Currently reading: Undercover car shoppers: the buyers who check up on dealerships
Horror stories about surly, inattentive or uninformed car salespeople are legion. We find out how undercover customers can help improve showroom standards

“Let’s get serious – you wanna buy this car or not?” Paul Vitti, Robert de Niro’s character in gangster comedy movie Analyze That, is the stuff of nightmares: a car salesman who’s closing technique is the equivalent of a punch in the face.

It’s a shame because until he uttered those words, Vitti was actually pretty good. Eye contact, humour, patience... it was all there, right up to the point where he gets irate at non-committal tyre-kicker. But a salesperson doesn’t have to be that rude to annoy you: ignoring you, not taking your enquiry seriously, a lack of product knowledge or, worst of all, giving the impression they’d rather be anywhere but talking to you are just as infuriating.

I recently popped into my local Ford dealer, interested in buying the 15-reg Fiesta ST-2 on the forecourt. As I walked over to it, a salesman passed me in the opposite direction, puffing an e-cigarette and studiously avoiding eye contact. Just like the smoke from his electronic fag, my excitement at test driving and possibly purchasing his ST evaporated in an instant.

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Worse, when I dragged myself to the sales office, he was the only bloke free to talk. My enquiries were met with clipped answers. His manager wasn’t any better as I discovered when, with the salesman out of the way rummaging in a filing cabinet for the car’s service history, I asked him if I could speak to the friendlier sales guy I’d spoken to earlier on the phone when arranging my visit.

“He’s busy,” was his unsmiling reply. I left soon after, deflated.

As a former car salesman, I know all about the challenges of the job: the pressure of meeting targets, of dealing with ‘challenging’ customers. It isn’t easy. I also know about the steps sales people are taught to follow and which, with terms such as ‘qualifying’, ‘appraisal’ and ‘the close’, can suck the life out of a sales encounter. In fact, so hard-wired into car selling have these steps become, there’s a danger they’re displacing the most important sales skills of all – things such as good eye contact, open body language, a sense of humour and active listening.

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A danger? It’s already happening. In many showrooms, these vital ‘soft’ skills have fallen by the wayside as sales people are encouraged and rewarded to follow the ‘10 steps to profit’. But here’s the thing: used in combination with well-practised sales steps, these soft skills sell cars. Fortunately, some car makers and major dealer groups have woken up to their value. They include the Volkswagen Group, Porsche, Aston Martin and Nissan. In fact, they pay a company to send fake car buyers and service customers to their showrooms and service departments to check the skills are being used.

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The company, called Automotive Insights, has 6000 mystery shoppers on its books, 300 of them active at any one time. It’s the market leader in its field and the only such company dedicated exclusively to the motor industry. The shoppers – singles, couples and families ranging in age from 17 to 76 – perform up to five visits a day. Almost all of them have a compact video recorder tucked in a pocket with a button-hole camera to record their visit.

Because their job is to observe and record a sales or service encounter at its most truthful, they play things straight. Jonathan Firmin, founder and managing director of Automotive Insights, says: “The best mystery shopper is the grey man or woman. They don’t bring their personality to the encounter. Instead, they let the sales person or service advisor lead it.”

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Like the showroom, the service department can also be a soft skill-free zone. It doesn’t help that you’ve probably explained the car’s problems over the phone and when you arrive, the service adviser has their nose buried in a computer screen.

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However, mystery shopping the service department requires more than just a camera. To do it effectively, the shopper’s car has to be put through the workshop. But what if it has no faults? No problem: the shopper creates some. First, they clear the car’s on-board computer and the memory chip in the car key to erase the vehicle’s fault and event history. To give the impression the car is poorly maintained, they might add a dye to the engine oil to make it look old. Tyres will be randomly inflated and deflated. A clean air filter will be substituted for a dirty one.

To cover their tracks, the shopper wipes away oil drips or dye spillages, and finger marks on or around filler caps, tyre dust caps and anything else that’s been tampered with.

“It all sounds sneaky but these techniques are the only way to accurately and independently measure the performance of dealers,” says Firmin. “Our clients want to know about the customer service more than the process, which is already ingrained and easier to measure. A question we ask shoppers is: ‘Were you made to feel like the most important person there?’”

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Automotive Insights can trace its roots to the US, a country Firmin calls the ‘cradle of customer service’.

“Good service grew out of the tips culture in US bars. It can sound insincere but there’s no doubting the energy and excitement the Americans bring to a service encounter,” he says.

Fortunately, ‘have a nice day’ isn’t what his UK clients are looking for. Instead, it’s our blend of gentle humour, quiet patience and straightforwardness they crave.

“When applied, no one does soft skills as well as the Brits,” he says. He should tell my local Ford salesman.

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THE MYSTERY SHOP: We join an Automotive Insights mystery shopper on a clandestine visit

I don’t recall anyone greeting us as we entered the showroom.

We stood by a new car and were soon joined by a salesman. The mystery shopper stated the purpose of his visit and let the salesman lead. Speaking in a quiet monotone, the salesman quickly latched onto the shopper’s enquiry concerning finance and for the next 10 minutes explained, in numbing detail, the terms of a PCP finance agreement.

He might have been following best practice but his explanation was unnecessary at this stage and meant the purpose of the visit was lost.

