Case Study: How Porsche Impacted Sales by 28% by Confronting Sales Floor Biases

Perfectly irrational. Soul, electrified. Timeless machine. These statements capture the iconic Porsche, a sports car that needs no introduction. Or does it? Bias on the sales floor and the assumption that a Porsche will sell itself led Italian showrooms to be among the worst-performing across Europe. Here's how they fixed that. 

In this article, you’ll discover: 

  • How Porsche used behavioral science to impact automotive sales by 28%;
  • How experiences, not just lessons, can impact your understanding of behavioral self-bias;
  • Why over-optimism can actually be a bad thing in sales; and
  • Hands-on examples of how to manage buyer objections through relationship building.
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You won't buy a Porsche

A 38-year-old woman walks into a Porsche dealership in Milan holding a Starbucks Frappuccino while wearing skinny jeans and no makeup. She doesn't look the part of a typical Porsche buyer. 

"You won't buy a Porsche," is the unconscious mantra on the sales floor before the woman even opens her mouth. 

Someone politely shows her a few cars, writes down her contact details — not in the CRM system, that would be overkill for someone with such low buying potential — and wishes her well as she leaves the showroom a short 20 minutes later. 

What just happened? A potential sale walked out the door. Never offered a test drive, never to be followed up with, never to buy a Porsche — at least not from that dealership. 

"If you test drive a Porsche, you’ll probably love it. But you must be offered the experience first," says Silvio Trombetta of MIDA consultancy, the brains behind the Porsche intervention. 

After a global anonymous service assessment conducted by Porsche HQ, it was found that Italy's 38 sales points were underperforming both in terms of sales and customer service standards.

A global service assessment conducted by Porsche HQ revealed that Italy's 38 sales points were underperforming in sales and customer service standards.

But why? Italians love gorgeous cars. Italy, the birthplace of the Ferrari, Lamborghini, Maserati, and outright glamor, surely knows how to sell a Porsche. What was happening on the sales floor that was turning away so many potential Porsche owners?

It all boiled down to 3 key sales mistakes: 

  1. Not enough test drives were being offered. Only 60% of potential buyers were offered a test drive at Italian branches, whereas the European standard was 85%. 
  1. No proactive approach to closing the sale. Sales people let potential buyers walk out of the show room without addressing purchasing apprehensions on the spot. 
  1. No follow-up. Sales people casually wrote down contact information of potential buyers, rarely in a CRM system, and didn't have a follow-up process in place. 
MIDA's proprietary behavior transformation model Source: MIDA case study
  1. DEFINE objectives and KPIs
  2. RESEARCH the problem through observation and interviews 
  3. EXPERIMENT by establishing a control group and intervention group
  4. ADOPT using continuous feedback in a timely and easy format
  5. MEASURE results and repeat success 
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But what's the nitty-gritty? How can we take this fanciful D.R.E.A.M. acronym and understand what Trombetta and his team did in practice? It had to be something clever in order to result in a 28% impact on sales! 

Understand the subconscious

The 3 sales failures — not enough test drives, limited effort to close the sale, and no follow-up process — were happening due to subconscious biases. The sales team didn't realize they held beliefs that were preventing them from selling Porsches. 

Through field research across multiple locations consisting of interviews and observations, the MIDA team identified several biases that were the root behavioral causes. 

The 3 sales failures — not enough test drives, limited effort to close the sale, and no follow-up process — were happening due to subconscious biases.
  • Why no test drive? → "You don't match my self-created criteria (stereotyping) of what a Porsche buyer should look like, therefore, it's a waste of time to offer you a test drive." 
  • Why no attempt to close the sale? → "I'm optimistic about the future (optimism bias) and believe if you want to buy a Porsche, you will buy a Porsche. I also want to preserve my optimistic illusion for as long as possible because I'm afraid of hearing 'no'. That's why I don't push you to make the decision right away." 
  • Why no follow-up call? → "It's useless to make a follow-up call because the customer already has all the information they need. My job is done. Now it's up to them to spontaneously show up and buy the car. If they buy, it's because I did my job well and if they don't buy, it has nothing to do with my abilities as a salesperson (self-serving bias). 

Pop quiz: which bias was applied to the 38-year-old woman from the introduction? 

Stereotyping: you're just here for a free ride = no test drive

You guessed it — stereotyping. Humans adopt generalised beliefs that members of a group will have certain characteristics, despite not having enough information about the individual. 

These preconceived beliefs block people from taking actions they know are important for an outcome. A person must test drive a car before they buy a car. Sales people know this consciously, but subconscious beliefs — old people don't drive fast cars, single women can't afford a Porsche — prevented them from offering test drives.

