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Franchised dealer survey: Cambridge

Our mystery shopper enlisted back-up for his return trip to one of Britain's premier seats of learning:

Does management learn from the errors we identify, or do they just hide in the back office? In January 1996 we visited Cambridge and this month we revisited those same dealers to see how they have progressed.

This time motor industry consultant Robert Couldwell joined us. He had this to say about the day: “Cambridge is an affluent city - perhaps that is why some of the salesmen we met did not try to nurture prospects. We came across a couple of good examples, but only one seemed to understand small business finance schemes. Perhaps manufacturers' trainers make finance too complicated and rely on theory rather than practical experience?

“My lasting impressions will be how badly dealers serve their huge dealership investments and how some appear so little inclined to make sales. Why too did so many dealerships fail to maintain the most basic housekeeping standards?

“Many sales staff receive low basic salaries and need commission to live. After what I saw in Cambridge I wonder how these people manage to feed their families. To my astonishment not one of the salesmen asked for our names or telephone number unprompted, and in three dealerships we were totally ignored.”

Dealer: Tim Brintons
Franchise: Peugeot
WINNER: overall score: 77%

How was the welcome?
We were met in the showroom by an experienced salesman, “just to help”. He started professionally but soon, wisely, brought the fleet manager into play. Everyone was as friendly as Peugeot dealers usually are (and more expert than many), but why did we have to stand so long in the showroom? And why did neither chap ask who we were?
14/20

Premises
The premises could, frankly, have done with a lick of paint and a measure of organisation. Perhaps that will come under Peugeot's proposals for a new-style relaxing showroom complete with café? A lounge area would indeed have helped here - we sat cramped in a partitioned area at an old desk. Neither could we park on the premises - I had to pay £1 in a public car park a block away. How many prospects would do that just to visit a showroom?
10/20

Sales skill
The presentations from both men were good, and either would have won on their own. The showroom salesman set the scene, briefed the fleet manager who continued on seamlessly. The teamwork was obviously practised. Perhaps there is a lesson to be learnt here from their bonus schemes?
We were correctly qualified and the fleet manager made a sensible attempt to up-sell us using their current bonus plan - after all isn't that just what bonuses are for?
26/30

Technical skill
The level of technical knowledge on the finance options displayed by the fleet manager was at a high level. We were treated to a straightforward review of the alternatives, and never once did his personal opinion intrude. We reached levels of detail rarely seen, but not in a complicated manner. It all made sense and flowed along freely. Their 1996 score was only 53%, so 77% this time is an improvement of a serious level and deserves recognition. Well done.
27/30

Dealer: Marshall
Franchise: Citroen
Overall score: 44%

How was the welcome?
The welcome could have been both more enthusiastic and more dynamic, though he did approach us correctly. It might have been nice, too, if we had been offered a seat. Instead he sat, and we stood like supplicants.
12/20

Premises
Marshall's row of eight dealerships are all individual inside, and the Citroen stable has a wide counter at the rear at which much of the dealership meetings administration seems to be carried out. That was distracting.
14/20

Sales skill
Reactive rather than proactive was Robert Couldwell's summary here. There was a marked lack of enthusiasm and the salesman even seemed reluctant to print out the quotations. We had to dig hard to acquire information on their latest model.
8/30

Technical skill
We were initially advised to see our accountant for information on Citroen's finance plans and while we did persuade him to broach the alternatives, he stopped dead at contract hire. Perhaps that is Citroen's only corporate finance plan? It was an improvement on their previous 24% score, though still not enough to set the world alight.
10/30

Dealer: Reg Vardy
Franchise: Mercedes-Benz
Overall score: 40%

How was the welcome?
This call was well below Mercedes' current standards and well down on their previous 58%. We stood in the showroom and were resolutely ignored by the two white shirts relaxing at the rear desks – only when challenged did they wander off to find someone “to deal with us”.
4/20

Premises
The premises were large and in the apple-pie order one expects of this franchise. I found only one small ball of fluff and a single dead leaf in the plant display, though our target model was placed too close to the window for comfortable access.
18/20

