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Are you an offline sales process in an online world?

Updated: Oct 26, 2023

What was the largest purchase you’ve made online? Whiteware probably, or furniture, maybe a used car via TradeMe or even a Tesla. We live in an online world where we can buy pretty much anything online, yet there are a few notable exceptions. One of those exceptions are cars.

Photo credit: Samantha Borges on Unsplash

Not that long ago online sales were limited to books and music. But back then, we bought those items because we felt we needed to see and experience everything else first. Now we don’t. We try to buy online first and if we can’t we are forced offline.

One of the most interesting insights about buying online, is that some brands make it easy, and some brands make it hard. Some brands have clearly spent considerable time and effort on their online customer journey and customer experience, making it easy to use and treat it as an integrated store that supports their offline presence. Many treat it as an add-on.

New research in the UK undertaken by Autotrader shows that most customers arrive at a dealership intending to buy on their first visit (up from a third two years ago). 63% now only visit a dealer once.

Where customers have had a deeper online pre-sales experience, they are more likely to buy on the day. For example, where customers agree a part-exchange value or complete a finance application online then they are more likely to convert, and they’ll do so quicker when they are at your dealership (having completed their jobs online). There are multiple lessons here for both dealers and manufacturers.

For dealers this insight raises the question whether salesmanship is more important than process and standards. At Boost Auto we would always argue that process and standards win over.

Customers need to feel valued, welcomed and supported. They don’t need to be sold to. In our Boost Auto Accelerator programme for sales executives, we talk about ‘nudging’ and ‘sticky’ and discovery, where the end result is a sale, but the process is customer service.

A nudge is where you help and suggest the next step to a customer, like an alternative close for example when discussing a test drive. ‘Would tomorrow at 12.00 work, or Wednesday at 9.00 am”?

At Nissan, years ago we mystery shopped our dealers, to find out about the sales process and customers being offered test drives. We found that while many consultants offered test drives most of the ones offered were casual at best. For example, “If you want a test drive, give me a call,’ is very different from, “We think the best way to get a better feel for the car is to take it for a decent drive, when do you want to do that?”

Making an appointment sticky is where your team make it easy for the customer to remember the appointment and the salesperson’s name (just like when your dentist or hairdresser sends you a txt reminder for example or an ics. file). In other words, the event is sticky because the consultant has a high appointment acceptance and turn up rate.

However, many dealers still relay on sales consultants to create these steps, and this is where our sales approach versus process driven approach is really exposed. So as a minimum the process should be driven by the customer rather than consultant and automated. Use triggers or actions to trigger a subsequent action in AutoPlay. Even better, integrate an appointment time on your website with a sales consultant’s Outlook.

The real shift in sales performance will happen when a dealership shifts its thinking to online. This shift will allow a customer to take control and set a test drive time that is convenient to them, and to use their downtime to set the appointment (compared with having to talk to a sales consultant during office hours to make the appointment).

Catherine Faiers, Auto Trader UK’s chief operating officer, said: ‘In a very short amount of time, we’ve seen a huge increase in intent to purchase from people arriving on forecourts, especially among those that are contacting retailers in advance.

‘Thanks to the increasing preference for car buyers to do most of the necessary car buying “jobs” digitally prior to any retailer visits, more buyers than ever are turning up qualified and well informed to make a purchase.’

However, most dealers can’t or won’t sell online. Today only two brands allow you to reserve a vehicle online (three if you include Horwin[1] electric mopeds and motorcycles), Tesla, Honda. Many more at least allow you to book a test drive online, although we suspect the devil is in the CX detail.

In a recent mystery shop of two luxury brands, one had an end to end digital customer journey, and one had a website that was not fully integrated into the dealership’s CRM or lead management. The difference in that detail from a customer’s point of view was huge. As a shopper you can tell when systems don’t talk to each other, or don’t talk fully to each other. Salient information falls down the cracks, and the experience is haphazard.

There are tools out there to make it easier for a customer to get closer to the decision point. There are now online valuation tools, finance proposal forms, and plenty of reviews and customer feedback. The real question is how many of these tools are being used by your dealership in an integrated consistent and customer friendly way.

Helping your business make it easy for customers who know what they want, but just need to check the details, is about a shift in thinking at the very top of your business.

The best experience for consumers is where the online experience and the dealership experience are of a high standard and integrated.

Where do you want your dealership to be in today’s online first world, and how far do you want to be left behind by the innovators?

Boost Auto is an automotive consultancy working in seven main areas.

  • Market Insights & Trends

  • Sales Training

  • Sales and Marketing effectiveness for brands and dealers

  • Green fleet facilitation for large corporates

  • Go To Market strategies for emerging brands

  • Business Planning and facilitation

  • Operational Effectiveness

[1] The author is a director of

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