Selling: How to drive home a sale from the customer's side: Can the right technique move cars in a depressed market?

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The Independent Online
HEAVY advertising and a rash of special deals from an industry that can ill afford it are clearly not doing the trick: new car sales are still stuck in a trough that hardly seemed possible in the late 1980s.

The recession and resulting reluctance of even those with secure jobs and money in the bank to make big spending commitments are the reasons usually given for a situation that is sending some specialist manufacturers to the wall and causing larger concerns to return to short-time working and other economies.

But this is too simplistic, Andrew Vermes insists. The truth is there are people buying new cars, and not just from one or two companies. This and research by his firm, Huthwaite, a Yorkshire-based consultancy, lead him to believe that success can be found - even in today's market - through proper selling techniques.

Although concern about the environment, rising insurance costs and safety are increasingly affecting the choice of car, manufacturers still base much of their advertising on performance, special features, looks and price.

Mr Vermes says this approach ignores an 'opportunity for competitive advantage' by those who are first to recognise that the way forward is to find out what the customer wants, rather than bombarding him with information.

Computer sales staff, and to some extent insurance sales people, already do this. But car dealerships have been slow to cotton on to a technique that Huthwaite says it has been using in its training since the Sixties. With the likes of IBM, Digital and Hewlett-Packard already using its ideas, the firm believes its approach could make the difference between survival and bankruptcy for many motor dealers.

It says those who opt for its consultative selling approach - identifying customers' needs, fears, past experiences and background - will prosper at the expense of those wedded to the traditional motor trade attitude based on specifications and discounts.

Acknowledging that the conversation between the customer and the sales person is at the heart of every sale, Mr Vermes says the successful seller will look at the purchase from the customer's point of view - assessing the criteria on which the buying decision is based.

But many sellers fail to discover what these criteria are, or to influence them so that they change in favour of what they are offering. They may even reinforce criteria that work against them, perhaps by being over-eager and offering a test drive before determining or influencing the buying criteria. For instance, a buyer who is used to electric door-mirrors may be sent out in a car without them - which may reinforce his preference for his old car.

Sellers may also fail to recognise that a car purchase is seldom a spur-of-the-moment decision by one person - the buyer's family may have preferences, too.

And the car shopper may also discuss the planned buy with friends, who could introduce potential arguments against it.

'Skilled sellers anticipate the things that other people might say to the buyer, and make sure the buyer has all the answers,' says Mr Vermes.

He also faults the motor trade for hanging on to traditional high-pressure techniques for closing a sale, saying his firm has found that such methods do not work when buyers are faced with significant decisions.

'To be successful at this stage, the seller has to be able to help the buyer resolve his concerns. If the seller hasn't sufficient skill to discover the real problem and help the buyer to resolve it, the sale can be delayed,' he adds.

While the motor trade generally seems to adhere to the belief that specifications are all, Mr Vermes says there are signs of change. Some dealers have made parts of their showrooms salesman-free zones, which he says is a negative approach, even if it acknowledges the problem. But others are changing selling techniques, and gaining market share in the process.

Even car makers are realising that concentrating on a car's features is not a sure way to sell. Volvo, for instance, has an ad campaign that tells the buyer nothing about the car, other than that he can trust it.

(Photograph omitted)