Consumer engagement via the Goldilocks parable

This week, we shopped for a new car—a thorough process of “try and buy” I’d not undertaken before. In both excitement and intimidation, we ran an exhausting 8-hour marathon, kicking the tires on a dozen cars. In retrospect, it was apparent our final selection was impacted more by the brand courtship than the product itself, with all recommended cars fitting neatly into our minimal criteria. The consumer engagement styles divided into the following three approaches.

Style 1: Too hot

The first dealership swooped in as soon as we parked. We were greeted, asked a few intake questions, then excitedly shuttled around the lot to be impressed with the variety and options. We selected a couple cars to try and the salesperson rode shotgun, acting as tour guide. He gave the complete rundown on current discounts, safety ratings, things that make this dealership better than its siblings, passively insulting other car manufacturers, and making us feel as if we’d won the lottery by stepping onto this lot and into this prize. As soon as we identified our favorite among the fleet, he went by the book, walking us down the conveyor belt of closing the deal, discussing the finance process and evaluating our trade-in.

I halted the process there, politely letting him know we’d like to try some other dealerships and return by choice rather than settling on our first love. At this point, the relationship shifted. Threatened by the possibility of a lost sale, the dealership became clingy. They offered more discounts, not realizing it wasn’t about money. They tried to loan us their car to drive to other dealerships, convinced we would want to return (but requiring us to return regardless). The managerial big guns were pulled in to give additional incentives and pressure. The sell went from friendly to borderline aggressive. Like a bad date, our focus shifted from the building the relationship to finding an escape route.

Ultimately, what had been a positive sales experience we’d have likely returned to, we were relieved to escape from and intimidated to re-enter.

Style 2: Too cold

The second dealership we pulled into was refreshing in light of the previous. The lot was not swarming with salespeople—in fact, we probably could have browsed without ever being interrupted. We snagged a gentleman who was as pleasant as he could have been. We let him know what we were seeking and he handed us a few sets of keys, allowing us to take cars for a spin without his hovering or oversight.

We enjoyed this shopping experience, but without any sales pitch, we didn’t fall in love with the product. We didn’t know if there were any deals. We weren’t presented with notable differentiators. Walking away was so easy, it was also not memorable.

Style 3: Just right

We considered another couple cars and brands before landing in our final dealership. We weren’t intercepted in the parking lot, but were greeted on the sales floor. Our criteria were coaxed out of us with discussion of what we’d use the car for, rather than specifications. When the salesperson understood our goals, one appropriate recommendation was made.

The car was pulled around to us and was the only car presented. The salesperson initiated the test drive as the driver, giving an introduction to the features he already knew we were interested in. We pulled into a parking lot where we circled the car and traded spaces. The “test drive” then concluded the sales pitch and became conversational. We talked hobbies, football, and world events while winding through neighborhoods. She forgot she was test driving a car and the car became transparent. It was already hers.

Back at the dealership, he offered an opportunity for any additional questions before he left us in the lot to discuss privately. If we decided to buy, he’d be inside waiting, but otherwise he thanked us for the time we spent together and hoped we’d refer others even if the car wasn’t right for us.

We went back inside and we bought.

Lessons learned

In the end, none of the dealerships did anything particularly “bad”. They were all likely executing their corporate guidance and proven sales tactics. The techniques employed have all closed many deals and I cannot assume the final dealership gets any more business than the other two. However, building a positive brand relationship generates advocacy and loyalty more perennial than a near-term conversion. With that in mind, I can say what the final dealership did right:

  1. Account for a variety of user types, engaging them at their own pace. Identify passive browsers versus surgical, goal-driven users—adjust your tactics accordingly. Don’t overwhelm them with information they may or may not care about. Step away from the rehearsed sales pitch.
  2. Listen and make informed recommendations. Ask minimal questions, but the right questions. Remember your user often doesn’t speak your language, or know how to phrase what they are looking for. They’ve come to you for advice, not a referral for Google.
  3. Make your website or product invisible. It isn’t about the car, the website, or the service. It’s about carrying the user to where they need to be, and allowing them to enjoy the ride without worry over how the tool does its job.
  4. Don’t be clingy. If you’ve connected to your user thus far, you can walk away with your door open. Allow the user to come back and validate the brand relationship without stalking them via reminder emails, notifications, or late-night phone calls.
  5. Foster sharing. A user not needing your product or service today doesn’t equate to abandonment, despite what your analytics say. By following the above tips, you build brand advocates who promote referrals, and prime themselves to be qualified leads tomorrow. A positive experience is naturally viral.