Mark Vukovich, the former long-time 2nd generation owner of Dewey Ford in Ankeny, sat in a meeting in his office, looking confused.
His puzzled puss came courtesy of the callow man who stood before him, poorly dressed and blabbering on about some "really great marketing ideas" for Mark's print and TV advertising, that bore little resemblance to "great," "marketing," or "ideas."
The punishment ended mercifully for Mark 73 minutes later, when the presenter ran out of oxygen, and poorly constructed presentation pieces.
If only I had kept them to show you, 12 years later, so you'd understand why I was forced into blogging. (If you've ever wanted to start your own blog, click this sentence.)
About three years ago, Mark decided he'd had enough of listening to wild ramblings from crazed marketers and media pimping hordes, and sold his Dewey Ford dealership to The Garff Automotive Group, a multi-state mega-dealer out of Salt Lake City, Utah. Mark now passes his time more pleasantly, one would suspect, as CEO of Blank Park Zoo, listening to wild rumblings from crazed gibbons, excited sea lions, whistling ducks, hissing cockroaches and occasionally flatulent giraffe.
The car-buying zoo he left behind, thrives.
Dewey Ford Chrysler Dodge Jeep Ram, along with next-door neighbor Karl Chevrolet Chevrolet Chevrolet Chevrolet Chevrolet, are chewing up more real estate than global warming, with both dealerships continuing to invest and expand in their automotive empires, until eventually, all somebody in Cambridge will have to do to buy a car is walk out their back door.
Yet no matter the number of vehicles and acres they occupy, our decision to buy or not to buy, which is the question, as William Shakespeare once said (He's been misquoted for 7,000 years) is determined by the relationship established by the person we buy from - and that's a lot of power to put into one human being's hands.
1. Smile: Did the salesperson smile at me, and continue to smile throughout our conversation?
2. Greet: Did the salesperson greet me, and was it open-ended? That is, was it a question that required an explanation, rather than a yes or no answer? Did the salesperson introduce themself by name, get mine and use it throughout the conversation?
3. Engage: Did the salesperson engage me as a friend, as someone he/she was interested in getting to know?
4. Thank: Did the salesperson thank me at the end, use my name, and shake my hand?
5. Follow up: Did the salesperson get my contact information, so they can, and do they?
These five pillars are especially important to people in the car biz. Why? Sorry, here's another list:
1. A car is the 3rdnd biggest purchase for most of us, after a house, and my birthday present. The person selling it really has to be able to put a car buyer at ease about the years of car payments they're about to commit to it.
2. Car salespeople have had a less than groovy reputation with consumers in the past, sometimes deserved, although they've gotten much better. Car salespeople, unfortunately, have to overcome that stigma, by smiling, greeting, engaging and thanking it out of shoppers' heads.
3. Cars are incredibly complex machines, and most shoppers don't know diddly squat about them, even though we know more than we used to. It's up to car salespeople to de-diddly squat them.
4. We completely depend on our cars to get us around - we're totally vulnerable to them. Salespeople gain our trust by lowering our sense of vulnerability. That helps us trust the cars they're trying to sell us.
5. Cars, like everything else, break down as they get older. That freaks us out. Salespeople need to be able to unfreak us.
Are the salespeople at Dewey Ford, skilled at unfreaking?
Before we get Secret Shopping started, full disclosure here: I do Secret Shopping and customer service training for several auto dealerships in the Central Iowa area. Fuller disclosure: Many of the salespeople at those dealerships would like to run me over with one of the cars they're selling. Fullest disclosure: That would hurt, and I would cry a lot, and the sight of an injured, weeping Unsecret Shopper WOULD EMOTIONALLY SCAR AND PERMANENTLY HAUNT A CAR SALESPERSON, FOREVER.
The haunting masks, below, are part of The Secret Shopper scoring system, also below, where you just glanced:
I visited Dewey Ford twice on the same Tuesday: in the late morning, and later, in the late afternoon.
I wore business attire the first visit (minus the jacket and 50 pounds) and business attire the second, but only if I was Jimmy Buffet.
