Horror stories about surly, inattentive or uninformed car salespeople are legion. We find out how undercover customers can help improve showroom standards
18 March 2018

“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.

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.

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“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.

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.

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.”

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.

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?’”

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.

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.

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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Comments
22

18 March 2018

 I have experienced all of the above, and I don’t think it’s dealer specific either, wether it’s a BMW or a Seat, you can get the same approach from a Sales person, my local BMW dealer DouglasPark BMW (Stirling) is good, they can’t do enough for you, Peter Vardy BMW (Edinburgh) is a bit better, they’ll get you lunch on them,ok, it’s a Sandwich, but it’s good quality, Seat (Stirling) however just does the minimum, and it depends on who you get what service you get.

Peter Cavellini.

18 March 2018

I bought my MX-5 ND a couple of years ago. I went to two dealers. My local one was hopeless - rude and only interested in getting my money. I called a few more - all but one seemed good and very keen to get a deal. I didn't bother visiting the successful dealer (the one who gave me the best deal) until I was ready to order. I walked in, did the business as we'd agreed on the phone and walked out - 20 minutes. No problem - just how I like it. I've never been back to my local dealer though I've used another of their branches for warranty work - and they have been very good. Maybe I got a salesman on a bad day but it cost them the sale, warranty work and servicing - probably £30k all-in just because he was off with me. I recently bought a little Suzuki for my wife. A very simple process with a helpful local dealer prepared to match any internet price. All completed in two short visits in less than 2 days. Selling cars isn't rocket science. Treat people well and fairly. Be pleasant. Listen to needs and be prepared to give a little more than you want to to get the deal. What's that old adege? "People buy from people they like ..."

Ramases

289

18 March 2018

....having been on the retail side of the car business, you are right in the addage that people buy from people they like. Its true, and loyalty (in the past) was high, but today loyalty is slipping. Buyers will travel miles for a few wxtra pounds discount whether they like you or not.

The point that retailing isn't rocket science is fair but not entirely correct....you cant imagine how unreasonable the 'great buying public' can be. You can never do enough for them, and it is the reason why after 15 years of running dealerships I left retail.....its draining.

However the experience at the Ford dealership in this article, whilst by no means exclusive to Ford dealerships, is sadly -even today, not uncommon.

I feel sorry for Andy Barratt (MD of Ford of Britain), you wouldnt find such a senior figure who really goes the extra mile for customers in order to try to raise the profile of Ford he puts in enormous efforts ...and yet still, his dealers are letting him down. They should be ashamed and if this unmotivated about making money - try doing something else for a living.

18 March 2018

The Sales person makes or breaks a deal for me. I bought a new 5 series from an excellent chap at the BMW Aberdeen, he was friendly, listened and upsold me a 5 series when I said I'd love one, but my budget was 3 series money. Spent a lot of time arranging things like test drives, views of cars with various interior options, and called me in to see a customers car with the interior I'd chosen as there was still time to change it if required. Did everything and more versus what I asked for.

Same dealer 2 years later, different person, lost the sale to BMW Dundee. Didn't do what I requested, no feeling of being valued. He actually walked away while talking to me to chat with a more important customer. BMW Dundee all done by email until I turned up with my car to trade it in and pick up the new one. The guy was spot on, fast replies, did everything to help.

Last purchase was a Qashqai off the internet. Way cheaper than local dealer who were good with test drives and discussions but couldn't match the online deal, delivered from Wales to Scotland in less than 6 weeks. Online salesman was great, and completely painless experience. 

289

18 March 2018

I agree with all you say Paul.

But I just want you to be aware just how dispiriting it is to a salesman whose income depends on a sale, to invest his time into the discussion/test drive bit only for you to buy online at a cheaper price. Whilst he was wasting time with you he may have missed a buyer from his dealership......Bills to pay etc!

I am not deriding you for doing this, but in theory it is a level playing field with everyone starting from the same profit margin, but the manufacturers are encouraging/enabling this situation in their greed to register units.

A dealer has to spend millions on a dealership and yet some Jonny-come-lately can set up a website with bugger all overheads and be advantaged by a bigger margin in order to undercut the network. If you are a dealer, this sucks.

18 March 2018
289 wrote:

But I just want you to be aware just how dispiriting it is to a salesman whose income depends on a sale, to invest his time into the discussion/test drive bit only for you to buy online at a cheaper price.

Can only be Scots on this discussion today! I'm familiar with all dealers mentioned above - bought many cars in my life, some from dealer mentioned, some from other dealers in central scotland, some from much further afield.

To be honest I'm not looking for being treated like a king or someone special. I've always known the product I'm looking at, usually much better than the salesperson does. The only time I take a test drive is when there's 'nearly' a deal on the table, however 289, there are plenty of dealers who are almost beg me to drive their car before any finance is discussed. I assume this is a tactic so I'd fall in love with their product - finance becoming a mere after thought? Not all customers are tire kickers, in fact I get annoyed when salespeople waste my time. "oh yes we can reach a deal; we've got the best deals going; we'll match any deal etc. 45mins later and you find out the saleperson has been lying thru their teeth and trying the hard sell. So frustrating.

