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 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

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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