Research shows that women influence buying decisions on more than 85 percent of all new car purchases. So why do the dealerships selling the cars treat their biggest market with such disrespect?
Sarasota’s Peter Martin realized the power of the female buyer his first day on the job at a Ford dealership in Columbus, Ohio, two decades ago. His very first customers in the door that day were husband-and-wife pig farmers.
“It was a rough experience,” Martin recalls. “I tried to sell him a car. No luck. I tried to engage the wife; she wouldn’t even look at me. They left. Everybody at the dealership thought it was funny.”
The next day, the man returned—alone. He bought the car that he and his wife spent the most time with and paid for it with cash. No sales pitch, no negotiation.
“Do you mind if I ask you a question?” Martin asked. The man nodded his assent. “What made you come back?”
“Son,” the pig farmer said wearily, “you’re not married, are you?”
“No, I’m not,” Martin said.
“You ever heard of the doghouse?” the farmer asked. “Well, it pales next to the pig house.”
That was the first insight Martin had into the power women have in the car-buying process. When the pig farmers left the day before, the wife had wanted the car; the husband had not. She made him miserable that night, and the only way he was getting out of the pig house was by buying her the car she wanted.
Martin—along with legions of female car shoppers in this country—believes that few dealerships extend women the respect they deserve. “It’s embarrassing for the industry when you see how car dealers treat women: ‘Come back with your husband,’ ‘Let me show you how the vanity mirror works.’ It still happens today,” Martin says.
And it shouldn’t, since not only do women influence their husbands when shopping for the family car, they purchase 51 percent of all cars in the United States, according to J.D. Power and Associates. And by ignoring or mistreating their female customers, says Martin, dealers create “a situation where women are fearful and very distrustful of car dealers.”
Martin, 42, spent the last two decades in automotive marketing, never forgetting that early lesson. Two years ago, he founded AskPatty and teamed up with Jody DeVere, another automotive marketing consultant. Their business plan is based on the idea that women deserve more respect and more appropriate automobile information and marketing materials.
AskPatty’s 10-person Florida office, located in Lakewood Ranch and run by Martin, is the dealer side, while DeVere runs the four-person office in California that serves the customer. She also writes a customer-friendly AskPatty blog that has attracted thousands of readers. Martin, who is the CEO and founder of the company, has been engaged in a wide array of advertising and marketing ventures, including a direct e-mail marketing company, Cactus Sky, based in Sarasota.
Because 80 percent of all prospective car buyers start their searches online, Martin created a Web site (AskPatty.com) that would answer women’s questions about cars and car-buying for free. It’s a bit like the popular Car Talk program on National Public Radio, only AskPatty is online—and instead of wacky brothers Tom and Ray Magliozzi answering car questions, women are answering women’s questions. The answers come from an advisory panel of 57 women, including owners of dealerships and automotive body shops.
“We even have a woman who is a professional racer car driver—Deborah Renshaw,” says Martin. “When the question comes in, it gets sent out to all of our advisory board members. We have writers who then consolidate their responses into a concise answer, and we respond within 24 hours.”
One of the newest interactive Web site features, CarBlabber, is a forum for women to talk about why they love—or hate—their car.
AskPatty charges the dealer a $795 monthly subscription fee, which includes Web-based training and certifying auto dealerships as “women friendly” and then steering women to the dealer by producing a private-label AskPatty Web site for each certified dealer. Martin says $795 a month is a good deal, especially “if you look at what most dealers spend on their advertising—about $50,000 a month; some large dealerships spend $400,000 a month.” Additional AskPatty revenues come from paid subscriptions to AskPatty’s newsletters and e-marketing tools for dealers.
So far, Martin has signed up just under 200 dealers around the country, and his company has been featured in The New York Times and on Fox News, CNBC and dozens of newspapers and TV stations across the country. Recently, AutoTrader, a huge online classifieds site for used cars, partnered with AskPatty.
“Most [subscribers] are among the large, publicly traded dealer groups,” Martin says. “Out of the top 11 dealer groups in the nation, eight are engaged with us. If a car dealer is ignoring the female consumer, he’s putting a nail in his own coffin. The small [dealers] have the same old attitude; they do business the way they always have and always will. The big ones look at market penetration and trends.”
Martin doesn’t sell AskPatty to dealers; he waits for dealers to come to him. “Our philosophy is if we have to sell you, we probably don’t want you,” he explains.
To be certified, a dealer must put at least four people through the training course—someone from service, two people from sales and one person from management. “We want management buy-in,” Martin says. “We teach dealers how to communicate with women, how to understand their buying signals.”
Martin insists female car buyers are different from their male counterparts. “Men are competitive and love to negotiate; they don’t need to trust a dealer,” he says. “It’s all about the best price. Women are all about the relationship. Women will go out of their way to find respect from auto dealers.”
AskPatty stays involved after the sale, surveying consumers who go through its service about their experience with the dealer. “If a woman goes to a dealership we recommended and has a bad experience,” says Martin, “AskPatty.com wants to know about it.” It will even put a dealer under probation in extreme situations.
The company has trained and certified more than 30 dealerships in the Tampa Bay area, but none so far in Sarasota or Manatee. Why not? “That’s a perplexing question, and it’s disappointing to me,” Martin says. “I think there a lot of old-school dealerships that just aren’t open to change.”
Oh, yeah—who’s Patty? In the beginning there was a woman named Patty who answered the car questions, Martin says. When she left, Martin realized that renaming the site AskPeter probably wouldn’t fly with female consumers. “Today, Patty is every woman—a mother, a sister, a daughter. She encompasses all women,” Martin says.