A person must test drive a car before they buy a car. Sales people know this consciously, but subconscious beliefs prevented them from offering test drives.

"They're here for a ride and have no intention to purchase," was a common reaction, says Trombetta. "If the customer says no, I don't want a test drive, that's a possible choice. But it's important to offer regardless of personal bias." 

Observation research found that only people who "looked like Porsche people" were offered test drives. 

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Optimism bias: what is meant to be will be = no managed objections

Nice idea for a song lyric, bad idea for selling luxury sports cars. Even a product as iconic and sexy as a Porsche needs a sales technique. 

"If you have a client who is very passionate about Porsches, it's easy to sell the car. When you convince someone who is not so convinced, that's where you add value," says Trombetta.

Too many sales people were overly optimistic about good outcomes. They believed fate itself would dictate the outcome of a sale. The customer will come to us, they thought. it’s useless to push the sale and try to close the deal. It's useless to make follow-up calls; if the customer wants to buy it, then they’ll show up spontaneously.

"If you have a client who is very passionate about Porsches, it's easy to sell the car. When you convince someone who is not so convinced, that's where you add value," says Trombetta.

A layer deeper into the optimism bias shows a misconstrued preference for uncertainty. The illusion that a deal will maybe, hopefully, fingers crossed close is more comfortable than hearing a direct "no" from the customer. Sellers wanted to preserve that optimistic illusion for as long as possible that if you leave a deal suspended you still have a chance to close. 

"The sellers thought it was better to maintain an uncertain evolution of the deal rather than the certainty of hearing no," says Trombetta. "But receiving a 'no' can be a good thing. Now you are faced with the true intentions of the customer and you as a seller can manage them. You can explore the reasons for a 'no' a little bit more and work to change the customer's ideas behind avoiding the purchase."

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Optimism bias made the sales team unprepared, and subconsciously fearful, to manage buyer objections. No proactive script or tactics were deployed in the moment to push a person towards purchase and the lack of follow-up calls after the initial meeting enabled sellers to remain falsely optimistic for a longer period of time.

Design solutions to overcome the biases

Now for the behavioral change; the magic, the sweet spot, the reason why a company like Porsche hires a consultancy firm like MIDA. Identifying bias and connecting it to a problem only scratches the surface. It's the change process that is much more profound. 

Trombetta emphasized the importance of making someone feel the subconscious bias. Being aware of a bias is not enough to change behavior. He wanted to make the sales team feel it and, together, change it. 

"That's why we use workshops in which most parts of the company can create the belief altogether," says Trombetta. "We engage people in the process through day-to-day experiences to implement the behavior. We demonstrate to people using simple exercises that our subconscious activates beliefs that block our mind. Then through practical techniques, destroy the belief and replace it with some other potential belief."

Being aware of a bias is not enough to change behavior. Trombetta wanted to make the sales teams feel it and, together, change it.

In the case of Porsche, beliefs that were blocking sales people's minds were stereotypes about who can and cannot buy a Porsche (resulting in no test drive), optimism bias about market outlook (resulting in no push back to buyer objections), and self-serving bias (resulting in no follow-up calls).  

The MIDA workshops helped sales people destroy these biased beliefs and replace them with other potential beliefs about the importance of on-the-spot persuasion, the process of customer follow-up, and the power of being offered a unique opportunity to put the pedal to the metal on a luxury sports car.    

At Porsche, the sales people's mind were blocked by stereotypes, optimism bias and self-serving bias.

It's about hearing people and using this information to respond to push-back and hesitation. No matter the seller's preconceived stereotype about a person's ability or interest in buying a Porsche, they must actively engage the buyer in conversation and address concerns right on the spot. 

Trombetta links this technique specifically to the moment most negotiations come to — when the customer says, 'let me think about it.' Most sellers will say, 'sure, talk to your family, take your time.'

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"This is a mistake!" says Trombetta. "50% of people say this as a way to avoid the purchase. I push people during shadowing and workshops to change this behavior. Come to the customer with another question; 'How can I help your reflection? How can I lessen your doubt?’ Your job starts here. This is the true starting point to have success and add value."

This technique of managing objections can generally be applied to any type of sales. In B2B or B2C negotiations, you must have in your mind that in order to increase your results you must use tactics to gently push customers in the right direction.

"In a delightful way," smiles Trombetta, "but you have to encourage people. People need to be helped to make a decision." 

When the customer says, 'let me think about it,' most sellers will say, 'sure, take your time.'"This is a mistake!" says Trombetta. Instead, ask another question, " How can I lessen your doubt?"

Be prepared to manage buyer objections. Listen to people. Hear them, he says. Use this information to quickly build a relationship so when you come up with solutions to address their concerns, which can oftentimes feel very personal, the customer is more likely to accept them. 

