Comparing the Online vs In-Person Customer Experience: A Personal Story

by Susan Preiss in Customer Experience, Measuring Customer Service Performance, Susan Preiss

In this article, we share a first-person experience from our Vice President, Client Services, Susan Preiss. She explores the tale of two customer experience scenarios, comparing online versus in-person customer experiences in the quest to buy a new car. The takeaways for the world of customer care are tangible and actionable. Read on!

Vehicle Shopping: A Family Affair

Last weekend, my youngest son took the big step of buying his first vehicle.  These types of purchases tend to be a family affair for us. Each of us has expertise in different parts of the process—from finance to autobody to mechanics. And so, off my youngest went to a local dealership with me, his father, and two of his brothers along for the ride, so to speak.

This was our second time in a year working through the vehicle-purchasing process with one of our adult kids. Because the car-buying experience in these two instances gave me a new perspective on the subject of customer experience—a topic I’m extremely passionate about – I wanted to share.

The Virtual Experience: Simple. Transparent. Respectful.

My second oldest child was in the market to buy a car last June. Even though our region was relatively open in terms of retail shopping due to a lull in COVID numbers, he decided to look at cars through an online dealership.

The process was surprisingly simple. The dealer’s website included detailed photos and Carfax reports. Using those resources, it was simple to choose and book a handful of cars you wanted to see in-person. Arriving at the agreed-upon location, the selected cars were ready for test-driving. My son decided on one car in particular, discussing its condition with an employee, and then applied for financing. He paid a deposit, left, and received a phone call the next day that he was approved. My son then picked up the car.

This online-based auto dealership was a delight to work with. One person interacted with us for the entire transaction, making it easy for us to purchase a vehicle. They were transparent, friendly, and helpful, and we walked away feeling happy with a well-priced car and no need to negotiate (which they don’t do anyway) or deal with any hidden fees. We knew exactly what to expect and never felt pressured or deceived. Apparently in non-COVID times, they even bring your selected cars directly to you.

The Real-World Experience: Outdated. Frustrating. Time-Consuming.

For years, and especially in pre-COVID days, it was often assumed that in-person interactions are the height of the customer experience, trumping online interactions all day long. We were pleasantly surprised with this online auto retailer as a result. And, some nine months later, we were especially shocked to go through a starkly contrasting experience at a traditional auto dealership.

The experience started out similarly enough: my son viewed trucks on their website and found one he wanted to check out in person. We visited the car lot and quickly located the vehicle, connected with a salesperson, and took the truck for a test drive. It was a great drive—my son decided he’d like to purchase it right then and there.

We went into the dealership to discuss the condition, view the Carfax report, and ultimately make an offer. This is where things took a turn. The salesperson told us he required my son’s bank or credit card to prove he was serious about the purchase. We were, frankly, shocked by this policy, which the salesperson informed us was outdated but mandatory—he outright told us many people walk away at this point. My son grudgingly complied and handed over his card.

The truck was priced at $28,990, but with a little rust and needed repairs, my son offered $27,000. And so the negotiations started. Within minutes, the salesperson returned to tell us they would fix the rust but refused to lower the price. My son countered, saying the price was still too high, but that he’d be willing to pay $28,000. The salesperson went to discuss this with his manager and returned later with a further counteroffer that was still higher than my son’s offer.

At this point, we were three hours in and could tell the salesperson was as weary of the process as we were. In fact, he outright said to us, “This might be the day I quit my job!” Ouch. I was ready to leave, but my son wanted that truck and accepted their counteroffer.

Then came the financing process. We headed to their back room to speak with their finance manager. Right off the bat, she made the incorrect assumption that my son would need a co-signer—before she asked about his annual income. Then came all the extra costs and fees that were mostly unnecessary, seemingly hidden, and automatic unless you were diligent enough to catch and fight them (which, of course, we did.)

The whole experience was exhausting. There were multiple people in the process – we felt like the old “good cop, bad cop” ploy was being used. The process was fraught with secrecy instead of transparency – creating distrust. There was a clear lack of respect for our time and for my son’s ability to afford the purchase himself. What should have been a happy purchase experience turned into something frustrating and stressful.

Customer First: Start with Trust and Respect. Make It Easy.

It seems counterintuitive that the online-based dealership delivered a better experience. Many people assume that new technology removes humanity from processes like these and that a person-to-person experience will be more humane. But in this case, we found the opposite to be true.

Traditional business models—particularly in retail and, more specifically, auto dealers—will find some key takeaways from this comparison. Transparency, respect, consistency, and ease of process are fundamentals to a positive customer experience (and, notably, the employee experience, too). Sure, my son bought the truck despite the negative experience—but you can bet he’ll turn to the easier, more delightful online resource next time he is ready to purchase a vehicle.

And, of course, in the spirit of Net Promoter, we’ve already steered people toward the online dealership and warned others of our experience in the local dealership. Word of mouth still matters.

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