Weakest Links In Electric Car Sales: Local Salespeople, Dealers

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Used car salesman

Used car salesman

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Plug-in car sales hit a new record in September--more than 5,500 sold in a single month--and there will likely be more records to come.

But plug-in hybrids and battery electric cars are still unfamiliar to most U.S. car buyers, not to mention pricey.

And there's increasing discussion that the weakest link in the education process is the one automakers have the least control over: the salesperson at the local dealership.

Yesterday, Nissan's global marketing executive, Andy Palmer, told a small group of journalists that the company had appointed a new executive who will oversee sales of the Nissan Leaf and other electric cars, on a global basis.

That executive, Billy Hayes, was only named on Monday, so it's too early to say what changes he may make.

But he reports directly to Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn, so the company is serious about buffing up the process of selling this new kind of car to buyers who may never have set foot in a Nissan dealer before.

4 to 6 times as long

Palmer admitted that it takes four to six times as long to sell a plug-in car as it may to sell a conventional gasoline car of the same size--which may be only half the price.

Finding ways to compensate dealers for the extra sales effort and education required for plug-in car buyers is one of the things Hayes will look at, he said, first in Japan and then globally.

The importance of local salespeople and dealership attitudes is underscored by a pair of news items over the last week.

First is the results of an online survey by AutoRetailNet, which showed enormous variation among Chevrolet dealers on the prospects for the Volt range-extended electric car.

Dealers differed on whether Chevy would sell more next year, and whether it was being properly marketed.

Writer Alyssa Webb covered the full details on PlugInCars.com yesterday, and they're worth reading.

Salesman: Don't buy this car

Second, and perhaps more disturbing, is "Houston, We Have a Problem," a lengthy post by BMW ActiveE driver and electric-car advocate Tom Moloughney of New Jersey.

Anecdotal horror stories about the difficulties of buying a Volt--even if one were in stock at certain Chevrolet dealers--prompted him to go test-shopping.

What happened is pretty horrifying, with two of the three salespeople essentially trying to persuade him that he didn't want, need, or understand the Volt.

Instead, they tried to steer him into the gasoline-engined Chevrolet Cruze compact four-door sedan, by pointing out its superior space, the challenges of plugging in, and of course, its price tag--half that of the Volt.

2011 Chevrolet Volt plugged into Coulomb Technologies 240V wall charging unit

2011 Chevrolet Volt plugged into Coulomb Technologies 240V wall charging unit

Enlarge Photo

One dealership, to be fair, proved to have a knowledgeable salesperson who was able to answer his questions on the car and the charging process, offer a test drive, and otherwise do what we presume GM would like him to do.

In the end, car companies will be severely handicapped in selling plug-in cars--never mind the price and the public misconceptions--if they can't make their dealers into effective and committed advocates for selling these cars.

Little control over dealers

And that may require a lot of work.

Remember that carmakers have relatively little direct control over salespeople, who must--by law in many states--be employees of an independent business, not of the carmaker.

Salespeople are ruthlessly efficient: Their goal is to complete as many sales as possible, so they can make as much money as possible.

If it takes six times as long to sell a car that only goes for twice as much, that's not a desirable car to sell.

Time, money, effort

Now that the Nissan Leaf and the Chevrolet Volt have been rolled out nationally, carmakers will have to assess what's working at the dealer level, and what's not.

And then they'll have to commit the time, money, and effort to make it better.

Otherwise, Moloughney and others who enter a dealership to inquire about an electric car will continue to be actively steered away from a plug-in and toward a gasoline car.

Which is not, most likely, what anyone really wants.


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Comments (15)
  1. I can honestly say I've had no trouble with dealers when it comes to enquiring about electric cars. I did find out how overly aggressive salesmen of economy brands can be, like the Nissan dealer I went into to test drive the Leaf. Most of the dealers in my area have at least one person who is the go to person for plug-in cars. My local Fisker dealer even let me take a Karma home for the weekend just to try it out. And my BMW dealer tried to get me an ActiveE, even though we're no where near the test areas.

  2. @CDspeed: Out of curiosity, where do you live?

  3. Hi John, I'll give you my state only, Florida

  4. @CDspeed: Thanks, that's fine. Was really just curious what part of the country you lived in.

    I would say you should count yourself lucky, though. Other commenters don't seem to have had the same good experiences.