Sales skill
The model presentation was reasonable but lacked depth. I did not warm to the description of the majority of items in the Elegance upgrade package as “silly”. Would I have also been considered silly if those items had been my choice?
8/30

Technical skill
The resume of finance options was spoilt by his personal, though inexpert, opinions. We were advised to go for a purchase plan without any qualification. He explained PCP, then told us we could not have it. The benefits of fixed residuals was broached, but not well enough. Apparently finance stops dead when since the business manager is away.
10/30

Dealer: Marshall
Franchise: MG Rover
Overall score: 54%

How was the welcome?
We exchanged Marshall's Toyota dealership for their MG Rover outlet in this follow-up review to see how Rover fared in these perilous times.
We were greeted enthusiastically and all boded well, then he quickly gave up. We were not asked to sit and were left standing like a pair of showroom brochures.
15/20

Premises
This showroom was better laid out than its Citroen brother next door. White shirts slaved away over hot computers in side pens, without intruding directly into the showroom. But why choose the same colour for all the MG range? It makes them look too uniform.
16/20

Sales skill
This was a sales presentation we could have videoed: it was well laid out and enthusiastic, but died as soon as we mentioned the Rover alternative. Or was it the mention of finance?. We realised later we had found the MG specialist, so perhaps he does not handle Rover?
15/30

Technical skill
The finance alternatives so necessary for a company purchase were poorly presented and his view of contract hire was negative in the extreme. We were told we could reclaim VAT on rentals – and that makes a £750 error. We could, if we wished, make an appointment to visit the business manager later – but may we not have bought elsewhere by then?
8/30

Dealer: Marshall
Franchise: Mitsubishi
Overall score: 65%

How was the welcome?
Mitsubishi replaced the Vauxhall franchise we visited here in 1996, so in we went with a previous target of just 22% to beat.
Both salesmen were busy - a good sign, so we stood and perused the price list, watching and presumably being watched by the franchise manager, secure in his dug-out.
5/20

Premises
This time we were faced with a customer lounge, but no invitation to sit in it. Initially, though, we were offered fresh coffee by the service receptionist if we would wait, so at least he was awake. But why was he so scared of disturbing the boss - were we contagious?
16/20

Sales skill
Dogged perseverance won a high score here rather than sheer brilliance - but nevertheless it was a good show from the salesman. Just a few “yes” responses and a slightly less hectic pace would have been even better, but perhaps Mitsubishi product is in such demand that he had to crack on?
20/30

Technical skill
This was the best presentation for several months – accept a Gold Star. He seemed to know almost every detail and presented them clearly and logically. He even managed to quote contract hire on a pre-registered car in the showroom. He got better the more he relaxed, until my colleague asked him about the 'Mystery Shopper' sign.
24/30

Dealer: Buckingham & Stanley
Franchise: Saab
Overall score: 44%

How was the welcome?
We were asked our address, but not our names - that would make any prospects realise how unimportant he or she really was in the dealership's eyes, merely one more through the door. We stood while he sat … and that by the lounge area. We were even told that the computer was in the wrong place. So why not move it?
10/20

Premises
Customer parking was partially filled by a pile of bricks, reinforcing the lack of warmth in the welcome. Even after six weeks on the premises they were still altering visiting cards by hand. The stock was well organised, though the showroom was barren and cold.
16/20

Sales skill
This was a weak sales approach, apparently without the expectation of a sale. The product review was less than good and we were not invited to look at a car, despite the fact that we were standing by one in the showroom. He did point to it once, though, to confirm we knew what we had enquired about.
10/30

Technical skill
I thought we had been told that contract hire was a poor option, then it was said I had misunderstood him. But whose fault is confusion - the prospect or the salesman? We were told that excess mileage would cost an unbelievable 20 pence per mile but when challenged, he told us that the quotes could be reduced by 15%. So why did he bother? Is a four-point improvement over the last visit something to be proud of?
8/30

Next month our mystery shopper visits used car retailers in Oldham.

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