Your Members’ Secret Car Buying Journey [Video]

Secret Stamp with Car
(Last Updated On: September 15, 2023)

Your credit union members have a secret. They are scheming, researching, and…doing normal things! The scary part? Your institution may not be equipped to best serve them.

Members use the internet. Now more than ever. In fact, as of Q1 of 2023, Cox Automotive found that 80% want to do the whole purchase online. Three years earlier, that same percentage was only considering the idea. Change can happen fast!

Are these online buyers using your auto financing? Some, but not as many as could have! Discover their secret to boost your auto lending and income!

Today, credit unions hold almost 1/3 of all car loans in the US, according to CUES. The average term length is now around 70 months. However, based on surveys of our own clients, run-off is far shorter for many loans.

That kind of frequent turnover means new loans are essential to replenish the portfolio. Good thing ongoing applications are sufficient to forgo other efforts. What’s that? You’d like more activity? We might just have an idea.

What is the Member Journey?


Buying a car is one of the top purchases a person will make in their lifetime. And most do it about 9 times. That doesn’t make each transaction any less important! It’s still a serious decision process taken over a “journey”.

Few simply find and buy. Even I, who picked the exact VIN of every car I’ve bought, still took the time to ensure I got what I wanted at a fair price. And what’s old is new. The concept of pre-ordering your car was my dad’s preferred buying strategy; nearly 1 in 5 pre-ordered in 2022, an 89% increase YoY.

My atypical journey could have started at my credit union. It didn’t. Why not? Because their focus was, as yours might be, on the loan. Until the final price settlement, that wasn’t a thought.

So what’s this journey we keep referencing? It’s the path between “hmm, I think we need a new car” and “I’m glad we got this car.” With all sorts of data surrounding the process, we couldn’t find anything digging into that specific question.

Until now.

Which would you rather do: Pro-actively acquire loans or wait around for members to walk through the door (physically, or more likely, digitally)?

Exactly. So we looked at this secret journey and are doing what no magician would: We’re telling you how it works. In fact, we even made a video! Here’s a sneak peek:

Your Members' Secret Car Buying Journey
Ready to watch? Keep reading and you will be rewarded!

Turns out, that whole Marketing section of our Learning Library really does represent typical member behavior. To help you build a plan that works for your credit union and its members, we’ll start with the buyer’s journey.

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What is the Buyer’s Journey?

The buyer’s journey is the path each member takes in order to become a customer. HubSpot defines the buyer’s journey as the “process buyers go through to become aware of, consider and evaluate, and decide to purchase a new product or service.” 

Car buying is no different. As one of the “biggies”, it gets special attention. The buyer’s journey highlights three stages your member goes through:

  • Awareness
  • Consideration
  • Decision

Two of those can be completed before inquiring about financing. In other words, you can engage members prior to their loan discussion!

In 2022, 13% of buyers used a lender website to find a car. That’s up 86% year over year. We call that “opportunity”. For those who research financing prior to purchase (about half, and around 60% for Gen Z), 48% are interested in finding a car on their lender’s (that’s you!) website.

Most credit unions focus on the decision stage, ie. the end. Marketers across industries agree offering assistance at the beginning, and then throughout the process, increases chances of getting the sale.

Aerial Tilt-Shift Photo of Car Dealership
Roads lead here. Or do they? Chances are, they don’t lead to your credit union. Fix that.

For you, that sale is capturing the loan. And ancillary products that make sense.

What are your members doing? And what do they expect? Let’s go inside the mind of a member looking to buy a car.

Stage 1: Awareness

In this stage, your members realize that due to various personal, family, work, budget, or reliability factors, they need to change how they get around. The research begins.

Where? Online, of course. Hey Siri, find me a car! Alexa, what’s a good price nearby?

For now (when this was written, though ChatGPT might give you better insights), those voice commands are only a path to local dealerships. One day, they could connect members to a car buying platform. Are they financing with you? That’s getting ahead of ourselves.

Members might consider other forms of transportation. Personally, I’m a big supporter of making safer pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure in cities, creating a viable alternative to car ownership. However, that’s a long, long journey, and in most parts of the country, a car is still a necessity.

During the awareness stage, these needs get defined. For our purposes, yes, your member will search for a new car. Their searches will bring them to dozens of online car buying platforms. That’s not good news for your engagement.

