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.
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.