family at car dealership with salesman

The Changing Role of the Automotive Salesperson

It’s been a tumultuous year in automotive retail by all accounts, so now’s a great time to take stock of the salesperson’s role. We know buyer behavior is changing, but I wanted to hear directly from dealer-owners and general managers: how is the sales role changing, and what implications does that have for recruitment, reward, and retention? I interviewed and chatted with dealers across several Asia Pacific markets who operate in metro and small-town locations. Despite the diversity in markets, there are some common themes, and there are two major paradoxes at the center of the deeper changes currently underway.

Paradox 1: Centralized dealer CRM vs. salesperson as a social media presence

Buyer research has largely moved online, but there are two opposing trends for how dealers engage with digital shoppers. Most dealers have centralized CRM for both pre-sales lead generation/lead handling and ongoing owner communications. Dealers want control of those customer relationships and want to deliver a consistent experience, minimizing the variability that existed when salespeople controlled those relationships.

In contrast, we are now seeing salespeople build their own online presence through the likes of Facebook and Instagram. This includes creating their own content (presenting products and offers) and investing in mini marketing plans (such as paying for their own promoted posts). Some dealers even provide financial support for this marketing.

Paradox 2: Less call for memorized product knowledge vs. more complex products

Most shoppers now come to the showroom already knowing what they want—if they visit the showroom at all. At the final stage of their purchase decision, when they want to verify their online research, they might want some advice to help put their decision into context, and they ideally want to feel comfortable with the business they will buy from.

However, buyers now have an increasingly steep learning curve when it comes to their new vehicle, especially with the infotainment system. Owner guides run into the hundreds of pages. Dealers are employing a number of methods to address this, including employing product experts or scheduling a “second delivery” to review features and technology.

We can see that the traditional, all-encompassing sales role has continued to fragment. Gone are the days where we sought that elusive unicorn of a salesperson, who possessed a superhuman set of skills, combining amazing empathy, encyclopedic product knowledge, sharp negotiating skills, and the attention to detail to oversee the pre-delivery and vehicle delivery.

Almost every dealership I spoke to has separated pre-delivery into a separately staffed process. This move recognizes the increasing complexity of pre-delivery and its importance to customer satisfaction, as well as the desire to remove salespeople from unprofitable work.

Although some dealers report that employee turnover is as high as ever, others are finding it easier to attract new sales recruits. The image of the industry has improved over time, with salespeople now viewed as more professional and customer focused. The democratization of product knowledge makes the industry less intimidating for individuals with little or no technical background. In markets where social media is the dominant channel to connect with buyers, automotive retail is highly attractive to individuals who already know how to promote online.

Recommendations

What should be done to address these trends and to take advantage of new opportunities? Here are our recommendations:

  1. Grow social media skills
    Although selling online and through social media is now mainstream, the gap between average and world-class performance is still wide. Improving the quality of content, learning what promotions work in your market, and increasing lead response skills are all areas where performance improvement should result in tangible sales gains.
  2. Reassess how you recruit and retain
    With the fragmentation of the sales role, less need for stored product knowledge, and the move to digital, it’s time for a clean sheet of paper when it comes to recruiting. Rethink what skills and experiences you want in salespeople. An entrepreneurial-minded professional with a side hustle selling vintage clothing online has a directly transferrable skill. Someone who mobilized a community on Facebook to clean up a local canal also has relevant skills and experience.

    Equally as important, take a fresh look at whether all elements of your work environment, culture, and pay structures are attractive to the people you want to recruit today.
  3. Reassess how you train
    The fragmentation of the sales role demands separate learning approaches for separate roles. A product expert now has vastly different training needs than a salesperson. Training content, delivery modality, and cadence should now be customized to each role.

    A product expert needs instant access to new product and competitor information in an easily digestible format. A salesperson needs access to coaching for digital selling skills and relationship building anytime you see a drop-off, or are looking for improvement in performance.

In speaking with dealers recently, it’s become clear to me that these trends are playing out differently in various countries and locations. There is no single right way to respond. But the trends are profound, and each retailer will need to consider and act within their local context.

About the Authors

Scott McCormack

Scott McCormack

Scott is Vice President of Thailand, Philippines & India with GP Strategies Corporation. His 28-year career in the automotive industry spans the Asia Pacific and Middle East regions. Prior to joining TTi Global (a division of GP Strategies) in 2012, Scott spent 20 years at automotive manufacturers and distributors, in a variety of finance and marketing, sales, and service leadership roles. He’s lived and worked in New Zealand, Indonesia, Thailand (twice), India, Saudi Arabia, and China. Scott brings deep experience from both the OEM and retail perspectives to bear on improving automotive performance. Scott’s home is in Bangkok, and he is a senior leader in GP’s APAC automotive practice.