"Your dealer for life...Karl Chevrolet."
The day that Des Moines' own Jason Brown - the very talented country singer - met with Carl Moyer to discuss creating a new jingle for Carl's mega-dealership, Jason and I talked about it on the phone. Knowing that I knew just enough about music to know that I should keep my singing between myself and the shower head, Jason was kind enough to ask me if I had any jingle ideas.
Flattered, I warbled something off the top of my head - try that.
Then Jason said he wanted me to hear a version he'd been working on - and began to sing a pretty little ditty in that bold, resonant bass of his.
I listened politely, not wanting to hurt the kid's feelings. "Uh, Jase," I said diplomatically, "why don't you sing mine...then yours, just to give Carl a choice."
"Sure," he agreed.
Carl's choice - Jason's original, and the one we all enjoy on the airwaves today. I'm guessing - praying - Mr. Brown forgot my version on the way to the tryout, else he would have been permanently injured after being tossed out on his head.
As much as we all love the Karl Chevrolet jingle, and just about everything else about their marketing - the slickly filmed TV commercials, Carl's folksy, underplayed delivery - there are a few hitches in their customer service giddyup that arose when I secret shopped their dealership in Ankeny.
First, let's establish that it's hard to provide consistent customer service in a retail space the size of the mother ship in Close Encounters Of The Third Kind. (See "The Unsecret Shopper Goes Shopping: Homemakers Furniture") Karl Chevrolet's visually stunning dealership has 1200 vehicles spread out over 30 acres. It ain't Ankeny, it's Karlville.
Having said that, shoppers who come to Karl Chevrolet bring the same expectation they would have, were they shopping at Ralph's Cars in Cambridge - they expect to be waited on in a timely manner and handled in a certain way.
Regardless of how big or small or how many or few employees are on staff, meeting those expectations is the responsibility of the retailer who built the store in the first place. My suspicion is that no one would agree with this more than Carl Moyer.
Yet it would be easy to forgive the staff at Karl Chevrolet for missing a person or two between the car row cracks, were it not for something else - the likelihood that the way I looked, dictated how I was treated.
Below are two photographs - each is exactly how I was dressed when I visited Karl Chevrolet.
In one I look like I was just tossed down a flight of stairs (probably after singing my version of the Karl Chevrolet jingle) In the other, I could be selling you a house that contained the stairs.
Judge for yourself.
I secret shopped Karl Chevrolet twice on the same day (at 11am and again around 5pm) each time wearing different clothes, pictured here.
I followed the exact same path around the dealership, each time.
The results were anything but similar.
First a review of our Secret Shopper scoring system:
To help keep each experience straight, I'll refer to the disheveled dude as "Jonnie" and the sharp dressed man as "Jonathan."
My scenario: "I'm looking for a truck for my fiance." Reason? I want to see how good they'll be to someone who isn't necessarily making the final purchasing decision and so can't be sold on the spot. It will separate an employee who tends to look at customers as a meal ticket from an empathetic staffer who truly wants to establish rapore and build a relationship. That's the right thing to do - that's what works.
I pulled into the dealership on a cold, overcast Tuesday morning at 11:17am, hung a right and immediately drove to the SW corner, in the "commercial trucks" area. I parked my car and, carrying a yellow tablet (an obvious "buy" signal - someone writing down vehicle information) got out of my car wearing grubby "Jonnie" clothes (see pic, above left) and began to look at vehicle info stickers and peer into windows.
15 minutes and 17 vehicles perused later I was still looking - just me and the trucks.
It was time to move. I got back in my Prius (concerned that it would uncontrollably accelerate into a Corvette) and sloowwwly drove to the northeast side, hoping I might get someone's attention.
I spent 17 minutes browsing, peering, taking notes, kicking tires - I could have changed the oil on one of the Suburbans if I'd had the keys. Three employees walked within 50 yards of me and saw me - mechanics, I suspected - but no one came to assist.
Okie dokey - I motored back over to my old friend, the southwest corner. Certainly a second appearance by the same shopper would send a very strong buy signal to someone inside.
Nope. Five minutes later it was still just me and a long, lonely row of Silverados. And don't think I was hidden, out of eyeshot. I could clearly see the building's glass front for nearly every minute I was on the lot - which means someone inside could also see me.
Was everyone busy with customers?
