In a conversation with Toyota, they cited their dealer in my hometown as being a good example of what they were striving for. Raising a doubtful eyebrow earned me the task of testing that out.
For work I generally wear suits, ties, shiny shoes, all the painful and impractical paraphernalia of our ridiculous business fashion. I understand it, I know the history, I even agree it looks smarter than the alternatives, but I’d never put all that stuff on out of free choice. When not in the direct employ of a client then, I tend to be a bit er… casual. You might say comfortable. You might also say scruffy.
I struggle with the instruction to wear smart casual and reading that on an invitation is about as strong a signal not to attend as offering stargazy pie as the main course, making the evening teetotal or holding it at Heathrow Airport. If anyone is planning that combination, I’m busy elsewhere, please accept my apologies.
My three modes of dress are (i) work, (ii) motorcycle attire and (iii) casual/comfortable/scruffy. This means I’m often scruffy riding my bicycle. The Stumpjumper mountain bike in question is a proper bit of kit, but only an expert would know because from my attire I look more like I borrowed it and probably from my age, it belongs to my son. If I want good service, all I need do is pop in a place after work in business attire. If I want the opposite, I should have a day off and cycle to the retailer. So obviously, I cycled to the Toyota dealer in question to test their high levels of service.
They ignored me totally. It was only a small place and must have been very awkward for them, but they managed it for a while. I responded unusually for a time-wasting customer though by failing to accept their ignorance and just loitered all the more. A salesman made it his task to deal with the problem and enquired if he could help me. I asked if he had a specific model in stock, this being the one I would be interested in had I actually wanted to buy something there and learned that they did not. “I see you don’t have one in the showroom”, I said, “but do you have one anywhere I might be able to just look at?” He said they didn’t. “Oh that’s odd”, I continued, “there are two out the back. Can I look at one of those?”
“Just a minute”, he said and went off in a huff. When he returned he tossed me a set of keys on a plastic tab covered in permanent marker writing which I studied to determine which colour car I was permitted to examine. “It’s new and in wax and polythene so…”
He didn’t finish that thought and so to help the poor sod, I said, “That’s fine, I’d just like to have a look.”
He still wasn’t happy, “Don’t do anything though because it’s for sale and someone will have to buy it.” I’m not sure what he thought I might do, nor quite how someone might buy it with all of these obstacles in the way but for a good fifteen minutes I made merry with the keys, the doors, the folding seats, the glovebox and handbook, the bonnet and dashboard. I expected that with everything open and the lights on, he might come out and do some selling, but no, his stubborn refusal to engage outdid my patience and persistence and I shut it all down and wandered in with his keys.
“It’s really nice!” I said, completely honestly and getting sucked in to the idea of buying one in spite of everything. He couldn’t help but respond to this and twitched slightly. “How would I get a test-drive?” I asked.
He was back on top, “Oh you can’t. We never put that model on as a demo because it’s the sporty version and we sell mostly the ordinary ones. People just buy them.”
“So people test-drive the regular version and based on that buy the sportier one if they want,” I confirmed for him and left the metaphorical door wide open.
“That’s right.” Maybe I was supposed to beg.
“Got a brochure?”
“Not right now.”
“Okay, fair enough, nice car.” It was. And what a disappointment for Toyota making something so attractive and competent only to have it undermined by this kind of awful service. I cycled away, omitting to mention I would spend the rest of the afternoon writing the encounter up for the manufacturer in question. I no longer have the original report but remember the experience like it was yesterday. It wasn’t, since then I’ve moved house seven times and have bought eight cars for myself, unsurprisingly, none from him. That dealership no longer exists and Toyotas are now available from a far better outlet in the county town 10 miles south. I imagine the salesman, who was a similar age to me, might have found alternative employment where he isn’t expected to be civil to people. Maybe he works in a call centre phoning people to ask them if they’ve had an accident lately, or whether they’ve made their obligatory PPI claim. Whatever it is, I do hope he’s found a more suitable vocation.
I have a soft spot for the defunct Rover brand. I’m not particularly familiar with the latest Chinese incarnation, but in the last few years of their British existence and prior to that final phase during the seemingly doomed MBO, I admired the rather lovely 75, the nice little 2 series and, well that was about it actually. They’d also been a client on and off and so being sent on a mystery shopping visit to a Midlands dealer was par for the course. Unlike the celebrated dealer in One (above), the chap from Rover was responding to bad reports by the public and since the management team was in denial, claiming the manufacture didn’t know what it was talking about and that customers were all nutters anyway, they thought they might like a more objective review.
I parked my Honda Accord outside and in business attire, entered the building, an odd cylindrical structure that allowed cars and people to climb floors via its continual and disconcerting slope. I figured that rather than suggest I might like to trade in my Accord (too new by half), I’d be shopping for a spouse’s car and would check out something small. Being a decade before the lovely 25, this meant I needed to find a Metro. That wasn’t hard and when I did so, I strolled around it, keeping an eye on the various staff which was more than they were doing with regard to me. Upping the ante I opened the driver’s door and sat in it, but this didn’t generate any attention either so I got back out and began opening all the doors, tailgate, bonnet and so on. Nothing.
