Building trust with women – how far have retailers come?

The modern car retailer has come a long way since the blatantly sexist world of the 1970s when it was not unusual to see an advert for a new car which read ‘Take me to your husband’!

Yes, we’ve moved on. But how by how much? Are the days of the ‘dolly bird’ draped across a new car really behind us? Or is the automotive retail network still out of step when it comes to treating women customers as the equal of male customers?

Here’s an interesting statistic, from The Auto Alliance’s research ‘Who Drives a Household’s Buying Decisions?’

85% of car buying decisions are being influenced by women.

Behind that statistic is the fact that couples and families will discuss and make their car-buying decisions together. So why is it that we still have an automotive buying experience focused towards men?

Women’s lives, like all of ours, have become a lot busier so having to deal with a retail environment that doesn’t cater for female customers’ needs – or any customer’s needs, male or female – is not going to be a pleasurable experience and, frankly, wastes precious time.

I’m not sure whether it is because I’m a woman or whether it is the nature of some sales people, but whenever I have attempted to buy a vehicle (eight occasions in total) I have rarely received the customer service and honesty I would expect from a retailer.

It’s not surprising, therefore, to learn in a survey from consumer researcher Different Spin that the most commonly used words from women to describe car showrooms are, “uncomfortable, unpleasant, dreadful, horrific, tortuous, demeaning, patronising, ghastly and sickening”.

The survey of 48,000 women concluded that women are three times more likely than men to experience dealers negatively and that 90% would not visit a dealership without a man to accompany them. If women feel they need to be accompanied by men that speaks volumes about the customer experience they receive.

Interesting statistic number two: 80% of dealership staff are men.

The RMIF (Retail Motor Industry Federation) reports that 80% of staff in dealerships are men and yet women are influencing the majority of decisions. Clearly there are a large number of female sales executives and managers, and sales staff of both genders do well with women customers, but overall the sales process is designed and managed by men.

There is plenty of research and analysis that supports the apparent differences in behaviours and styles between the genders. But that aside, surely the sales process should be focused on the individual, regardless of gender. Different women will require something different from a sales experience in the same way that different men do.

The majority of Facebook users are women.

Apparently men are catching up, but the majority of social network users are women, with 77% of female internet users on Facebook compared to 66% of men. Instagram and Pinterest are the clear favourite of women under 35. No real surprise there but it does suggest that if you want to build trust with women in particular, then you have to take social media and online presence into account.

As Different Spin points out, the ‘sales funnel’ is practically dead: “It is not a funnel. It is not even a circular journey from awareness to consideration, to purchase, to advocacy. It is a messier process where brand experience is affected at every moment, by every touchpoint.”

My personal preference is never to just browse the showrooms. I like to research online, test drive (ideally from home or work) and buy. I’m not alone in this. In 2015 Buyacar saw a 58% increase in the number of women bypassing the showroom and clicking to buy a car online, compared with growth of 29% among men.

If I reach the point of entering a showroom, I have a strong idea of what I want and why. Now is the opportunity for the sales staff to gain my trust; is the person selling me the vehicle trustworthy or just trying to make as much money as possible? I want respect for my research and my choices. Yes, help me to validate that choice but don’t force me down the wrong road.

As Tess Karesky, of CDK Global, wrote: “Women from across the Internet have complaints about dealers trying to sell them a car they don’t want because the dealer thought it was better for her. Remember, most women have done a significant amount of research before they go to the dealership.”

A word about negotiation.

The sales process, the deal, the kill, the close, the haggle, the “what’s your best offer?”...

Many men don’t relish this bit either – maybe it is the fact that we call the shop a ‘dealership’ that we expect to be ‘dealing’ or negotiating which may be why many are moving to the name of ‘retailer’. Look at the rising success of online sales and no-haggle price deals in some of the challenger retailers such as Tesla and Rockar Hyundai. Similarly look at the behaviours of their staff – there to provide information and advice, not to haggle you into submission and beat you into a deal that suits them and not you.

Research on women in the workplace, by Dr Hilla Dotan at Tel Aviv University, showed women can negotiate just as smartly as men but “tend to focus on the process of negotiations and on building relationships and reputations”.

Existing research shows that 20% of women do not negotiate even when they believe they ought to; and women often consider negotiations a chore rather than a pleasure.

Here is evidence that women do not embrace negotiation and so buying a car is seen as a hostile battle of wills rather than a retail process of selecting the car that most meets their needs.

It is clear that to build and gain trust with women it is better to take the heat out of the deal. Here’s how:

1. Don’t view negotiation as a battle to be won – as there will then be a loser and all trust is lost – adopt a win-win mind-set by showing openness and present a transparent approach to prices.

2. Listen, respond and don’t react. Understand and build rapport by repeating back and don’t leap in with defensive comments – these tend to start with “yes, but...”

3. Show empathy, don’t dismiss people’s point of view. Try saying “yes I can see your point of view – what I can do is...”

4. Ask very clearly, “how can I help you get what you need?” That is saying ‘I am on your side and here to help,’ as opposed to seeing the negotiation as a battle to be won.

Treating women customers appropriately should not have to be rocket science in 2017; treat all people fairly, not as a woman, not as a man but as individuals. At the heart of the matter is being able to build trust and if sales teams would think beyond gender and treat people as individuals, and use the right behaviours to gain trust that would go a long way towards making the car showroom more gender neutral.


Kat is RTS Group’s director of learning and development, overseeing our solutions, strategy, design, delivery and quality, and she works closely with the operations director. She also oversees a number of the client accounts.

Kat’s background is in learning and development, partly in the automotive sector and also for a large computer/IT corporate – one multi-million pound project Kat managed was the 2001 Census. He first ever job was also in automotive, as her father owned a car dealership for a short period of time and Kat was paid to clean cars!

When she’s in the office, Kat sits with the central services team to catch up, and also spends a lot of time in meetings. She describes herself as “calm” and she is also very patient. Kat’s spare time revolves around family life with her two children and her Golden Retriever, and they all love being outdoors.