Franchise dealer survey: In the first of a series of features for AM-online, assessing the standards of customer service at dealerships across the UK, our mystery-shopper visits six dealerships in Coventry, Allen Ford, Nick Whale Toyota, Gerard Mann Mercedes Benz, Tollbar Coventry Volvo, Coventry Mazda and Tachbrook Honda.
Our man of mystery wonders whether he would have had more success buying a car if he'd turned up 'naked on horseback'.
“There are 67 car manufacturers active in the UK market.
"That is a lot of competition, yet many dealers are so complacent that they seem to believe that if one prospect does not buy, it matters not – another will be along in a minute.
"Genuine attempts to sell a car are noteworthy by their occasional presence: too many dealers treat enquiries casually and accept sales staff who seem to believe that their products have such small merit that there is little need to explain them.
"Or perhaps they have become so accustomed to heavy manufacturer advertising that they believe their role is that of delivery agents?
"A couple of years ago I told one manufacturer's local business sales conference that the dealer is a barrier between the company purchaser and the manufacturer.
"That was a little tongue-in-cheek, but could it apply to your operation?
"It could be applied to one Ford main dealer we visited this month.
"They had four new signs on their showroom walls: 'Customers are required to refrain from smoking'. Now that really is prize winning.
Some dealers may exist solely on the basis of heavily discounted fleet sales, but there are others that do try to sell.” (Mystery shopper)
Each dealership is judged on four aspects, the welcome, sales and technical skills shown and the premises and on each the site is given a score out of 20 or 30.
Added together they give a total score out of 100. The mystery shopper alternates each month between new car and used car retailers.
Dealer: Allen Ford
WINNER. Overall score: 64%How was the welcome? 15/20 The receptionist did not seem certain who ran the business user department but she did find the right chap as soon as she'd finished her personal call.
He turned out to be usefully business-like, though brief.
Perhaps the management's opinion of customers is reflected in the four showroom signs “Customers are 'required' to refrain from smoking”.
How about that for the prize of the year for customer unfriendliness?
Premises 10/20 This is one of Ford's older industrial-style dealerships with a low suspended ceiling and a carpet that could not have been cleaned in recent memory.
I thought at first the showroom cars had stone chips but they turned out to be decorated all over in white specks.
The problem is not one of investment, but of facilities management.
Sales skill 19/30 We researched the chosen model range and all their bits and bobs in a particularly competent manner - not all sales staff have learnt their product range this well - nor did he seem to be forever pushing to raise the trim level.
He appeared to be more interested in finding the right car and perhaps did not assume that because I had walked in I was panting to buy.
Technical skill 20/30 His technical knowledge was better than most, although it was the way he marshalled his arguments that left me groping in the dark a couple of times.
He dived into VAT and told me I won out by not being able to reclaim all the rental-VAT.
But how can it be a benefit to lose money?
He had three bites at explaining that away until he remembered that the leasing company was not charging me for the £2,000 of VAT they would reclaim when they bought the car, so their rentals are heavily reduced.
Then the loss of half the additional VAT subsequently added to the rentals doesn't hurt so much, and you are still in profit. Not perfect, but he had a good shot at it.
Dealer: Nick Whale
Overall score: 59%
How was the welcome? 17/20 I had hardly entered the showroom when I was rescued by an experienced salesman who readily answered my questions and began a half-decent qualification.
He passed me to the business manager then disappeared, so how could he close a sale?
Premises 16 /20 These were good modern premises on a busy dual carriageway with adequate parking even though that had to be outside their Lexus sister showroom.
Perhaps they were not having such a good September?
Sales skill 16 /30 I was passed to the business manager too quickly - we had not had sufficient time to check out a sample model.
Surely there must have been more of interest than the minimum we covered?
I never saw enough to work up an appetite, and there are so very many competing models on sale.
Technical skill 10 / 30 The finance manager tried, but he wandered from subject to subject confusing VAT with corporation tax – or was it income tax?
Then he had an incursion to off-balance sheet finance that has so obviously been incorrectly explained to him.
And much of this seemed to run together in one long sentence. I was told it is to my advantage to miss out on reclaiming half of the VAT on lease rentals. He told me I should go to my accountant for advice, then gave me his personal advice –based on a false premise.
Dealer: Gerard Mann
Overall score: 58%
How was the welcome? 18 /20 The welcome was straight out of Mercedes' new manual.
