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Car Salesman Confidential: What Car of the Year Means To Me

Motor Trend logo Motor Trend 12/20/2014 Mark McDonald
2015 Car of the Year© Provided by MotorTrend 2015 Car of the Year

I wonder if automotive journalists have any idea of the power they have?

Research

In 1968, when my stepfather was selling cars at Doug Wiley Pontiac in Birmingham, Alabama, if anybody had walked through the door and told him they were going to do their “research” before they bought a car, he would have looked at them as if they were crazy. I can just imagine his response:

“Research? What do you mean, research? Are you a scientist or something?”

Of course, nowadays, car salesmen hear this phrase so often it barely raises an eyebrow. Everybody’s doing research. Over the past twenty years the internet has emerged as one the most important factors, if not the dominant factor, in new car sales. J.D. Power & Associates estimate that before buying a new car, the average person will have spent 11.4 hours, or 60% of their shopping time, reading reviews and looking up information on vehicles on line. In 1968, setting foot on a car lot was the first step in the process. In 2014, setting foot on a car lot is often the last. The decision has been made on line.

After they go on line, people will come into my dealership and quote things they’ve read on the internet. Such as: “I heard there was a lot of wind noise in this model. Is that true?” Or: “I read that this transmission had a lot of problems when it first came out. Have those been fixed?” And so on. People pay great attention to the words that pour from journalists’ laptops. A reviewer may think it’s just an offhand remark to mention that the C pillar in a particular SUV causes a bit of a blind spot. But the person who reads something like that on a website treats it as gospel. By the time they come in to drive the vehicle, that’s often the first thing they want to look at: the terrible blind spot caused by the massive C pillar. And if I try to explain to them that all vehicles have blind spots, and all SUVs have relatively large C pillars, they eye me with distrust because, after all, I’m a car salesman, and they read it so it must be true.

In fact, this is how I usually find out negative things that reviewers have written about cars I sell -- when several consumers in a row bring them to my attention. For example, Honda has a system called Variable Cylinder Management, which shuts down cylinders in an engine at cruising speed to save fuel. I’m not exactly sure when VCM first came out, but I guess it’s been around for at least ten years. For most of those years no one complained about this system making noise. In fact, I doubt many people even knew it existed -- unless their salesman told them about it -- because its operation is relatively unnoticeable. And then one day some reviewer heard a clunk and wrote about it. After that, people started coming in asking about the horrible “clunking noise” that vehicles with VCM make at certain speeds. I don’t sell Hondas any more, but I can tell you I never heard a single vehicle equipped with VCM make any kind of unusual noise whatsoever. And yet, for many people, a problem they read about becomes a major concern -- maybe even their only concern -- because of what one person wrote in a review.

Car Salesman Confidential 1024 680© Provided by MotorTrend Car Salesman Confidential 1024 680 That’s the down side. The up side is that a good review -- or a prestigious award like Motor Trend’s Car of the Year -- can pull a low-selling car out of relative obscurity. A vehicle can go from not even being on the average consumer’s radar, past every other competitor in its class to a position at the forefront of the buyer’s choices. This year, before “Car of the Year,” millions of people in the United States weren’t even thinking about buying a Volkswagen Golf. Today, millions of people are thinking about a VW Golf and saying to themselves “You know, I really need to get down there and check one of those out.”

This is huge for a car company. Absolutely huge. Half the battle in sales is separating your product from the dozens of other products out there and getting on the consumer’s mental list of vehicles to consider. Every carmaker knows if you’re not in their Top Ten, forget it. You have no chance of selling them. And really, if you’re not in their Top Five you have no chance, because most people only consider four or five vehicles before purchasing a car. A good review in a major publication, or being named “Car of the Year,” will put your car right at the top of most peoples’ lists. The effect is too big to be measured.

Part of the tremendous power of Motor Trend’s award is due to the fact that Motor Trend itself is perceived as being fair and objective (editor’s note: Usually), and their editors regarded as experts in their field. I’m sure the people who run Motor Trend are well aware of this and do everything they can to preserve the integrity of the award and the selection process. (I know this because Zorch has attempted to bribe them in the past with millions of zubles, and they always send them back.) And, if you look at MT’s choices over the past ten years, they’ve been eclectic and far ranging -- from Chevy to Tesla to Cadillac to Honda. [See all the Car of the Year winners here.] On the other hand, some publications in the automotive field, and their accompanying websites, have a reputation for celebrating the same cars over and over again, or putting forth the same brand as being “the best” year after year. That kind of thing can diminish their credibility in the average person’s mind.

Of course, the entire battle isn’t won or lost with the award. People won’t buy a car simply because it won an impressive title. Once the consumer sets foot on a VW lot to check out the 2015 Car of the Year, two things have to happen. First, the car has to live up to its reputation. Second, the dealership experience has to be as good as the car. This is where many dealerships lose out. Normally, a car selected as COTY will live up to a buyer’s expectations. Unfortunately, the dealerships often fail to capitalize on the good will and excitement generated by major awards and run people off with heavy handed, high pressure, “Old School” sales tactics.

And the buying public is fickle. In a few months, the buzz over “Car of the Year” naturally begins to fade. In a year, it will be completely gone -- and we’ll have a new COTY for 2016. For an automaker to truly capitalize on something like this they need to have a constant stream of new product available for the public. Get their attention -- and hold it.

The “holding it” is always the hardest part.

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