Automotive shoppers continue to evolve. The events of the past 18 months floored the accelerator. Pre-Covid consumer priorities, needs and buying motives were in a constant flux making it hard for you as a dealer to keep track of the ever-changing automotive shopper, be relevant and secure customers for the short and long term. Since then, quite frankly, the game has changed and for your dealership to compete, your dealership must study a new playbook.

We know Covid-19 pushed automotive 10 years forward from a technological standpoint. Whatever wasn’t happening online before, moved there quickly. With it, consumers embraced the shift, changing what matters most to automotive shoppers and what they are looking for from dealers. No, we didn’t completely leave the “old way” of selling cars in the past, but there is a new currency for winning customers in automotive. What is it? – Trust.

Now, before you make any abrupt pivots, let’s unpack how we got here. Because truthfully, to fully grasp the priorities of the modern shopper, you must see how the last 20 years have served as building blocks to the new currency of trust.

The 2000’s

The shoppers of the 2000’s conditioned dealers to believe that price is what matters most to consumers. In fact, when I ask dealers today, some believe that is still true. At the start of the millennium, consumers cared more about price and quality than anything else. They didn’t trust dealers but viewed them as a necessary evil to get a high-quality product. Laser focused on getting the best price, consumers were willing to haggle at the dealership and with the help of technology, came prepared with the pricing and vehicle information they needed to “win”. Price sold cars and too many dealerships became locations for transactional exchanges.

The 2010’s

The 2010’s ushered in a whole new aspect of automotive shopping. Experience became king, even if automotive spent most of the decade catching up to the idea. Consumers were shifting — seeking price, quality and something more. This started with the showroom experience and interactions with dealership personnel, but it also expanded online. As technology shaped hospitality and retail, consumers began to shift their preferences towards companies providing an experience more and more catered to their individual needs. If a consumer was searching for a specific vehicle online, they expected to receive offers and discounts for that vehicle as they browsed the internet. Consumers gave up their personal information all for personalization and customer experience and began to demonstrate that they were willing to spend a little more for a better experience.

The 2020’s

Enter into the roaring 20’s – Covid-19 makes its way through the world and fundamentally shifts everyday life. Doing life from home, consumers shop for everything online, including shopping for a car. Tire-kicking became browsing VDPs and test drives were happening at home.

All of a sudden, consumers were making buying decisions through a new lens. They were asking themselves “Do I trust this dealership?” “Do I believe they will help protect my physical safety and make it easy for me?” “Will they quote me a fair price and follow through?” Dealerships quickly adapted in order to survive — moving retail operations online, advertising free car delivery and sanitization efforts, and in some cases, completely changing the way they do business. What savvy dealers realize is that the lens a consumer uses was not an outcome of a pandemic. It is an expected evolution of consumer priorities towards transparency.

How do we know? When you zoom out, we see a movement coinciding with the industry shift towards virtual. Two words – Data Privacy. Without knowing the extent of their data’s value or the extent of how it was being used by the biggest tech companies, consumers gave up their personal information to enable convenience. Today, consumers understand what was happening with their data and are demanding companies to take their privacy into consideration. This includes dealerships.

A New Era in Automotive

So, here we are. Staring at a new audience that continues to evolve but has clearly demonstrated that trust is the key to winning their business. It’s time we as an industry, face the music. Trust has always been a factor in winning repeat business at a dealership. Today, it is the most important currency to consumers. Whether we are talking about pricing of vehicles, personalization of marketing or online retailing, every day consumers make decisions to spend money with companies they trust.

So, what is the best way to create trust with consumers? One word – transparency.

Transparency in experience:

Like anything, shoppers want to know why a car costs a certain amount and don’t want you to have to get prices “approved” from your manager. They don’t want to feel like anything is happening under the table. In fact – they are more likely to accept a higher price if they fully understand what they are paying for instead of sliding it in the quote.

They want to feel confident that they are receiving the best price. They also want to work with transparent and trustworthy people. Salespeople, whether online or in person, are an integral part of a consumer’s experience at your dealership. Salespeople who are not fully upfront with the consumer are going to undercut all of your hard work in changing the narrative of your dealership. Train your people to understand the importance of a transparent experience for the shopper built on trust and you’ll create long-term relationships with your customers.

Transparency in data privacy:

Transparency doesn’t just stop with price, not if you are trying to gain a consumer’s trust. You also need to work with vendors who are transparent with their data privacy practices. One of the quickest ways to lose trust with a consumer is if your vendor partner is utilizing their data unlawfully. Ask your vendors what they are doing about data privacy and how they are protecting your consumers. As a dealer, you are now an advocate for consumers. Make sure your vendors are as well.

Now, there are obviously ingrained beliefs when consumers think of automotive. Some of the stigmas we are currently battling are being confirmed by many dealers to this day. But the more you prove that you can be trusted through your transparency, the more consumers will start to see your dealership as different from the rest of automotive. The key is consistency. The quicker you get your team and your vendors on board with this fundamental way of doing business, the more trust you will garner and the more long-term customers you will create. You want to have an edge over the competition? Trust me, when you become the most trusted dealership in your area, your competition won’t be able to keep up.