  5. Actually the only trouble I'm getting is from the Tesla store. The store seems to be run by college students who are only working to pay their student loans. They seem better suited for working in an electronics store then selling luxury cars. They were in my area for plug-in day and when I asked if I could get a test drive while they were in town. The guy asked me "are you a reservation holder" I said "no" then he said "we'll we're only giving test drives to reservation holders and we're fully booked". Or in other words "we'll be nice to you for $5,000." The lack of communication skills from the Tesla store are really starting to tick me off.

  6. Myself and a friend bought Volts in Florida last week. Stingray Chevy was a 30 miute ride for us coming from Tampa, but the salesman seemed to be fairly educated on the car. Hey he did sell us both one in the same day so he did something right :) The incentives at that location were great! Now we just need some more charging stations.

  7. If you have a smart phone I recommend the PlugShare app, there are more public charging points then you might realize.

  8. I had "HORRIBLE" experiences with 1 local Chevy Dealer. That got be one of the WORST dealer that I have ever been to. Then I want to an incompetent Chevy dealer whose sales person have NO idea about the Volt. Then I went a Chevy dealer that had all the knowledges but had NOTHING in stock.

    Finally, after about 2 months, I end up driving 54 miles to a Chevy Dealer that had quality sales staff, knowledgable and had a lot of Volts in stock (also selling a lot. Averaged about 35 to 50 Volts per Month).

    But that is b/c I really wanted the Volt. Most people wouldn't drive 54 miles out of way and passing about 4 other Chevy Dealers on the way just to get a Volt...

    I think GM needs to offer "direct internet sales" on certain High Tech models

  9. I had an absolutely horrible experience with my local Nissan dealer. The dealership would only allow one sales person to sell the car. He had very little knowledge about the car for being a trained and certified to sell the Leaf. He refused to honor any of the Nissan discount purchasing programs in effect. As a presale reservation holder, I had done everything over the web until purchase time. Nissan should have offered me the car at the discounted purchase program price and just delivered the car via the local dealer. This would have taken the local attitude out of the picture. Instead, I had to choose between full retail price, and not getting the Leaf. As a direct result, I'll never buy anything from this dealership ever again.

  10. I've spoke to two local Nissan dealers about purchasing a LEAF. Both dealers had one person who was the "LEAF guy" who you had to go through for the purchase. After speaking to both for about one minute, both told me that I know more about the car than they do, so they drop back and only answer questions about cost (which of course goes through the man in the other room).

    It would be great to have someone who loved the LEAF and could actually sell it on it's qualities at each dealership.

  11. the dealer i got my LEAF from was extremely disappointing as well. they knew nothing about the tax credit for WA (and they supposedly live in the state) and i should have known it would be trouble and it was. i ended signing 3 leases (including having to return 2 weeks after taking delivery to sign another one)

    what is worse is i signed up online taking my dealer (55 miles away) and shunning my local dealer who simply was not one of the ones initially selling the LEAF. so i got mine quicker but in retrospect by probably 2-3 months but really wish my local dealer had been an option. i have talked with them several times and they are on board with the technology

  12. I wanted to try the four possibilities. The Misubishi person to talk me out of an i-MiEV before he even let me get to the car. I wouldn't be buying from him. The local Chevy dealer has a used 2011 Volt on the lot for $36,400 and said the credit hadn't been taken on that car, so I'd get it. {The tax form says to claim the credit, it has to be a NEW car and you can't get more credit than the amount of tax you owe.} The Nissan Dealer let me drive a Leaf, but I did not buy that day. I have since contacted them about leasing one {so they get the credit and lower the end of lease purchase price} and they were unresponsive. The Ford dealer said they aren't going to get a Focus electric for several more years. No desire to sell.

  13. Honestly, is any of this actually surprising? I have never been to a dealership and had a good experience. Their only expertise seems to be in extracting more money from you with extras, which I never buy. When I bought the Prius, the guy pressed me for 45 minutes to buy extras. This was about three times as long as they spent going over the details of the vehicle, which they couldn't even explain how it worked.

    The first thing to break on the Prius was the frame they put around the license plate. The first thing that rusted was the bolts that they used to attach the license plate. I don't see them as providing any value and if there is any way to get rid of dealers, we should.

  14. My wife and I had the same general experienceback in 2003, buying our Prius. We knew more about the car than the two dealerships. Honda sales reps actively tried to talk us out of buying a Civic hybrid. If the sales rep isn't making any commision on the car, it doesn't matter what the MSRP is. There isn't any margin to be pocketed on most electrics now. I agree an online purchase option would be great for the manufacturer and customer, but it would make the dealerships sore.

  15. Just curious, where did you get the picture of the used car salesman? :)

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