I saw a total of three people pull through the dealership while I was there, looking at vehicles from inside their own - their own warm car. I had been standing outside for over 35 minutes and was turning purple.
It was time for drastic action - I drove to the front and center of the dealership, got out of my car and climbed up "The Rock," the incredibly ornate display of boulders upon which several vehicles are seemingly precariously but beautifully balanced, as the visual trademark of Karl Chevrolet. If this didn't get someone's attention, I'd head to CJ's Bagels on Ankeny's north side (still the best bagels I've ever eaten and I lived in New York for three years)
Nearly five minutes later, somebody must have seen the poorly-dressed kid playing on "The Rock" and decided to get him off of there before he hurt himself.
A well-dressed young man came out of the "New Cars" main entrance. He walked across the parking lot to where I was standing and joined me atop "The Rock" display.
"Anything I can help you find?"
Ka-POW! After 42 minutes of wandering lost amongst the mounds of metal like a diseased baby moose in a petrified forest, all I got was the dreaded closed-ended question - a punch to my frost-bitten gut. (See "The Answers To The Customer Service Pop Quiz," #4)
At this point, what happened to me, can't happen to you, the consumer. This can't happen. Not in this economy, not in today's car industry, not at a car dealership with the cache of Karl Chevrolet. It was textbook bad. Somewhere, Carl was weeping.
Then there was "Jonathan"...
Five hours later, at 5:02pm, I was back on the same lot, starting in the exact same place, the "Bermuda Triangle" southwest corner - but this time, as "Jonathan," the stylish, well-dressed suit-and-tie-wearin high-falutin businessman. (see pic, above right)
I stepped out of my car, closed the door, walked up to the same truck I'd started with that morning - hey buddy, remember me? - and prepared for another long wait.
67 seconds later, I heard "Any questions I can answer?"
I turned to the middle-aged man. Yes!
1. Where the heck were you five hours and 19 minutes ago?
2. What is it with you Karl Chevrolet sales guys and your closed-ended questions?
3. Thank you for being so prompt and not making me freeze my caboose off to prove a point. Guess that last one isn't really a question...
This was nearly perfectly played - I've just landed on the massive, confusing surface of Karl-cury and before I can take no more than one small step for a consumer and one giant leap for a customer, here comes the soothing voice of Mission Control, offering me help, guidance, comfort...and a closed-ended question. D'oh!
The young Karl Chevrolet salesman in front of me - who I would know later as Andrew - appeared to be in his mid-20's, wore a nice tie and long-sleeved dress shirt...and no coat. I point this out because, if you've ever been outside when it's cold and you see someone without a coat while you're wearing one, it makes you feel even colder. In a retail scenario, it's distracting - I was focused on his comfort and not my own selfish shopper-ness. Plus it made him seem even more youthful, a disadvantage - older, experienced, savvy salespeople don't walk around outside on blustery overcast 40 degree days without jackets.
I told Andrew I was shopping for a truck for my fiance. He asked a few questions - what size, what towing capacity, what color? He was polite but never smiled, inquisitive but not terribly engaged. Too quickly he said, "Would you like a brochure?" That's what a skilled salesperson offers at the end, not the beginning.
I wasn't going to let him off the hook that easy - I'd been outside an hour and he'd just gotten here and he was going to get frostbite right along with me - plus if he'd slipped on a coat...
"Can this truck pull a boat?"
I could almost hear him sigh. We chit-chatted a bit longer - I offered him the same level of enthusiasm he offered me, no more, no less.
I train employees to think of themselves as tour guides for customers, both physical and emotional. They must take consumers by the hand and make it okay for them to get excited about what the employee is selling, by getting excited themselves. If you wait for the customer to jump up and down before you do, you'll both be standing there like bored stiffs.
Kinda like Andrew and I were.
After he mentioned the brochure one more time, I decided to go with it and besides, I said, I had to use the bathroom. No lyin, I did. We walked inside, I went into the Men's room, came back out, found Andrew, walked up to him - and awkward silence. Was he waiting for me to say something? "All done goin potty!"
Finally he broke the extended-cab-wide pause. "Let's get you that brochure."
Sure. We walked to his desk, where he took his business card and stapled it to a Silverado brochure - another no-no. An employee always hands their business card to a customer, as a show of respect and as a personal touch, much like a handshake - which he also hadn't offered.