I'm willing to pay a small premium for local business - by local I mean within 50miles of my home. But when a dealer at the other side of the country can supply the exact same product for £2000 less...  Don't accuse people like myself of contributing to that salespersons income when that same sales person is trying it on with me.

Regarding the 'jonny-come-lately' - In all the deals I've done, only once would I profit enough to use a broker. I must say the process was brilliant, but you do realise the car was supplied by a UK franchised dealer? I travelled 500 miles to thier premisis. I bought a brand new car for £20,000. They were advertising the exact same car in their showroom and online for £23,000.  The problem lies with the dealers themselves, not Joe Public.

Regarding the above mentioned SEAT dealership. That's been my experience too from sales, I ended up buying at another dealer in Scotland. But in their defence, SEAT Stirling provided brilliant servicing advice where other SEAT dealers clearly didn;t know what they were talking about, or in one particular case, lying thru their teeth. Moreover, SEAT Stirling were the only dealership within a 50 mile radius who offered to undertake the work I wanted them to do. 

As per above - it all depends who you speak to.  

 

19 March 2018
scotty5 wrote:

289 wrote:

But I just want you to be aware just how dispiriting it is to a salesman whose income depends on a sale, to invest his time into the discussion/test drive bit only for you to buy online at a cheaper price.

Can only be Scots on this discussion today! I'm familiar with all dealers mentioned above - bought many cars in my life, some from dealer mentioned, some from other dealers in central scotland, some from much further afield.

To be honest I'm not looking for being treated like a king or someone special. I've always known the product I'm looking at, usually much better than the salesperson does. The only time I take a test drive is when there's 'nearly' a deal on the table, however 289, there are plenty of dealers who are almost beg me to drive their car before any finance is discussed. I assume this is a tactic so I'd fall in love with their product - finance becoming a mere after thought? Not all customers are tire kickers, in fact I get annoyed when salespeople waste my time. "oh yes we can reach a deal; we've got the best deals going; we'll match any deal etc. 45mins later and you find out the saleperson has been lying thru their teeth and trying the hard sell. So frustrating.

I'm willing to pay a small premium for local business - by local I mean within 50miles of my home. But when a dealer at the other side of the country can supply the exact same product for £2000 less...  Don't accuse people like myself of contributing to that salespersons income when that same sales person is trying it on with me.

Regarding the 'jonny-come-lately' - In all the deals I've done, only once would I profit enough to use a broker. I must say the process was brilliant, but you do realise the car was supplied by a UK franchised dealer? I travelled 500 miles to thier premisis. I bought a brand new car for £20,000. They were advertising the exact same car in their showroom and online for £23,000.  The problem lies with the dealers themselves, not Joe Public.

Regarding the above mentioned SEAT dealership. That's been my experience too from sales, I ended up buying at another dealer in Scotland. But in their defence, SEAT Stirling provided brilliant servicing advice where other SEAT dealers clearly didn;t know what they were talking about, or in one particular case, lying thru their teeth. Moreover, SEAT Stirling were the only dealership within a 50 mile radius who offered to undertake the work I wanted them to do. 

As per above - it all depends who you speak to.  

 

 

We bought our first Seat from this Stirling site, the guy who sold it to us was friendly made us at ease and we duly ordered a Car, when an opportunity to change came along we searched there site for what they had on offer, now, we didn’t think to enquire about our particular choice because it was quicker to trawl the other Seat dealers, we found what we wanted at reputedly the largest Seat dealers in Scotland which on visiting was disappointing, lots of Cars outside and a converted storage facility as a showroom with five Cars in it, the guy we dealt with sounded looked bored, no smile, no chit chat just doing the business that’s all, the guy didn’t even get out of his seat to look at our trade in,offered us three prices to chose the value of it, we picked the middle, he didn’t even blink, the only thing needed on the Car was rear parking sensors which a week later were fitted,but, the beep sound for parked was for us too quiet, so, they duly moved the speaker for it onto the B’ post, so, I can’t fault that service, but,a friendly smiley welcome and some chat during does affect the outcome.

Peter Cavellini.

289

19 March 2018

quote " you do realise the car was supplied by a Uk franchised dealer?"

Of course, but they cant magic up this extra margin in able to offer a £3k cheaper deal. This has been underwritten by the manufacturer...thereby undermining its own local dealer network!

Quote "the problem lies with the dealers", see above....the problem lies with the manufacturers!

18 March 2018

"“When applied, no one does soft skills as well as the Brits,” he says. "

That really means nothing. I always found the Americans far better tbh - ok, some of them are fake, but customer service comes far more easily to them than it does to the majority of Brits. 

18 March 2018

Wonder if the Mystery Shopper ever tries to order a GT4, GT3 or GT2 from a Porsche Dealership ? Now that would be an education !

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Our Verdict

Volkswagen Polo

Volkswagen’s ever-sensible supermini gets even more grown-up as the Polo hits its fifth decade, but can it take top honours?

Find an Autocar car review

Driven this week