"In the premium automotive market, one sentence you often hear when shadowing is, 'I want to ask my wife.' But if you want to buy a Porsche, do not ask your wife. The desire to buy a Porsche isn’t born out of a necessity, but a desire for a personal gratification.  Wives don’t often share this desire with their husbands, so letting them ask their wives will remove the potential customer from the decision-making mind frame that leads to a sale. Instead, suggest making the purchase a surprise for her. If you've built a relationship," says Trombetta, "they are more likely to consider this idea." 

Another solution designed by MIDA to overcome bias was to help the team improve self-efficacy. Self-efficacy, in a nutshell, is best described by Henry Ford — whether you think you can, or you can't, you're right. Your own belief in your ability to do something directly impacts your ability to do it. Or as Trombetta says, "the way you explain a situation to yourself can change your behavior." In the case of Italy's Porsche sales team, they explained things to themselves in an overly optimistic fashion. 

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Field research conducted by MIDA found that this optimism bias was actually hurting sales. Overly optimistic sales people felt that no matter what they did, and in many cases they did nothing, the decision to buy a Porsche would come naturally to customers. There was no effort to improve self-efficacy and retell the purchase story. 

To help the team feel the optimism bias, they employed a practical exercise— a 48 question diagnostics survey based on research from psychologist Martin Seligman. By taking this placement test, the intervention group was able to better reflect on their own level of optimism vs. pessimism.  

Diagnosing oneself on the optimism scale made the bias more tangible; and in turn, created motivation to work towards improving self-efficacy and change a belief that was blocking them from implementing proven successful behaviors: offer a test drive, proactively manage buyer objections, and make follow-up phone calls within 5-7 days.

"You can be aware that there is a behavior that is important," says Trombetta, "but if there is a belief that blocks the implementation, this is hard."

Get results that last and can be replicated 

Now, what happens when Trombetta and his team pack their bags and head home? Will all the lessons learned fly (or drive) out the front door? The real impact comes in how to facilitate a long-term behavioral change.

"We proceed with change in an agile way from the bottom up" he says. "I'm asking you to adopt something that you contributed to creating." 

The bottom-up approach to change management gets people involved in the process of decision-making, and therefore means they're more willing to accept the change. If change is implemented top down or by means of authority only, the behavioral change is often temporary and half-hearted at best. 

"If the behavior does not become my habit, I'm not adopting it. You can push people with authority to change something 1, 2 or 3 times, but you are not changing people's habits," says Trombetta. 

In addition to taking the longer, but more lasting, bottom-up approach to change, Trombetta emphasizes the importance of gradual nudges. Small but specific steps towards a goal help in long-term adoption. Even if the change is unconscious, people respond better to a gentle nudge than an abrupt push. 

The solutions designed by MIDA were rolled out over a series of 4 months. Change didn't happen overnight, and it wasn't delivered in a manifesto written by management. Slowly, through repetition, sales floor shadowing, encouragement from the MIDA team, and buy-in from all levels of leadership, sales people more naturally offered test drives, managed buyer objections, and made follow-up calls. 

The results of the intervention had major impacts on defined KPIs. The intervention group exceeded regional standards by offering test drives to 90% of potential buyers, attempted to close the deal 62% of the time by proactively managing buyer objections on the spot, and started the more regular practice of conducting a follow-up call within 5-7 days. 

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These KPIs resulted in a 28% difference in sales between the intervention group and the control group. While the control group's sales dropped by 24% over the course of 2 months, the intervention group increased sales by 4% in the same period. 

That's huge. And importantly, the change is documented and replicable - ready to be rolled out and championed by those receiving the praise for such an impressive turnaround. 

The KPIs resulted in a 28% difference in sales between the intervention group and the control group. While the control group's sales dropped by 24%, the intervention group increased sales by 4%.

Key Takeaways 

  • Understand subconscious biases that cause the behavior you want to change. Only then will you know the real problem you're facing and be in a good position to design solutions. 
  • For long term change, awareness of a personal bias is not enough. People need to experience it. Use simple, but impactful exercises to help people experience their bias and become more willing to destroy a belief and replace it with some other potential one.
  • Over-optimism can be a bad thing, particularly if it leads to indifference in adapting certain behaviors proven to be critical to an outcome. Try using Martin Seligman's Optimism test to help people identify people’s tendency towards optimism or pessimism and strive towards improved self-efficacy. Follow this up with specific scenarios and actions that can help individuals shift along the scale to fit the business need.
  • Long-term behavior adoption is more likely to succeed if it comes from the bottom up. Leaders (or consultants) must plant the seed and provide the tools, but leave it up to people themselves to administer the change, day by day, over time.

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  • MIDA