Andrew asked if I had any other questions - nope, that was all. As we both stood up he finally asked, "What's your name?" I wanted to say "Jonathan" but that guy hadn't shown up yet. Andrew extended his hand and said, "My name is Andrew" - the first time he'd mentioned it.
Names and introductions and handshakes go at the beginning. Brochures and awkward silence go at the end. Just about everything that could be screwed up with Andrew and me, had been.
As a trainer I felt sorry for Andrew - as a customer, frustration.
Like Andrew, Jeff asked me questions about what I was looking for - size, towing capacity, color. Unlike the youthful Andy, Jeff was probably in his mid-40's, smiled, was energetic and within a few minutes, introduced himself with his name, a handshake and a bit of endearing self-effacement.
"Oh sorry, my name's Jeff. I should have introduced myself sooner. And you are?"
Jonathan. Jonathan Bernard Shaw Hyde Pierce Carrington Jonas Salk Farnsworth the LXVI, Esquire.
Jeff not only asked me about me but also was willing to share things about himself. He had only been selling in his current position for five weeks, after having served in other capacities, including mechanic. He was divorced but had gotten remarried. When I said I was shopping for a truck for my fiance, he said, "Congratulations!" This was from a dude who'd already been married.
Sorry, old joke.
Jeff quickly suggested we go inside so he could show me towing capacities and other specs, "in the comfort and warmth of my office." Yet he was wearing a very nice, heavy coat and was obviously already comfy and warm - it was my comfort he was looking after.
We went inside the dealership, sat down and made small talk. He called me by my name again, remembered the specs I had asked about outside and other details - very thoughtful, very professional.
I asked him what I thought was the six million dollar question - had he been there all day? Yes - he'd been working since that morning.
Well didn't you see me out there, walking around like a lost puppy?
I didn't ask - but he clearly didn't recognize me from my visit earlier in the day. Who knows? All I knew was that he was treating me like gold and I liked it.
Sensing I was ready to leave, Jeff asked me if I wanted a brochure. Sure! He also handed me his business card and asked me to contact him personally if I had any questions. He shook my hand again, thanked me for stopping in and then asked for my phone number - something Andrew never requested from "Jonnie."
And Jeff would use it - to call me the next day and ask if I'd like to stop in with my fiance because he had a few new trucks that had just arrived and he'd love for her and I to test-drive them. Wow.
Smart, friendly, classy, a real pro - Jeff was exactly what a car shopper dreams about.
The bathroom from the first visit was spotless as was the entire dealership. Vehicles were clean, too - whoever has that gig, ain't making enough.
Ultimately, the two experiences with Andrew and Jeff have to be graded as one in the overall because they were had by the same guy wearing different clothes - and that begs the question, was I treated differently because of the clothes I was wearing?
It depends on which question you're trying to answer.
On the "staff greeting" question I think you have to answer "yes" - which assumes that someone saw me the first time I was there and chose to let me roam.
There is a nothing but glass covering the front of Karl Chevrolet's main offices, giving the people inside (by design, I suspect) a panoramic view of the monster lot, and any poor slob or fat cat who sets foot upon it. In that 42 minutes I walked the lot, somebody had to have seen me. And if not, then Carl needs to invest in cameras that provide a more detailed view of the lot to the salespeople inside, so that no one falls between those car row cracks.
As to the "staff interaction" question, I don't think my clothes had anything to do with it. Chalk up the differences between Andrew and Jeff to age, experience, training and what can not be trained - a happy, caring and compassionate nature. As I've stated many times before in many posts, hire happy, train skills. Andrew may have been having an off day. He's a nice enough young man who needs to hone his skills and amp up his desire to engage. He has great potential, if he's willing to learn.
Jeff is a stud and a budding star, a middle-aged man with average looks and off the hizzle interpersonal skills. Ask for him when you visit Karl Chevrolet - I have no question he'll treat you like he wants to be your dealer for life.
But for the love of Pete, dress up!
Look for another retail store evaluation next Thursday. And listen for the debut of my radio program, "The Unsecret Shopper Radio Show," this Saturday from 8-9am on 1350 KRNT.
Jonnie Wright is a customer service evaluator and trainer, marketing strategist and radio show host. You can email Jonnie at email@example.com.
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