Leaving without speaking to someone would not do and so I either had to rugby tackle a member of staff or wait until they attended me and keen to allow them to do what was expected I tried the horn. Still nothing.
Flipping down the sun visor deposited the keys into my lap, rather risky by modern standards and not the done thing in the antipodes where it’s not so much keys you need to be aware of but deadly spiders, which hide up there until unwittingly tipped out by their hapless victim. The horn hadn’t attracted any attention, maybe the engine would. Ah yes, no sooner had I started the engine than I was approached by someone in charge who asked me to turn it off and how I got hold of the keys. He had a frowny admonishing face but I remained curious about the car and he promised to find a salesman for me.
A young lad turned up and managed to know nothing about the car beyond the most basic information. I kept asking simpler and simpler questions until he found something he knew, but by then I’d run out of things to ask. Except for colour! “Not keen on this magnolia guano, what else have you got?” He puffed out his cheeks and referred to the brochure again, opening the back page and pointing at the choices. I studied them and rather than pick one, thought I’d give him a small challenge, “Is that it? I’m not sure she’d like any of these.”
“No, we don’t make it in any nice colours.” Was his best offering. I’d like to think he was some kind of crazy genius but apparently this was pretty much par for the course and my findings confirmed what many others had already said.
It makes you wonder doesn’t it? It definitely makes me wonder.
This one visit was part of a whole tranche, comparing the performance of a number of outlets with different franchises across a wide area, but all owned by the same group. Of these four examples, this is the most recent.
The Vauxhall showroom looked pretty good and had the usual number of staff milling about behind the parts and service counter and walking briskly between offices with bits of paper. I found the Insignia and strolled around it, admiring the lines which to me, echo a 911 here and there. A salesman who appeared to like pies, peered at me from his desk where he was busy tapping away on a keyboard. I caught his eye, but he broke off quickly so no registration passed between us. He was obviously not ready to talk.
I sat in the car, then tried the back and then looked in the boot and given that his desk was directly in front of the car, all this happened just a few feet from him. As I walked back around to the driver’s door, he took his opportunity and asked if he could be of any help. I commented favourably on the car and explained I was coming up for change, had a certain budget and a shortlist and this was on it. He looked pleased and told me it was a really good car, that he drove one home every night and he loved it. So far so good.
I asked if this one was the Diesel version and also what spec it came in, specifically, was there one with a few more toys. He went onto his system but seemed unable to answer the question. Eventually, and quite reluctantly too I thought, he got up and went around the back of the car, confirming from the badge it was indeed a Diesel, then grabbed a brochure to figure out where it sat in the range. This way I learned not so much what might be different from one model to the next, but that the brochure might be more use to me than him. He plucked random facts from the spec pages, getting some of them wrong and then correcting himself, “The SRi one has cruise control. No I think that might be optional, there’s a cost thing here, or is that standard equipment?” I’m a human being so I felt sorry for him. The Sales Manager in me wanted to kick his dumb arse though.
“Where is this Diesel engine from?” I thought it might help to redirect his attention with an easier question. I failed; he looked blank. “I mean, is it a Vauxhall engine?” He was frozen. Maybe he’d just died standing up and rigor-mortis had set in. “Some manufacturers share Diesel engines, you know, the way Ford use some Peugeot Diesels, Volvo used a VW unit until a few years ago…” Still blank. “GM is a big company, but being American Diesels aren’t really their thing. I just wondered…” Frozen solid, brain not computing, I thought I might need to unplug him and reboot. I settled for Ctrl-Alt-Delete and ending the task. I lifted the bonnet, “Let’s have a look shall we?” A wall of plastic made to look a bit like the top of an engine meant we learned nothing but suddenly animated he grabbed his brochure again and with a great deal of aggressive page flipping, prodding, muttering and chin stroking, he got thoroughly immersed in his task. I watched the brochure being trashed and determined I’d need to ask for a fresh one, I’m a bit OCD and can’t bare those mangled pages.
“Ah! He bellowed, poking the spec page like he was trying to puncture the glossy paper, “Bosch! Yeah, Bosch, they make it!” They don’t of course, he’d just identified the engine management system. The giant German auto-electrics company supplies $1 Billion worth of kit to various car makers each year, but they don’t make engines.
I left it at that. Persuaded him that I ought to have a brochure that didn’t look like it had been through a mangle and thanked him for his time and help. I’d give him 5/10 for enthusiasm and 0/10 for product knowledge, maybe less, I never actually asked him what make of car it was, perhaps he didn’t know.
Product knowledge is very, very important. In a later ramble I’ll explain the psychological implications of having more or fewer facts in your sales head, but for now we’ll leave it at that. He was likeable, maybe he was new, but is that an excuse? How would you like a new dentist, a new plumber, a new hair stylist? Don’t most trades expect a certain standard before they unleash their newest recruits on the public? Why is spending tens of thousands of pounds so unimportant that it requires such a modest level of expertise? Well, it isn’t and as far as I’m concerned, it deserves experts and professionals, nothing less.