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Our mystery shopper said: "The salesman wasn’t especially forthcoming. He wasn’t enthusiastic and didn’t seem to be excited by the model or the prospect of selling me a vehicle. He failed to create any real desire for me to want to purchase from him.

"I wasn’t made to feel like the most important person in his world. Eye contact, body language and use of humour were all lacking, as was the personal touch of using my name and engaging with me through small talk. Would I recommend the dealer to my family or friends? Unlikely."

John Evans

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Ford Mustang review 

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JonathanFirmin 29 April 2019

Jonathan Firmin - The liar and awful businessman

I was a mystery shopper for Automotive Insights, run by Jonathan Firmin.

The biggest lie in this whole article is 'has 6000 mystery shoppers on its books, 300 of them active at any one time'.This is a lie, at most they have 30 shoppers, all of them like me not paid on time and owed money!

Payments are always late and I'm owed over £1000 from this con artist!!

I hope this serves as a warning for anyone looking to work with/for this man in the future!

Denny0612 11 December 2019

Not entirely true.....

True, AI did run into problems and went into administration earlier this year, owing me nearly £5k. That is a lot. But there were other mystery shopping companies out to do them down - hating their presence in the marketplace - and played all kinds of tricks to snatch work from their grasp when it came to tendering by constantly undercutting them and paying their own shoppers a pittance - two of the biggest players in the industry too - residing on the south coast - who regularly treat their shoppers like dirt, having worked with them both. I take the longer view. I was with them for many years and got plenty of work from them and was paid for the most part on time and in full. I made a lot of money with them - a darn sight more than I had with other companies aforementioned who put policies in place deliberately designed to rip shoppers off.  I can honestly say that without Ai as amy major client for over six years I probably would not have made a living out of mystery shopping.  I also saved a lot of money on car depreciation when they loaned out cars to me - often for months at a time. OK, I lot out heavily at the end, but overall I did well out of Ai and that is what I reflect on. I bear them or Jonathan no malice. I had a good relationship with him and his father for a long time and I would rather remember the better times not resort to churlish insults and distorted lies masquerading as facts. 

Denny0612 24 October 2018

Sales Process Frustrating

I often mystery shop dealerships. It never fails to amaze me how ill equipped most sales people are to execute an efficient and an effective sales process. They all too often talk to me in the third person instead of asking me direct questions - as part of a needs analysis - so they don't ask me what I want on the vehicle, they just detail a car specification from the information sheet or brochure, wasting a lot of time. They demonstrate another vehicle other than the exact replicate we are going to drive in just a few minutes, they point out vehicle features of test drive vehicles that are not relevant to the selected model and spec discussed earlier. It seems that sales people very often dont' really listen and tailor to the customer needs. They just parrot fashion learn their lines and fail to see how little sense they make or how irrelevant and time-wasting they are. I have come across about five superb salespeople in all the time I've been doing this. The good ones are alert and on the ball, they cut out the unnecessary repetition, they get to the point, they make sense and they ensure that the sales process is tailored after asking direct questions. As a mystery shopper I also show my personality a lot. The grey and dull, I have no personality approach is not the way to do it. If a salesperson should ever suspect that I might be a mystery shopper, just because they are expecting some to carry out visits, the last thing I want is to be outed and not be paid for the visit. Therefore, I I prefer to be nice and friendly, even have a laugh or two along the way. That to my mind is the best way to ensure that a suspicious sales person keeps his suspicions to himself in exchange for a nice interaction that, although irritating, is not too boring and not too tediously timewasting for him/her, particularly if the visit finishes on a good note with a reassuring comment from me that he/she did well without actually admitting who I am. Far the best approach, I find. For most of my visits, I truly believe that the vast majority have no idea who I am. I'm a pretty good actor when I need to be.

IMHO 19 March 2018

Those who can't...

So a lot of salesman are ill informed c#*ts are they?! I really hope you visit my place of work as you sound delightful.

Back to mystery shoppers- and what I am about to say is purely from my experience. They do not EVER behave like a real customer. They always give a false address in a glaringly obvious way (e.g. a postcode that has house numbers ranging from 1-25 and they live at no. 26). They rarely have any local knowledge having supposedly recently moved to the area and their driving licence is always in a different address to the one they claim to live at.
It's like they are bad actors, often coming across as nervous and without much personality, as if they are trying to hide something or not give too much away.
Once you are on to them it's easy to spot the 'hidden' camera.
At one dealership I worked at we tried to make sure we used the word 'Mystery' in our dealings with mystery shoppers. Childish maybe but it made watching the recording a little less tedious.
The final give away is when asking them for a contact number. They will never give out a landline and they never know their own mobile number having to read it off a bit of paper instead.
If they are judging me as a salesperson when I can never sell them anything but I've sussed them as a mystery shopper then who is it that has ultimately failed spectacularly in their job role?

Marc 21 March 2018

IMHO wrote:

IMHO wrote:

So a lot of salesman are ill informed c#*ts are they?! I really hope you visit my place of work as you sound delightful.

Yes they are. Ford salesperson's are a particular breed.

IMHO 22 March 2018

Marc wrote:

Marc wrote:
IMHO wrote:

So a lot of salesman are ill informed c#*ts are they?! I really hope you visit my place of work as you sound delightful.

Yes they are. Ford salesperson's are a particular breed.

As I said, you sound delightful..