I'm there to trade out of my Prius, into a less expensive pre-owned - blogging doesn't pay much. It's Summer, so I'm thinking convertible.
Do the Dewey salespeople convert me to a sale? Let's sail North up I-35, and find out.
At 11:42am, I pulled off Delaware Avenue, and into Dewey Country.
I intentionally made two complete passes around the vehicles on the main lot, then parked my Prius fairly close to the main building.
Ron, an employee but not a salesperson, was off by himself, about 25 feet from me, helping direct another employee, who appeared to be backing new trucks into place, some distance away.
I got out of my car and began looking into the windows of those the dealership wanted to sell me.
Ron didn't say anything, so I walked closer, cutting the distance between us in half, until he said a very nice "Hello, how are you?"
I told him I'd be groovy gravy if I could check out some used cars. Ron asked, quite smartly and with a smile, if I was looking for a Ford Fusion. He obviously had noticed that I'd pulled up in a Prius, and thought perhaps I wanted to stay in a Hybrid.
Great job, Ron!
Ron began pointing to where all the used vehicles were located. As I turned to follow the direction of his finger, I also met the friendly face of Stephanie Alber, who'd fingered me as a car shopper, and was quickly approaching, carrying a smile.
"Looking for anything in particular?"
My own immediately dimmed a bit.
Using a closed-ended question as une début présentation, especially on une lot de la car, is like me handing you a dead bird and thinking that'll bribe you into shaving my back. Stephanie's chances of selling me a car that afternoon had been shaved by 15%, and she'd only said five words.
What are 31 words that are better?
"Hi! Welcome to Dewey Ford! How are you? So glad you've come to visit us today. Are you here over your lunch break or do we get to play for a while?"
Closed-ended questions blow. Open-ended questions rock. Let's rock on.
I told Stephanie I was searching for a used convertible. She smiled and said, "Great car for this time of year!" Nice recovery, Steph. :)
She shook my hand, told me her name, and asked for mine. Kevin Cooney - perhaps you've heard of me?
As I shared my actual handle and a few other pleasantries, she pleasantly led me towards the only used rag top they had on the Dewey Ford lot: a whole lotta Ford Mustang.
A sweet ride like this, as they say, can sell itself. But unless it can open its door, invite you to sit in it, invite itself to sit in itself with you, stick its key in its ignition, start itself up and put down its top, its ability to put you in "buying" mode is limited.
So Stephanie did all that - nicely.
She asked me if I wanted to take a test drive. Awesome! I declined, but loved the fact that she asked. She asked me if I was coming back later that day. As The Lizard King sang, I loved that two times. Stephanie was being aggressive, but reasonably so.
She mentioned that Mustangs don't have rebates, as other cars on the lot did. I liked that. It set it apart even more, as a car that didn't need a rebate. Stephanie asked me where I lived, and we talked about the relative close proximity of Johnston to Ankeny, and that she lived in West Des Moines, and had once owned a 'vertible, but had to give it up, as "having two kids seats doesn't work too well in these." Humor + relatability = so far, so nice.
Yet as we both sank down in those uber-comfortable seats, enjoying the feel of an unencumbered sun on our skin, wrapped up inside that 2,000 pound open-air hairdo-tossin dream machine, there was something missing: EXCITEMENT!!
Stephanie was doing a nice job. But that cloudless Mid-July afternoon, and that flawless American Classic, demanded fantasmagoric. "Nice" is a bowl of shredded wheat, a History Channel documentary on WWII, how Tina takes the beginning of Proud Mary. Where was the Peanut Butter Cap N' Crunch? The first 17 minutes of Saving Private Ryan? The last 10 of PM, when it gets a little rough?
The only thing rough was getting my middle-aged rump out of that low-slung car.
Using a hoist and six mechanics, we did just that. Stephanie then suggested we go inside the dealership and get one of her business cards.
We began walking towards the main building, talking as we walked, which I've only recently mastered. Stephanie occasionally smiled along the way, and we chit-chatted. She mentioned she'd noticed another pre-owned convertible on the lot, on her list, a used Sebring that had just come in the day before. But instead of offering to take me to it, she suggested I come back and look at it - although she stated earlier in the conversation that convertibles "tend to go fast." Too bad for you, Lunchbreak Boy!
