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Don’t fear being ‘mystery shopped’; shape the process to work for your dealership

Worry more about what motivates online shoppers than about your grade, and sales performance will improve. BY DAVID KAIN

Very few phrases elicit the level of concern in the hearts of dealership team members that “mystery shopping” does. I know how this feels from both sides of the coin – first as a salesman being “shopped” while working at our family dealership, and now as a trainer performing “shops” of hundreds of salespeople. I don’t know about you, but I always hated waiting on the results even when I felt confident I had done a good job.

A central cause of the frustration for sales team members arises from the reality that many OEMs use outdated criteria when grading outcomes of dealership mystery shops. Whether the OEM conducts the shops itself or uses an outside agency, I find the grading to be archaic and not reflective of what it takes to motivate automotive customers to engage with dealership personnel.

With all the changes in how customers shop, it is past time for OEMs to update their grading criteria. Our global recommendation to clients has been to not worry so much about OEMs’ grading systems and instead to focus intently on what factors get positive responses from customers.

In other words, if a dealership gets too hung up on its mystery shop grade, it likely will sell fewer vehicles to online shoppers. Focus on what works to sell cars at your dealership, and any heat from your OEM rep will fade of its own accord.

Keep Shop Results In Perspective

Nowadays, with my company’s own mystery shop services, I always refuse to reveal results to dealership managers during meetings unless they agree not to make any disciplinary decisions based on them. Too often, I have seen frustrated dealers and their managers call out team members during a 20 group meeting over what they regard as poor effort and results. However, this type of reaction rarely has a positive effect.

My recommendation always is to look at a mystery shop as one moment in time, which typically identifies opportunities for improvements in sales processes and tactics. When used properly, it can inspire team members and drive professional development.

Beyond the opportunity for professional development, mystery shops also provide an exceptional mechanism to study the sales tactics used by your competitors, as long as you set up the shops properly.

Tactics For Your Own Shop Process

Rather than wait for your manufacturer to mystery shop your dealership, I recommend you launch our own, ongoing shop strategy. You want to be proactive, not reactive. Following are some granular steps I’d suggest in that regard.

1) Create a mystery shop binder for your dealership, with tabs for each month of the year. An alternate approach is to utilize Dropbox or Google Docs to accumulate your shop results. I actually prefer the physical binder, because it is so easy to review the results and share them with your sales team.

2) Create a mystery shop e-mail account, using one or more of the contemporary e-mail providers (gmail from Google, ymail from Yahoo, AOL mail etc.).

3) We use phone numbers, because they are so inexpensive. Also, once you have a primary number, you can create area code-specific virtual numbers to receive voice mails from the sales team.

4) Enlist help from your sales team to conduct the shops. The goal is for them to learn what a customer experiences when he or she shops online. I have found salespeople become more empathetic and understanding of why customers are often put off by the car buying experience.

5) Try different name variations from month to month to witness how your dealership responds differently to men, women, perceived nationality, ethnicity, etc. There are some interesting studies on name discrimination, and you may be surprised to discover how this can be an issue at your own dealership. Check out this older study whose results I believe are still relevant:

shutterstock_2202718006) Mystery shop in a variety of ways, to learn how your sales team and your competitors respond to different type of leads. For example: Shop for in-stock new or used vehicles with and without a trade-in, shop via live chat, shop by using the trade-in form, shop with and without comments. Shop at a variety of sites such as Kelley Blue Book, Edmunds, AutoTrader,, Autobytel, Cargurus, LemonFree, TrueCar and OEM web sites to determine whether your team and your competitors vary responses based on the source, as they should. The education from simply shopping various sites can be amazing.

7) Be sure to capture and print screen shots of the vehicle detail pages and post-submission messages, and place them in your binders. This allows you to review and discuss them with your team. Collecting this information helps you understand what motivated the customer to submit his or her information.

8) Similarly, gather and print your dealership’s responses, and place them in your binder. Then, host a monthly training meeting to review the results. If you set up the Vonage account (a Google Voice account works too, but not as well), organize the voice mails you’ve received and play them back for your team in a training session.

9) Create a scoring methodology (I can provide one, if you’d like; message me at to objectively assess how your sales staff and your competitors performed. You want to:

  1. a) Measure and compare response times.
  1. b) Compare subject lines and decide whether you would have opened the e-mail if you were the customer.
  2. c) Review the message and determine whether it mirrors your request.
  1. d) Review whether answers were provided to your questions.
  1. e) Review whether the message provided a price.
  1. f) Decide whether the response deserves a response from you.
  1. g) Listen to voice mails and decide whether you would call back.
  1. h) Compare the response quality and decide from whom who you’d prefer to buy and why.

10) Repeat monthly!

An Alternative, If You’re Skeptical

The effort you put into this activity will pay off in so many ways. Rather than work with theories, your dealership is working with reality. This affords a solid platform for performance improvement.

Many dealers will insist what I recommend is too much effort. If you fall into that category, I recommend you try the services offered by StealthShopper offers a platform that organizes shops and their responses in an easily accessed online environment. My company uses it for our own clients and we even have created our own grading criteria within StealthShopper’s system.

Bottom line: Mystery shopping actually should be regarded as “mastery shopping.” That’s the moniker we use in my company, because if a dealer handles the process properly, you in fact will become a master in properly responding to Internet requests from car shoppers. Be proactive; create your own learning environment. Your sales team will quickly appreciate knowing what they need to do to ensure exceptional results.

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