Understanding Today’s Plug-in Electric Vehicle Customers

PHEV Seminar June 4, 2014

In a workshop convened by UC Davis Institute of Transportation Studies, 60 experts from car dealers and the automotive industry shared opportunities, challenges, and best practices for expanding the plug-in electric vehicle (PEV) retail market.

One of the major challenges facing mainstream adoption of plug-in electric vehicles is forging a stronger partnership and dialogue between manufacturers and retail car dealers. For dealers, Boardwalk Auto Mall Marketing Director Brendan Dolan has found success by recognizing that longstanding dealer practices for selling traditional automobiles don’t always apply to PEVs. Understanding what a modern PEV consumer wants is crucial to driving sales.

Dolan noted that because most early EV buyers are even better informed than conventional car buyers, they generally distrust car dealers. It’s important for dealers to match or exceed that level of competence, and sell on logic and value rather than stock sales pitches and dubious promises. “Customers want a different experience,” said Dolan. “People will know if you try to put on a show.”

Dolan argued that dealers should focus on finding staff that is open and motivated to learn the technology. Sales staff that cannot or will not adjust to the changes in the retail space may ultimately be too difficult to win over.

ITS-Davis Ph.D. candidate Eric Cahill argued that dealers could improve satisfaction scores by providing an ecosystem of ancillary services that enhance the PEV buying experience.

Borrowing a page from Apple’s playbook, some dealers have designated PEV “product geniuses” to better inform and support potential buyers on all of the available features offered by PEVs.

Cahill also noted that sales people at leading dealers drive PEVs on a day-to-day basis to experience what it is like to live with the vehicle. This “drive what you sell” approach allows dealers to better connect to and relate with customers by drawing from personal experiences.

Some dealers even offer a “try before you buy” program where prospective customers can spend a day or two with a plug-in before making a final decision. Cahill and many others, including ITS-Davis engineer Professor Andrew Burke, reiterated that it takes more than just a short test drive to understand what owning a PEV is like.

As for government incentives, dealers universally welcome them. But concern over the continued availability of rebates and HOV lane access keeps some dealers from evangelizing their benefits to consumers.

Overall, the panelists emphasized the need for a cultural shift from simply selling vehicles in the short term to a more pleasant experience in which sharing information about new technologies (like PEVs) is a natural part of the car buying experience.

For now, PEVs are not for everyone. Dealers play an essential role in helping customers realize whether a plug-in could meet their needs and fit their lifestyle. Automobile technology continues to advance in the industry. Meanwhile, customers expect more from dealers, and leading PEV dealers have demonstrated that they can meet these challenges by delivering a superior customer experience.

Photo (left to right): Heath Carney, Rob Louisell, Taz Harvey, Andrew McCargar, Brendan Dolan. Photo credit: Dorian Toy

Further Reading: PHEV Dealer Study