Stage 2: Consideration

Man Thinking With Question Marks

By now, your members know what they need. Now it’s off to find what they want. (Requisite song reference) Research begins with a goal in mind: Find the right car at a price that fits their budget. Car buying platforms are happy to help.

You may recognize some of the largest:

  • AutoTrader
  • Kelly Blue Book

This stage of their journey can have many roads. That famous traveler in the wood took the road less traveled. Your members choose the paths most trodden.

That means those busy websites. It can go on for a while, as members weigh options and compare features, pricing, and availability. Most credit unions aren’t involved in this stage. Should you? I mean, you offer loans, and they’re not to that point yet. Right?

More often, financing is part of shopper’s processes, leading to time saved at the dealer (up to 2 hours less!). And the sites are happy to oblige. Beyond information portals, all of those major car buying sites drive members to their own financing sources. Places like Lending Tree and Capital One, to name a couple.

Makes everything so easy! Some members will just use those tools and move into the Decision stage. Car, financing, and they’re all set! The party goes on without your credit union. Were you even invited?

Stage 3: Decision

Your members are ready. They narrowed their choices. It’s time to make a decision. Ordering online is more common, creating a touchless sale from purchase to vehicle delivery. Some visit local dealers. You still don’t know any are in-market.

A portion of your members now consider financing, and some may think of your credit union. Or, if pre-approved, they’ll use that as their “cash on hand”.  Some still put it off until the purchase negotiations.

For all of them (including those already pre-approved by their credit union), the dealer will offer financing. Even at this stage of the journey, you’re vulnerable to missing out on the loan.

You may earn the loan if:

  • Your credit union offers indirect lending and,
    • A member purchases at one of your dealers and mentions their preference, or,
    • The dealer likes your approval terms and suggests financing.
Woman Buying Car at Dealer

That’s already too many ifs. Plus, captive lending provides incentives to dealers and makes things stupid easy for your member. Even if you manage to earn the loan, you may pay dealer reserves and still have no opportunity to offer ancillary products.

Compared to direct, your margins are much lower. Plus, those ancillary protection products? We both know members pay more if they elect to buy from the dealer, yet 2 out of 3 buy an average of 1.6 products! Are they missing your consultative approach to decide which products make sense for their financial and life situations?

How Can Your Credit Union Be More Involved?

Since I’m in a quotable mood: “That, detective, is the right question.”

Take a look at your website and mobile app. Stages 1 and 2 are considered the “Golden Period”. This represents the best time to connect with members on their car buying experience. Do your platforms offer assistance during those stages?

You can. And it starts with your car buying service. If you have one, use our guidance to optimize it for member use.

If not, take a look at what they are, why they’re essential, and how to choose the right one for your institution. We even share the Best Credit Union Car Buying Services to make your due diligence easy!

What if you want to Watch a Video Instead?

Funny you should ask. “Your Member’s Secret Car Buying Journey” is also a video! Watch and enjoy. Then share with any member-facing staff as well.

It’s essential your team understands the value in connecting with members as early as possible.

Here’s what they’ll learn:

  1. Why it’s important to engage members at the start of their journey
  2. How to help and engage members during the “Golden Period”
  3. Why “alerts” should sound as members start their Consideration stage
  4. How to make the process easier for membersand win more loans!
Car Buying Service eBook Cover

Expand your knowledge with the Ultimate Guide to Car Buying Services eBook. 42 pages of valuable content, just for you!
Get your eBook!

Here For Many More Journeys

Our Learning Library supports your planning efforts across a range of goals. Beyond car buying, we help you make the best decisions on ancillary loan products like GAP, VSC, and CPI.

In addition, we look at roads less traveled such as Executive Benefits and how it can affect your retention and recruitment. Efficiency & Operations articles peek at the big picture of your institution.

And much more! With new articles added each week, we’re always sharing ways to optimize your financial institution. Be sure to Subscribe to the Learning Library to receive position-relevant and valuable content!

Image credits: Road by OpenClipart-Vectors. Man thinking by Tumisu. All from Pixabay. Car dealer aerial by David McBe and Dealer contract by Gustavo Fringe on Pexels.

Joe Winn - CU Geek

Blogger. Speaker. Futurist. Part-time Jedi.

Dedicated to helping your credit union, large or small, deliver mission-focused financial empowerment to your members. And make a positive impact on your community while you’re at it.