Originally published on Gas2.
Is it true that people aren’t interested in buying electric cars, as Ford CEO Mark Fields claims? EV sales are hovering around 1% of the market in the US despite all that has been written about them and significant increases in the number of electric car charging stations available. “Ah hah!” Fields and his colleagues say. “See? We told you so.” Gina Coplon-Newfield, the director of electric vehicles initiative at the Sierra Club sees things differently. “When manufacturers say buyers aren’t interested in buying electric vehicles, it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy,” she says.
How To Sell Millions Of EVs
John Sullivan of Sullivan Chevrolet says there is a way to turn thousands of EV sales into millions. “The key obstacles to greater adoption are social rather than technological,” he tells Charged EVs. He puts part of the blame on articles online and in the press that are inaccurate or confusing. Many of them are bought and paid for by fossil fuel entities like Koch Industries that are furiously trying to protect what they see as their God-given right to destroy the planet in pursuit of profits.
Customers Want Answers To Questions
Shoppers who have questions seldom turn into customers. There is a lot of confusion about the differences between hybrids, plug-in hybrids, and fully electric cars. Many people do not understand how to find electric car chargers or how they work. The Sierra Club recently enlisted the help of 308 people to visit dealerships across the country to shop for an electric car.
One third of the dealer representatives never mentioned available federal and state rebates or other available incentives. One salesperson in Massachusetts told a customer that range anxiety was not an issue because there were wires buried under the asphalt on all major roads that recharged the cars as they drove. At 14% of the stores visited, shoppers were told they could not test drive an EV because the models on hand hadn’t had their batteries charged.
Smart Things Dealers Can Do
At Sullivan Chevrolet, the salespeople and managers have found having a good selection of electric cars in several colors with a variety of option packages helps. They also keep their inventory parked outside near the front of the store under a canopy of solar panels. That gets people’s attention right away. The company website has a dedicated page for electric cars with lots of basic information and a complete listing of models in inventory. Sullivan says few other dealers feature electric cars in their internet marketing. John Sullivan has made it a point to make sure his salespeople have been given adequate training so they can answer basic questions about the different types of electric cars, incentives, and charging infrastructure.
Joel Levin, executive director of Plug In America, tells the LA Times that dealers “have not been masterful but they’re improving a lot. The dealer challenge is that it’s a really different sales model than selling a gas car. When you’re selling a gas car, you don’t have to explain the technology. You don’t have to ask questions about a buyer’s lifestyle. With EVs you do. Some dealers are real good at it.”
Hire Dedicated Electric Car Salespeople
Brian Maragno, director of EV sales and marketing for Nissan, tells the LA Times, “The single biggest thing that separates dealers who actively engage in selling EVs from those who don’t is having a dedicated person, an EV specialist. These people are advocates, passionate about the product,” he says. They keep are involved with forums popular with EV owners. “They know the technology and can engage with the customer on a deep level. In some dealerships in California they have multiple people like that.”
John Sullivan recognizes that educating customers takes longer and sales representatives who sell electric cars need to be compensated differently. A bill in the Oregon legislature would pay a bonus to those who sell an EV, an idea that some of you loved and some hated, but it at least recognizes one of the structural issues holding back the EV revolution.
The Best Incentives Are Immediate Incentives
Sullivan believes that incentives, to be effective, need to be apply at the time of purchase. The federal tax credit doesn’t get applied until the customer files a tax return on April 15 of the following year. “The federal incentive would be significantly more effective if it were available at the time of purchase, regardless of income or tax liability.” Significantly, California will experiment with just such a point of sale approach later this year. The CHEAPR program in Connecticut offers rebates of $750 to $3,000 at the time of purchase and includes up to $300 in bonuses to the dealer. That money can be used to reward salespeople for selling electric cars.
Electric car shoppers are well informed before going to a dealership, says Chad Kelman, general manager at Community Chevrolet in Burbank. “The customer comes in with a pretty good understanding of the vehicle upfront,” he says. In an odd twist, he says many of his sales people feel intimidated by customers who know more about the products they sell than they do. He is now hiring people with experience selling electronics.
Infrastructure & Home Charging
Infrastructure is not something car dealers have much influence over but it is critical to many EV shoppers. John Sullivan says, “The impact of infrastructure on EV sales is enormous. Some studies have indicated (and we can confirm) that those with access to workplace charging are many times more likely to buy plug-in vehicles. Many customers cite convenient charging as a key reason for purchasing an EV. At the same time, unreliable public charging is a major concern for potential customers, and a real-world problem for some EV drivers.” (For much more on this topic, check out our new 93-page report on electric car drivers.)
His dealership has a display of all available home charging equipment complete with prices and list of area electricians who are knowledgeable about installing them. It also keeps in contact with the local utility company to keep up to date with rate structures and charging incentives.
Mark Fields Is An Idiot
The bottom line is that having idiots like Mark Fields running around telling everyone who will listen that nobody wants to buy electric cars is a huge impediment to the electric car revolution. The future is coming fast and with Fields at the helm, the once proud Ford Motor Company may be one of many legacy automakers that suddenly finds itself out of business.
Sales is simple. Find out what the customers want. Give the customers what they want. Selling electric cars is different than selling conventional cars but that doesn’t mean it can’t be done. It does mean that dealers need to be proactive by having a sufficient inventory, training a knowledgeable sales staff, educating customers about available options, and forging bonds with others in the business community such as utility companies and home charging equipment manufacturers.
Too many car dealers think their business is all about opening the doors in the morning and watching the money roll in. Those people are shortsighted fools. Dealer organizations should be spending more time looking to the future and less time fighting new ideas like Tesla’s direct sales model. Dealers who refuse to adapt to the changes coming are going to wake up one fine morning and wonder where all the customers are. They will be down the street, anxious to do business with those who want to do business with them.