We talked about my Prius. I expressed uncertainty as to whether I'd trade it in.
"You'd be better off selling it privately," Stephanie advised."Dealerships eat up your profit."
Ouch. You mean, like this one we're currently standing on, that you currently work for?
Stephanie was trying to take my side, I get that. But as I've said repeatedly in these blogging pages, that's just not a place an employee can go. Someone who works for a company can not take a position against that company, or that company's industry, or the products and services that company sells, no matter how seemingly benign or off-handed the remark may seem.
A negative comment about the place an employee works inevitably creates a crack in the foundation of trust that employee has just spent the last 15 minutes trying to build. A salesperson will get beaten up enough by shoppers - there's no need to throw a haymaker into their own face.
Next time, try "Hey, we'd love to have your Prius on a trade-in, but I certainly understand if you'd rather sell it yourself." Then you're on everybody's side.
We entered the building and walked to Stephanie's desk, without acknowledgement from anyone we passed on the way. Stephanie handed me her card, shook my hand, slightly smiled and said, "I look forward to chatting with you soon," as she literally looked forward and away from me, suggesting by her body language, as any fan of Lie To Me will tell you, that she was blowing exhaust fumes up my manifold. That probably wasn't true. It just felt like it.
She also didn't get my contact information. The Fifth Pillar of great customer service, Follow Up, was reduced to rubble.
23 minutes after I entered the beautiful Dewey lot, I exited the building like Elvis, and hopped into something a little smaller than I saw The King get into, as he was leaving Veterans Auditorium in Des Moines, after a 1976 gig.
Looking back 34 years later, at just a few days ago, Stephanie got quite a few things (W)right.
She found me within 3 minutes of stepping out of my car. She smiled immediately, shook my hand in short order, gave me her name and asked for mine. Stephanie asked questions about what I was looking for, and took me straight to it. She offered me a test drive, and encouraged me to do so, and soon. She asked a few additional questions about my preferences, and responded knowledgeably to mine. She engaged in friendly conversation, seemed interested in me and my needs and was gracious and polite. She gave me her business card, thanked me, shook my hand and invited me to come back to the dealership.
There are also some things that Stephanie can work on.
Open with an open-ended question. Use my name throughout the conversation - Stephanie got it from me, then never used it, even at the end. Get excited about what you're selling. If you tell me what you have on the lot, make sure you offer to show me. Talk positively about your industry. Always look me in the eye. Make sure my contact information is as important to you, as you want your contact information to be, to me.
Here are 11 other suggestions for Stephanie, that might have helped elevate my car shopping experience from average, to Jonnierific:
1. Ask why I'm shopping for that particular vehicle.
2. Ask if I've ever owned a convertible. ( I have - two of them, not at the same time.)
3. Ask if I have a family and kids.
4. Ask me what I like about the car you're showing me - a very old and very effective sales tool.
5. Ask what I do for a living.
6. Ask me what my time frame is for buying a car.
7. Ask me about my budget.
8. Ask if I've ever been to Dewey Ford. ( I have not, except to embarrass myself in front of Mark Voucavich - see opening anecdote.)
9. Take me on a tour of the dealership, and introduce me to your boss.
10. Offer me something to drink.
11. Offer to drive me back to my car, so I feel spoiled, AND get to ride in a golf cart, which is always fun.
These are all small things. They are also some of the hundreds of things that make up our shopping experience, and help determine whether we'll return. In this case, I'd give Stephanie another chance.
Plus, I just gotta take a ride in that Mustang. :)
A scosche over 6 hours later, at 5:53pm, I returned to Deweyville, using a different entrance, and modus opershopi.
I came in on the newer Chrysler Dodge Jeep side, off Delaware Ave, furthest south.
Instead of then doing what car dealers expect all shoppers to do - drive through their lot 1,239 times, honking our horn every 7 seconds -I stopped out on the fringe of the dealership, but directly across from the used Sebring that Stephanie had mentioned, earlier in the day - just like someone looking for that particular vehicle would do.
