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Why Some Dealers Are Inept At Selling Plug-In Electric Cars

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Fisker of Bellevue, Washington, dealership in October 2012 [photo by Bill D via Foursquare]

Fisker of Bellevue, Washington, dealership in October 2012 [photo by Bill D via Foursquare]

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People tend to recall bad or frustrating experiences more acutely than good ones.

Which is likely why a staple of plug-in car forums is the bad-treatment-at-a-car-dealership story.

Anecdotes abound about Chevrolet and Nissan dealers who tried to pull Volt and Leaf buyers away from plug-in electrics into gasoline cars.

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Or said, "Your battery will go dead and you'll be stuck on the side of the road."

Or knew nothing at all about Federal, state, or local incentives--from tax credits to purchase rebates, from free charging to carpool-lane access--that make owning a plug-in car easier.

Or consistently block access to their "publicly available" charging station with gasoline vehicles.

2012 Fisker Karma outside Tesla Motors dealership during test drive, Los Angeles, Feb 2012

2012 Fisker Karma outside Tesla Motors dealership during test drive, Los Angeles, Feb 2012

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The stories go on and on.

So it's important for all potential car buyers to understand how dealers operate, so they can be better prepared before they walk through the dealership doors.

MORE: Tesla Model S Road Trip: 1,200 West Coast Electric-Car Miles

The first thing to realize is that the salespeople at the dealer do not work for the carmaker. They work for independent third-party businesses, over which the carmakers have limited control.

In most states, auto companies are specifically banned by law from selling cars to retail buyers.

Automakers would dearly love to have more direct say over the dealership experience, of course, because it reflects directly on their brand.

But auto-dealer groups have worked closely with state politicians throughout the country to get laws enacted to protect existing franchised dealers against company-owned competition.

While carmakers can set certain conditions under which dealers are allocated specific types of cars, they can't--in the end--control the sales experience.

As many dealers complain, those experiences are generally shared only when they're bad.

2011 Nissan Leaf at dealership after software upgrade, May 2011, photo by George Parrott

2011 Nissan Leaf at dealership after software upgrade, May 2011, photo by George Parrott

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That's true, but the worst sales employee a buyer meets is likely to be more memorable than the rest of the dealer staff who do their jobs competently and efficiently.

Remember two things about dealers. First, they make very little money selling new cars, perhaps $100 to $200 on average. Their profit comes from selling used cars, and providing parts and service for existing cars.

MUST READ: Road Trips In A Tesla Model S Electric Car: Lessons Learned

Second, every salesperson's mission is to close the deal, today, at maximum profit with minimum time invested.

Selling a plug-in car takes three to five times as long for a dealer as does selling a gasoline car.

It requires explanation, education, training, all of the fuss and bother associated with installing a charging station in the garage if the buyer wants one, and so on.

And, today's electric-car shoppers often know as much or more about their desired plug-in model as the salesperson does. To get their questions answered, several other people may have to be brought into the process. And that takes time.

Aside from a few with strong political beliefs, most car dealers don't care one way or the other about plug-in electric cars. They care about moving the most cars in the least time at the highest profit with the least hassle.

Understanding that will make you a better car buyer.

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