The Internet works because it puts shoppers and sellers together. It's that simple. Throwing techno jargon into the mix makes it sound like there's more to it.

But after almost five years of messing around in cyberspace I've proven (at least for myself) that it's all about satisfying the customer with better access, plain and simple. What's more, it can be done in the analog world face to face better than in the digital world of bits and bytes.

Want evidence? Consider your own experience. Suppose you are looking to find the price and availability of an item you wish to purchase. Would you rather call through a series of automated attendants pushing “one” for this, “two” for that, and so forth until you finally push “zero” and get the operator who's only ability is to put you on hold and forward you into the abyss of clerks?

Or would you prefer to access a web site where you'll find all kinds of information, but can't ask questions or experience the product?

What if you had a direct line to the manager who sells the product and, since we're talking fiction here, let's suppose that manager is trained, motivated, empowered and likes customers? Don't skip over the customer part; it's crucial. If you're like most smart folks, you'll reach for that direct line every time.

Why not simply boot up your computer or deal with a clerk? Simple, it wastes time, offers too high a likelihood for bad information and it's frustrating.

How does this truth help us answer why customers hate to negotiate with salesmen and prefer to shop through the Internet even though the same sales manager who they hated in the showroom also controls the cyber center?

The answer lies in the part of the cyber process that addresses the customer's dislike of being distanced from the real decision makers.

The showroom strategy feels unfair and disrespectful; it pretends to be helpful and truthful but is orchestrated to wear you down and then charge the most and offer the least. The majority of customers know this before they enter the showroom or bump into it (slam into it is more like it) before they leave. It's more of a gauntlet run than a process.

The odd thing is that the cyber department is just another facet of the same system that seems to have disappointed so many for so long. Why the difference? For the most part it is not a difference in price, and it has nothing to do with whether the customer is maneuvered to optimize gross profit — in both schemes he is, and I can assure you that the dealer has no fewer profit pressures just because he has an Internet department.

No, cyber satisfaction is not about price or pressure; the Web succeeds where the showroom fails because virtually all successful Internet salespeople are better trained, better equipped and most importantly, more empowered to handle the deal than their showroom counterparts.

The most common customer satisfier comes from offering answers without checking in with anyone; the cyber guru simply hits a few keys on his or her computer and serves up the information by phone, e-mail or fax. In the cyber experience, the customer is put in direct contact with a decision-maker, and that alone makes all the difference.

It seems that without saying it out loud, many dealers have consciously or unconsciously realized that what needed to be changed was the unsettled feeling the customer got while dealing with dealerships.

What seems to be making that change happen more than any other factor is placing higher-ranking folks closer to the customer. Becoming antiquated are systems where lower-level sales types wear down a customer's price resistance until a manager can go in for the close.

Replacing that are real decision-makers interacting with the customer from the beginning. Higher-ups are now serving the buyer. And they like it.

Will manufacturers engage the same thinking in dealing with dealers? Certainly they understand the concept.

The funny thing is that few auto company employees subject themselves or their friends to the gauntlet of the old sales process. When they or their loved one's buy, they call directly to a dealer or general manager and set up an appointment for a direct contact. Decision-maker to decision-maker. No dance, just straight talk and sincere give and take.

I wonder if this idea could spread to other dealer/manufacturer interactions?


Peter Brandow is a 25-year veteran dealer with stores in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. He is president and CEO of Brandow Companies.