By Michael Bettencourt

A new annual Canadian dealer award aims to increase the recognition for dealers that most successfully overcome the inherent challenges of selling unfamiliar plug-in technology, both among the public as well as their own sales teams. The awards, launched last month (June), will recognize dealer efforts in 2013 for BEVs (battery electric vehicles) and plug-in hybrid EVs in provinces with provincial incentives during the year (BC, Quebec and Ontario), as well as an EV Inspiration award for dealers outside those three provinces.

Organized by Canadian EV advocacy group Plug ‘n Drive as well as the Canadian Electricity Association, the group and its main sponsor (CAA) will award one of three trips to Vancouver for a representative from each dealership, while publicly highlighting their achievements.

“We know selling electric vehicles can be challenging,” says Cara Clairman, president and CEO of Plug ’n Drive. Even when customer enthusiasm for its fuel cost savings and environmental benefits brings shoppers to a dealership, it often takes longer than regular sales staff to both learn and then explain the unfamiliar technology, rebates and range issues involved. “By celebrating the hard work and success of dealerships, we hope the recognition that comes with these Awards encourages more dealerships to promote electric cars to consumers.”

But there’s more than just a learning curve dissuading some dealers from pursuing plug-in sales. Dealers don’t stand to make as much money to service plug-in vehicles, especially battery electric vehicles that don’t require oil/engine/transmission/exhaust maintenance or replacement, which is why Tesla founder Elon Musk has long argued that there’s an inherent conflict for traditional dealers to also try to sell electric cars. There’s simply less profit incentive over the long term, and possibly near term as well.

We’ve seen this lack of enthusiasm for EV sales up close: it happened to us when my family first went shopping for a plug-in, and increased to active discouragement for some friends after they test drove our Nissan Leaf and talked to us about fueling costs. It also reportedly happened to various Consumer Reports undercover shoppers, when a study by the consumer group of 85 dealerships in four states found that 13 of those dealerships actively discouraged EV sales, with seven of those from the state of New York. At 35 of the 85 U.S. dealers visited, salespeople recommended a gas-powered vehicle to potential plug-in buyers in the end.

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Award Website:
CEA – Electric Vehicle Awards

The study found that dealers with plenty of corporate support for plug-ins such as Chevrolet, Ford and Nissan were generally more positive about presenting the plug-in as an option, while Toyota and Honda (which doesn’t sell a plug-in in Canada), were much less enthusiastic. Complete results of the study can be seen here.

No similar Canadian study is yet available on the study concluded, though the anecdotal evidence certainly suggests similar dynamics at work: not necessarily animosity to the technology, but a lack of salesperson knowledge about plug-ins, the rebates available to their buyers, and limited supply and therefore experience with the car themselves.

The Canadian EV Dealership awards will be presented to the winning dealer representatives on October 29, 2014 at the Electric Mobility Canada’s EV2014VÉ Conference and Trade Show in Vancouver, among other PR and employee benefits.

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