria for her.

For this reason, we now have a working agreement that I shut the hell up when she goes car shopping. However, it has been interesting listening to her stories each evening.

Last week she pulled into a large inner city yard for an appointment to test drive a manual hatchback. Her own car was off the road, so she was using my old track car, a banana yellow BMW M3 sporting a full cage and race numbers. Despite this, the salesman suggested she avoid manual cars because they were "a bit confusing to drive".

Apart from the sexist overtones, the complete inability of the salesman to realise that someone who turns up in a race car is likely to be able to handle a clutch was as laughable as it was sad.

A mate of mine had a similar experience down South a few weeks ago. This guy is a digital entrepreneur and millionaire with a digital footprint about a mile wide. He was keen to buy a late model 4x4, and after looking at a $50k vehicle he emailed the yard confirming he'd take it. He never got a response.

Apart from losing a pretty useful sale, the business lost a heck of a lot more - the chance to form a relationship with someone who was going to influence a blue chip peer group. If only the salesman had Googled the name, much less answered the email.

The local gold standard for responding to email inquiries in the car industry is three hours during business hours. I recently spoke to a Canadian online marketing firm who said the industry standard there was just one hour, 24x7. The last survey I saw suggested even the three-hour turnaround target would be failed by seven of the 10 largest new car sellers in New Zealand.

A recent statistic from Nielsen Online suggests that over 80 per cent of car buyers will go online before they buy a car. I'm at a loss to understand why many car sales folk don't do the same thing. If a person emails you or calls you about a car you're selling, the minimum response should be to do a quick Google, LinkedIn or Facebook search on the person's name first.

Knowing in advance that the person you're contacting is a stay-at-home mum, or a 36-year-old millionaire, or a septuagenarian golfer gives you much more information to fit them into the right vehicle. Better yet, you might find you have a friend in common, meaning you are able to get the best form of advertising available: a personal referral. It's also useful to weed out timewasters.

Talking of timewasting, don't try to find a local car dealer through search engine marketing or search engine optimisation. Both seem to be ignored by most dealers. Try searching on "late model hatchback manual" along with the name of your town or city. 

While the national brands of Holden, Hyundai and Ford come up pretty regularly, there's scant region-specific advertising. Ironically, because search words are sold on a demand basis, it'd be cheap to do.

Also cheap is the attitude of some car dealers to not list photographs of the car they are selling online. Instead they patronise the buyer by saying "photos coming soon". In other words they don't have their poop in a scoop to the extent they have learned how to load photographs. Not flash.

By contrast consider how good private sellers have become at selling their cars online. Private sellers have been quick to adapt and hungry to provide detailed information about their cars, load more photographs and respond to emails promptly.

The NZTA 2011 statistics tell a sobering story for anyone in the used car industry. There were 762,000 changes of car ownership. About 60 per cent of these were private-to-private sales. Jump back six years and that figure was just 52 per cent. In simple terms, private sellers have adapted to the web quicker, costing the car dealers both in sales and in trade-ins.

With the great majority of car buyers getting empowered online before they buy a vehicle, car dealers need to follow suit - it's time the car empire struck back online.

- Mike "MOD" O'Donnell is a professional director, author and eCommerce manager. He was the joint overall winner of the Intermarque Sprints Classic Series at Manfield in 2011 but is getting soundly thrashed this year.