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What You Sell v What Customers Buy.

Our heartbeat quickens, our pulse races, our palms and brow sweat a little… that’s the experience of customers buying a new car.

According to Ian Armstrong, Manager of Customer Communications at Honda UK, the science of car buying is every bit as important as the art. Ian was the guest speaker at a recent Brand on the Run event and I was interested to speak to him about the day-to-day marketing activities that happen behind the scenes of the more glamorous Honda TV advertising. I think Honda has been delivering great television advertising for years now. They’ve had consecutive successes with ‘Hate Something, Change Something,’ ‘Cog’ (the parts/domino ad) and ‘Impossible Dream’.

Honda TV ads however, are a long way from the ‘Swiss Tony’ stereotypical style of car selling I recall from walking in to a car dealership many years ago to buy a car. Thankfully most car brand dealerships have evolved somewhat. Although I was slightly taken aback recently when I went into a BMW dealership only to find that I couldn’t actually look at the cars until I had ‘reported to reception’ and been ‘announced’ to my very own personal Swiss Tony. But that’s another story for another day. For Honda at least, there seems to be the recognition that even if the ad works, it can only take prospective customers as far as the doors of the showroom. There’s still plenty of work to do to ensure a vehicle is sold. Honda doesn’t seem to be leaving anything to chance.

The car brand has been undertaking extensive testing of both sales people and prospective customers within dealerships to monitor the physiological changes they go through during the process of buying a car. The research shows that our immediate ‘gut instinct’ is the primary response mechanism that people use when going through the car buying process. The ‘facts’ (car performance statistics for example) are outweighed by how we ‘feel’ about the purchase.

Honda has discovered that customers are most relaxed when dealing with a sales person who delivers exactly the customer experience they say they’re going to – not one that over promises then under delivers, and not even one that under promises then over delivers.

Sales people and customers are most relaxed when they’re telling and being told the ‘truth’.

There’s an excitement attached to buying a new car too. The smell of the leather, the clunk of the door, the rev of the engine. The sales person and the customer both feel exhilaration when a car is being bought.

Unfortunately, not at the same time.

Honda’s research shows that the customer is most excited about their potential purchase about 10 minutes before the sales person. That’s when they’ve made the decision that they’re going to buy the car and want to complete the deal and part with the cash. The sales person, however, doesn’t recognise the physiological changes in the customer (because they’re pretty hard things to see…) and continues selling for another 10 minutes longer than the customer wants. The sales person only gets excited when the contract is on the table and the customer is about to sign it. The danger of course is that during the 10 minute period of unnecessary selling, the customer becomes disappointed, annoyed and leaves without buying the car. The impossible dream just becomes the impossible.

In a B2B context, the analogy needs almost no further development. Whatever business market we’re in, the potential to oversell, undersell, or worst of all, not sell at all, is pretty clear. Brand guardians of every B2B market sector would do well to ensure their brand promise is properly aligned to the customer expectation and that the message is delivered to the customer in the way and in the time it is required. Not too much, not too little, just right. We should all make some changes…

Scot McKee