Local car dealers have told me that most people looking for a new vehicle will enter the dealership office and find a salesperson, while those searching for pre-owned will likely browse what's on the lot.
So that's what I did.
The vehicle itself was in the center row, which led directly east towards the main building. I began looking in through the Sebring's windows, checking out its features, reading the window sticker info, opening its door, peering in, walking around it.
I certainly didn't expect someone to come running out within 30 seconds, doing somersaults down the aisle. I knew this shopping experience would take more time, and I was prepared. The question was, how much more time.
I'd brought a sack lunch, and War And Peace. I left them both in the car, and proceeded peacefully down the empty row between rows of cars, making sure I was visible to someone looking out the building's window, if they were looking.
I repeated the stop, look, stare, gawk, examine, open door, peer in, feel, sniff, walk around (always clockwise - we're north of the Equator) process over and over and over and over, the one I'd perfected four months earlier at Dewey's next door neighbor, with equal success - el zippo.
I walked to within 50 yards of the dealership. I camped out, walking, gawking, peering, leering, opening, closing, until I thought about just curling up in the trunk and having my mail forwarded there.
Obviously it wasn't like somebody inside saw me and said, "Pesky Secret Shoppers! Everybody, pretend like he's not there, maybe the varmint will go away!" But shoppers aren't always the most patient lot. After walking the lot unattended for 26 minutes, I was losing my own.
(Views from the Sebring, the 300, and as close as I got to the main building.)
At the 26:30 mark, a very energetic face attached to an equally revved up personality, came to my Secret Shopper rescue.
I heard "Hi! Anything I can help you find tonight?" from behind, turned, and saw a man fast approaching, from the building.
The deliverer of that closed-ended question was Alan Anania, who shook my hand meekly, offered his name strongly, and asked for mine, thoughtfully.
We were off and shopping.
I told Alan I loved the Chrysler 300, whose door I had opened and whose interior I was looking at intently, when he approached.
Alan's response? Not a word about the vehicle - year, mileage, cost, features, NADA Blue Book value, nada, nutin.
Instead, Alan launched, very pleasantly, into a very energetic description of Chrysler's Certified Pre-owned Coverage Plan.
"It includes a 125 point inspection, 24-hour towing, roadside assistance, plus if your car breaks down, you can get it serviced at any Chrysler Dealer across the country," he said, assuringly.
I didn't have the heart to mention to Alan that he was already talking about repairing the 300, and I had no idea where the cup holder was.
Alan engaged me, asking if I was from Ankeny. We talked about how easy it was to get from where I do live, to here, where the dealership lives.
Alan then asked the third of what would be a total of four questions: "Are you buying tonight?"
There's nothing wrong with that question. Except when someone doesn't know what I'm interested in buying, because they haven't asked.
I answered, "In the next seven days."
Alan told me the reason he was asking (In case that, for whatever reason, I got the feeling that he was being pushy) was because "I'm leaving for Minnesota in the morning, to go test drive the 2011 Jeep..."
...that sounds like fun! Wish there was someplace close by where I could test drive a 2011 Jeep!
"...and I want to make sure I have your info in the computer, so in case you come back..."
...and want to find out something about that 300 that I know nothing about?
"...the guys can look up your name and know you're with me, and also so I can get credit for having met with you tonight. "
Alan continued on, unencumbered by my sarcastic thoughts.
He continued on, pleasantly, offering an occasional hint of a smile. But he was traveling down his own road, instead of mine.
After he verbally pulled over at a rest stop, I jumped into the silence and gave him as obvious a "I'm interested in these cars" sign as I could think of.
"I'm going to go get my Blackberry, and take some pictures of these cars."
"Great," he said. "I'll go get a piece of paper..."
...with information about the cars on it?
...to take down your information."
Alan nicely engaged me by name as I returned with my phone, then asked for the best way for him to contact me. I gave him my email address.
Then, unassisted, he went into a spiel about the dealership's ownership.
