Personal Lessons In Digital Marketing: A Tale Of Two Carvanas

When Marketing and Customer Experience Feel Like Different Companies

Lessons in Digital Marketing is a blog series touching on different aspects of digital marketing viewed through the lens of our personal consumer experiences. At Sonar, we think about how the digital experience fits with the broader customer journey.

Death By Awareness

Carvana* likely needs no introduction, because they’ve beaten most of us over the head with their marketing. In the early days, it was highlighting the gimmicky car vending machines or the touchless experience. 

As a millennial who loathes the car dealership experience, I am clearly right in their target demographic. A barrage of endless video ads, CTV and more refused to leave my wife and I  alone. If you visit the site, Display ads will follow you around for the next couple months.

According to Media Radar, Carvana spent $100 million on advertising in 2019 across 250 platforms and channels. I’ll illustrate via my purchase experience why this Mad Men style marketing only works if you can back it up with quality product and service.

Mad Men GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

Annoying? Most definitely. But it works. Two years later when our family needed a second car, Carvana was top of my mind. As we got ready to purchase a car Covid hit, making the Carvana Experience a no brainer. 

For what it’s worth, we got a great deal on the vehicle and it’s in great condition. However, Carvana doesn’t position their product as the vehicle, the product is the buying experience. Let’s dive into the actual process and experience.

The Experience and It’s (Many) Pain Points

Things started off swimmingly. We found what we wanted, got financing through our bank and checked out our shopping cart. The checkout was quite literally no different than buying clothes online. Once we were on the hook, the real Carvana revealed itself.

UX Issue #1: Lots of Information with No Value

Carvana Search
Carvana’s “robust” FAQ helps with questions that they want you to have answered.

Carvana’s site features a fairly robust FAQ at first glance. However, the FAQs only tell you about the same picture they paint in their media efforts. Why it’s simple, how to finance, how to trade in, etc. The FAQs are geared towards getting them your money. Our bank needed to mail a check to a Carvana physical address, which the customer service rep was supposed to provide. I went to call back, but customer service consistently has 20 minute wait times so went to hunt it down online.

After many searches like the one pictured, I finally found an address for all financing. The bank proceeded to mail the check to that address.

Issue #2: Carvana Customer Service (sucks)

Disclaimer: I know CS Reps have it very hard and aim to be polite and friendly regardless of the issue. Just a reminder that these are just people earning a paycheck, they didn’t create your problem. The issues laid out below speak to systemic issues with Carvana CS.

To loop this back to the advertising efforts, Carvana consistently messages how quickly you will get the car. One week after sending the check we had zero confirmation on shipping. Their policy is not to ship until they receive the check even though my bank confirmed with them it was en route. Finally, I picked up the phone and got a great rep. He took pity on me and got me the new address to mail a check. Despite their policy the car would be shipped immediately.

Fast forward 4 business days—still no shipping confirmation. I had to call yet again, the car hadn’t shipped and I had to re-explain my whole issue. There were no notes taken by any call rep through the whole process, so I was re-explaining myself every time.

Once finally sorted out, the car got to me on May 21, four weeks after I “completed checkout.” This was after four proactive phone calls on my part, with wait time totaling to about an hour each. If I had not reached out the car would have taken well over four weeks to receive. In order not to drone on, here are a few other things that popped up along the way.

  • The process kicks off with text messaging. Convenient, right? Wrong. The rep or bot, I’m not really sure, took over 24 hours to respond to any questions.
  • They force you to the chat bot, which consistently did not answer questions.
  • I was told by one rep the Customer Success team would reach out to remedy my issue, they did not.

In summary, lots of features that caused more harm than good and empty promises made by multiple reps.

Issue #3: Salt on The Wound

Immediately after all this happened, I was continually bombarded with Display Ads. To really twist the knife I saw this on HULU multiple times. 

Let’s look at this both through the lens of a potential customer and a previous customer with my experience falling right in between those two points in the funnel.

Potential Customer: This video makes it look like the most amazing and seamless experience ever. Everyone at Carvana has your back and wants to get you a car “in as little as a day.” Then you finalize your purchase, and absolutely NO ONE cares anymore. The poor experience is infinitely more upsetting.

Previous Customer: You are immediately reminded of how awful the experience was, and maybe this is specific to me, but you were reminded they are still in the process of registering your vehicle and your temp plates have expired. Maybe you also write a 1,500 word blog post about it.

Issue #4: Carvana Customer Service (sucks, cont.)

Three months out, we are still waiting on them to register our vehicle. After researching, I later found out you could opt out and register yourself. Yet again, valuable information buried deep down in the website. I tried one last ditch CS phone call to push along registration. Sure enough, they hadn’t kicked it off until I called even though that had what they needed. As a “solution,” I got one paragraph typed on company letterhead explaining they were still working on registration. You know, that official letterhead cops always ask for when they pull you over for expired plates. “I’m gonna need to see your license, registration, and any potential documents with company letterhead explaining why this temp plate is expired, sir.” Needless to say I have given up on phone calls to sort out issues.

What’s The Takeaway?

I’ll openly admit this diatribe was 100% cathartic for me, but what I really want to take away is how advertising and customer experience could simply not be further apart. To repeat, Carvana SPENT $100 MILLION DOLLARS ON ADVERTISING. This money was used to make everyone believe their experience would be nothing like the actual. That’s negative marketing. Online user experience is hyper-focused on reputation and Carvana is paying through the nose to build a bad one.

Imagine if they shifted even 10% of that into customer experience? So many pain points in the process could be solved. They could use $1 million to turn that fictional(?) Customer Success Team into a reality.

Reputation, both online and otherwise, is EVERYTHING. You can overcome some issues and bad experiences when selling shirts or sneakers, but this is tens of thousands of dollars we’re talking about.  As a Carvana pioneer to my friends and family who were curious about the experience, I strongly recommended no one use it. Those friends and family may share my story with others. One bad enough experience can spread – and fast. 

Shiny car vending machines turn out to be as practical as you’d imagine them to be.

Let’s assume an average car price of $15k. I told 40 people about my experience, let’s assume 3 would have eventually purchased. The complaint on the BBB site that turned 10 more people away over time. Say this post reaches 500 people I have turned away 7 more future customers. Carvana is now looking at $300k potentially lost from one experience. And I assure you I’m far from the only one.

Analyze Marketing Through The Customer Lens

So when thinking about a marketing effort, really focus on what’s backing it up. Bringing people to a bad experience gets a lot more expensive than your marketing dollars. It’s great to talk about priding yourself on customer service, but it stings a lot more when you don’t practice what you preach. There’s nothing shameful about some aspects of your business being weaker than others. Just don’t bring attention to them with marketing until it’s something that fills you with pride.

Use these lessons on the micro-level to think about your own efforts. If I target a keyword, does my landing page really back it up the customer’s intent? If I get 50,000 impressions for my new service do I even have the bandwidth? We all are guilty of pushing marketing when the experience isn’t ready and putting the cart before the horse. Build your user experience first, then worry about the marketing.

Everything touches digital at some point in a product or service funnel. Gone are the days when someone sees a billboard and walks into your store or orders via catalog. All touchpoints need to be communicating with each other and in sync, or customers will take their business elsewhere.

Marketing is useless without the product or service to back it up and can exacerbate bad experiences.

*As an SEO Nerd who’s been pushed to the brink with this customer experience, Carvana will not be receiving any backlinks in this article.

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