Too many M-B sales staff from the old school thought the customer was lucky to be allowed to enter a Mercedes dealership but no more - now they exude relaxed friendliness in a way other marques could well emulate.
Premises 18 /20 I searched hard and found a piece of rubbish about one centimetre square outside the parts department.
That was all that could be criticised - even the used stock looked new.
Sales skill 12 /30 It is too easy to assume that a Mercedes customer will automatically buy again, but that is not necessarily true.
I was taken to a car in the showroom but it was not well presented and the reasons for the high price of such a small car were omitted – I was just told it was a Mercedes. That is just not good enough.
Technical skill 10 / 30 I was passed over to an equally nice finance guy, but perhaps he had missed one of the training courses?
I was told that only contract hire and PCP were available to a company, that something called “Advantage” is only for cars of £25,000 plus.
Guaranteed depreciation was correctly identified as the main plank of contract hire but I was assured there were no other differences between the plans – and that is plain silly.
Dealer: Tollbar Coventry
Overall score: 62%
How was the welcome? 19 /20 The welcome from both the showroom salesman and the finance manager were text book and they worked well as a duo – and I got my first cup of tea of the day.
They both took my name and address and I got two visiting cards. Well done.
Premises 17 /20 There was little to complain about in the premises or the stock – indeed they were almost supermarket clean and lined up like soldiers on parade.
Sales skill 16 /30 The salesman did a passably good job at detailing the car, but why did we not look at one in the metal?
He could have been a great deal more effective but he was persistent, and that rates well. More attention to detail however would have been welcome.
Presumably there must be features of the car that are worth explaining?
Technical skill 10 / 30 The business manager's training must have been exclusively retail - and it showed. Companies just never look at the alternatives of finance or saving in a building society.
He was adamant that there was nothing for me in contract hire - it was only for 150-plus fleets that cannot control their expenditure.
What then about guaranteed depreciation in an unsteady market? And what about the VAT reclaim by the leasing company? Why throw everything away like that?
Dealer: New Coventry Mazda
Overall score: 59%
How was the welcome? 16 /20 The approach was low key and almost diffident, though none the worse for that. We established a good rapport and for an essentially retail operation this was reasonably successful.
Premises 17 /20 These were good modern premises but the obvious shortage of Mazda stock had to be made up by filling the forecourt with Suzuki product from next door.
Sales skill 16 /30 The diffident approach took a long time to build up and for most of my time at the dealership we sat and gazed admiringly at my target model as it peeped shyly at us around a corner of the almost empty showroom.
We never actually ventured far enough away from his desk to approach it. Perhaps it was his only one and he feared selling it?
Technical skill 10 / 30 The approach was so leisurely that we never did get into much detail though I certainly learned about the very many problems that appear to infect contract hire. In the absence of any merits at all, it is not surprising they do little business on the plan.
He presumably has never thought about the alternative loss to be experienced on the forced sale of a cash-car after just six months? He told me that contract hire disappears from a company's accounts and that is not true.
Dealer: Tachbrook Honda
Overall score: 33%
How was the welcome 14 /20 The premises were quiet and almost empty save for a chap enjoying his hobby of moving cars and another on the phone. I stood and waited, trying not to look untidy. Then I was asked if I was waiting for service – there must be a message there for us both, somewhere.
Premises 17 /20 Nice modern glass-house premises with good parking on a main road frontage though an almost empty showroom.
Perhaps they had sold out for the new September registration? Apart from the two salesmen, there was no life anywhere and all the back offices seemed empty.
Sales skill 2 /30 I enquired about that nice Honda Accord coupe only to be asked if I meant that American built model?
It seems that is a problem shared by the Civic coupe and I was told that neither sell well and hardly show up in the registration figures at all. He was not sure if they were still sold as I was told Honda is a strange company that simply stops importing slow sellers.
His phone call was inconclusive and we did not learn if they are dead or not.
Technical skill 0 / 30 Sorry, dear reader, but the lack of interest in Honda, sales and in me was so very obvious that I thanked him and left without pursuing the visit any further. I wonder how much quicker you might have left? Before me, I bet.
- The Franchise Dealer Survey is commissioned by AM's sister title AutoTrade and appeared in the October issue. To subscribe call Helen Thorpe on 01733 468259.
Next month: Used car retailers in Derby.
(October 19, 2001)