"Our company is owned by a group out of Utah who owns 80 dealerships. The guy who owns it is an old millionaire who just died. We're building a foreign one right over there. We own Stew Hansen's, we're buying Bob Brown, and we tried to buy Karl but he wouldn't sell."
Where to start with this one...
1. I'm not sure why Alan thought that size mattered to me.
2. I'm not sure that referring to the deceased former owner of your company as "an old millionaire who just died" is going to move me into "buying" mode.
3. I'm not sure that referencing your soon-to-be built Import Dealership as "foreign one" is optimum. How about "alien maruding invader joint?"
4. I'm not sure that giving a rundown of every local dealer you've bought, are buying or have tried to buy, is the best use of shopper's time.
As Alan wrote my email address, he continued...
"I haven't been doing email very long but we've all gotta get on top of this cause the company is getting these smart phones that use email, and so I've got to learn it."
Where to start II...
It's one thing for someone to complain about struggling to figure out their new fangled phone. We've all been there, ages 18 to 180. I still don't know how to get my Blackberry to not stop working when I step on it.
But a car salesperson who only recently was pulled, kicking and screaming, into the world of email, who asks that he then be trusted to understand and explain the complexities of what is, for all intents and purposes, a one ton computer on four wheels, is stealing his own credibility. Someone not knowing email is no big deal. Someone admitting they don't know, is.
Alan handed me his card, and began showing the sequel to Where To Start, II.
"If you have any questions," he helpfully offered, "just call my cell phone number on the card."
Uh...should I call you right now if I have a question, or just ask you, since you're right here?
Alan thoughtfully used my name as he said, "Jonnie, give me a chance to treat you right," turned his back, and began walking back towards his office.
No attempt to address the reason I came to the lot, no personal questions, no offer of a test drive, no attempt to live in my buyer's world - Alan, that was your chance.
I used to have a whippet, Gracie, who would come up to you, stop, lick you, then continue on, as if that were the most reasonable thing in the world to do. I called it a lick and run, or a drive-by.
That's kinda what the experience with Alan felt like, without the drool.
There is no need to give Alan another lickin by going through this whole thing again, point by point. The points have been made.
Alan is a nice guy with great enthusiasm. Unfortunately, it was consistently misplaced.
The great news is that Alan's energy and enthusiasm is authentic, and rare. There are many sales people in your and other industries, Alan, who lay back in the emotional weeds, expecting the customer to provide the spark that drives the retail transaction. You're a stick of dynamite, born with a lit fuse. Now point your infectious enthusiasm in the (W)right direction, Alan, at the customer, and you'll be a flat-out car-selling rock star.
These were two car shopping experiences at Dewey Ford that were in diametric opposition to each another.
Yet they had important similarities.
Both Stephanie and Alan greeted and engaged immediately upon approaching me, and did so with great attitudes, and a true desire to help. They both smiled at the beginning, and offered hints of one throughout. They seemed to enjoy what they were doing. That means a lot, especially in a tough industry whose economic uncertainty can create a hard coat of indifference.
Yet in most other ways, the two experiences bore no resemblance to each other.
Stephanie and Alan each did some things very well. If one were to take the things each did best - Stephanie's gift of engagement, Alan's incredible energy and enthusiasm - and combine them, you'd have a super-human salesperson that would be beating the pants off of every other salesperson at the Dewey dealership, and the one next door.
They can both build on those things they do best, and through that construction process, become better salespeople, selling more cars, and making more people happy.
And quite frankly, those of us who are shopping for a car, deserve that. It's a nerve-wracking fear-inducing gut-wrenching process, even if we are looking at Mustangs. Please help us, by always remembering that we are people first, just like you, people who need your humanity, more than your knowledge - yet we need that, too.
Stephanie and Alan gave me glimpses of both. And within each, I could see the wonderfully engaging and energetic spirit of Mark Vukovich, that clearly lives on, at the dealership that still bears his father's name.
Jonnie Wright is a customer service evaluator and trainer, professional secret shopper, marketing strategist and host of The Unsecret Shopper Radio Show, Saturday mornings 8-9am, on 1350, KRNT.
Click to email Jonnie (firstname.lastname@example.org)
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