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Let’s imagine that you’re sitting front and center as your favorite band takes the stage.

You bought tickets a few weeks ago. You cleared your schedule. You’re excited as the band cranks up the opening tune. The singer steps up to the microphone.

But the first note falls flat, followed by another clunker. You wince, and think: “What the...? I didn’t come all the way here for this!”

I share the anecdote because it’s similar to how today’s vehicle buyers feel when they find a vehicle they like online, and then contact the dealership by chat, phone or e-mail.

In most cases, the buyers engage the dealership to learn two things: whether the car they like is available, and what it will cost to purchase. In other words, they want to start working the deal without coming into the showroom.

But how do most dealers respond? Too often, it’s some variation of “Come on in!” The effect is exactly like the singer’s sour notes. It greatly reduces the buyer’s confidence in the dealer, along with his or her interest in completing the deal.

Here’s an exchange between a sales associate and a customer for a Southeast Kia dealership that highlights how dealers fall flat with customers:

A husband sent a chat message to ask about pricing for a Kia Soul, which his wife had recently checked out at the dealership. The sales associate’s first response: “Let’s sit down with my GM and talk numbers. He’s done crazy things when he’s with a customer.”

The buyer politely declined, and the sales associate sent another message that offered a price range, details about Kia’s powertrain warranty and a second invitation to come to the dealership. The buyer’s final response: “I understand. I will keep looking. Thanks for your time.” The exchange would have gone better if the sales associate answered the inquiry with deal terms personalized for the buyer. To me, the example highlights a prevailing belief among dealers that customers must be in the showroom to negotiate a vehicle’s price or other terms. Unfortunately, today’s buyers have different expectations. They now enjoy the convenience of shopping, getting prices and transacting with other retailers online — something they want to do with dealers, as well.

I’ve asked others for recommendations that would help dealers better meet today’s vehicle buyer preferences. Here are the top three I received:

Recognize the “Shopper” vs. “Buyer” Distinction

When customers find a vehicle they like, and take the time to view a VDP, they have shifted from simply “shopping” to an active stage of “buying.” The question for dealers is whether the information they present online facilitates the transaction right then and there — the starting point termed “connected commerce.” As one colleague put it, “If the connection point doesn’t exist, potential buyers won’t see signs of the easy, efficient purchase they’re looking for.”

Allow Buyers to Work Deal Terms Online

New technologies give buyers the ability to configure a vehicle deal on a VDP and make an offer — without requiring them to provide personal information, send an e-mail or contact a sales associate. Even though buyers work deals under dealer-set parameters, the process and technology gives them a greater sense of control and self-direction. I’m told that dealers who adopt this connected commerce process see higher levels of buyer engagement and improved closing ratios — improvements that come because dealers made the leap to serve buyers in the manner they prefer.

Be Authentic

When buyers take the opportunity to configure deals online, they send a signal that they expect an easy, efficient transaction, just as they would from other retailers. “If you play coy on price with these buyers, you’ll end up like the Kia dealer and lose them to a dealer who isn’t playing the traditional deal-making game,” a colleague said.

I like this thinking on multiple levels.

By working deals online, dealers could achieve greater efficiency and satisfaction in showrooms. Customers could essentially show up, test drive a vehicle and, if they like it, take delivery. Less time equals increased customer satisfaction — and more time for sales associates to sell more cars.

Finally, this connected commerce approach to retailing vehicles creates another benefit for dealers. You’ll have less risk of hitting a bad note when it’s your turn to step up to the microphone.

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