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Mystery Shopping: Tales Of The Uninvited Part 3

Mystery shopping a U.S. Ford dealer

Actually, this wasn’t a proper mystery shop at all, I wasn’t pretending to buy a car and no one was paying me to test the service provided by the dealership.  I just wanted a brochure and this was for a friend in England who had no idea what a Ford Taurus was and wanted to see one, or at least a picture of one.  Such was the depth of his petroliuscraniumdisturbum.

These days Google takes care of every information-curiosity-whim within seconds of it arising, but just a few years ago and without the internet constantly at our fingertips, whole adventures might hinge on something obscure like this.

The friend was a long time Ford devotee, me more of a lapsed and latent admirer.  This may have been a matter of upbringing.  Being in his sixties at the time, he fondly remembered owning Consul’s, Zephyrs and Zodiacs, very decent cars in their own way and in their time.

Had we known each other, at two years old I would have agreed with him because to my infant mind the sleek turquoise and cream Cortina with its flared rear wings and pie-segment rear lights was the pinnacle of car design.  This was the original, later referred to as the mark one.   Whether it was the affordable prefect, the angular Anglia which superseded it, the utterly brilliant (mark one) Escort that followed a few years later or my favourite, the Cortina, Ford made truly great cars and had nearly half the U.K. market in its pocket.

By the time I found myself working in the motor industry, things were very different.  Imported cars were selling in larger and larger numbers and significantly, they were raising standards of build quality forward at a pace.  Within a few years people stopped whistling in amazement if a car ticked past 99,999 miles and the odometer returned to zero.  What had been the preserve of a few cars was now common across the whole Mercedes-Benz range, sleek Audi 100s and hewn-from-solid Volvo 240s to name but a few.  Meanwhile, people who owned one of those new, funny little Japanese Datsuns, Toyotas or Hondas learned to their surprise, that although fairly cheap to buy, they started perfectly every morning, even when the weather was damp or frosty and that they just kept going and going.

Most cars rusted in those days, but they didn’t have to develop regular minor faults beyond the first couple of years of use, and it was no longer a fact of life that after accumulating sixty or seventy thousand miles, a car would regularly be found at the side of the road with the bonnet up and steam pouring out, or chuffing along in a cloud of blue smoke, burning as much oil as petrol.  Those reliable, well-built Fords not only had a lot of company in the better end of the car market, but in terms of quality and reliability, had been overtaken by several, increasingly popular brands.

Ford’s market-share was being eroded by GM in the shape of Vauxhall-Opel, by European imports like Volkswagen, Renault and Fiat, by quota-restricted Japanese imports and even by the dubious Metro, Maestro and Montego offerings of the well-meaning folks at the nationalised and much-troubled, British-Leyland.  At a time when a reasonable person might have expected Ford to be frantically busy spending money inside the factory making better cars, it seemed as if it was instead being thrown at TV advertising campaigns or given back to customers in the form of discounts.  Their confidence that customers wouldn’t notice all of the increasingly viable alternative choices out there reminded me of the British motorcycle industry, long gone by the time I was a motorcyclist and not to return properly until house-building magnate John Bloor bought an old factory in the midlands and inadvertently acquired the Triumph name.  Complacency or arrogance?  Whatever the cause, the result was the same; the gradual decline of a once wonderful car maker.

Seeing cars up-close-and-personal every day means you soon learn where the smart money ought to go and the latest, 1980s generation of Escorts, Cortinas and Granadas just weren’t very good.  In those days, there were no independent customer satisfaction surveys, no Auto-Express magazine telling us about Britain’s best cars, no car-consumer shows on any of the four TV channels and absolutely no internet forums to read.  Consequently, even in the late 90s, my old friend was largely unaware how bad things had gotten with his favourite car manufacturer.

By the time he and I were comparing our different perspectives on good and not-so-good cars, I had already driven tens of thousands of miles in the U.S., much of it in rented cars.  While you would have had to work hard to get me to say anything nice about their U.K. model range at the time, over there the Ford Taurus was my first choice.  Of a list of dozens of rental cars of mostly U.S. domestic manufacture, the Taurus was absolutely the best.  It drove quite well, handled pretty good for an American car, was nice inside and wait for it……… was nicely put together.  Whenever I took my family with me I would rent a Cadillac with two big bench seats, or one of the Chrysler Corporation’s capacious people carriers; the Voyager or Dodge Caravan (that name wouldn’t work in England), but on all other occasions I automatically and very happily, opted for a Taurus.

At the time, the sister car to the Taurus was the Mercury Sable.  Mercury was a badge-engineered offering invented by parent company Ford to fit between it and Ford’s luxury brand, Lincoln.  If there was anything about the Sable which elevated it over the Taurus, it was invisible to me.  True, it was cosmetically tidier around the rear but to make up for that, it was a lot less attractive at the front.  It also had wheel trims so ugly I thought every Sable ought to come with a sticker on the back saying My other car is a mobility scooter.  Maybe ‘premium’ meant; aimed at the senior-citizen market with a reassuringly higher price tag.  Overall, what was obviously designed in the first instance as a Ford Taurus had been randomly messed about with just for the sake of being able to call it a Mercury Sable and sell it to some other micro-strata of the buying public.  Whatever the expectations of the marketing department, the buying public wasn’t fooled and Mercury disappeared as a brand a few years later.

Having grown warmly accustomed to the Taurus over many visits, I was slightly disappointed on one occasion to find that the Taurus I had booked through my travel agent had turned into a Sable.  Commenting on this little ‘mix up’ to the girl at the rental desk caused her to expertly and accurately respond with, “oh yeah, sure, but anyway, it’s exactly the same car.”   In a genuinely friendly manner, I enquired, “if it’s the same then why is it made by a different manufacturer and have a different name?”  (I can be a cantankerous old ‘Victor Meldrew’ at times).  I promise I wasn’t mean to her – oh how we laughed!  But that was the end of the conversation as she resorted to a customer-service technique known as ‘shrugging’.  Unsurprisingly, she was unable to explain several decades of confusing marketing and production strategy dumped on a price-conscious and largely quality indifferent American car market.  I thanked her and we wished each other a great day and off I went.  There is never any point in lingering after the shrug stage of customer-service stand-offs.  Next comes the cessation of eye contact, then busy paper-shuffling and if the dissatisfied customer still doesn’t get the message, withdrawal to the back office.  If you are curious what happens next and hang-around to find out, you’ll hear a female colleague say, “Is that dude still there?  WTF?”


sales training - the mystery shopper


So anyway, many trips and Taurus-powered expeditions later, I was in the old pal’s rattling Ford Scorpio listening to him grumbling about it and found myself actually defending the brand.  It seemed that if motivated, perhaps by years of adverse  J.D. Power publicity in the U.S. press, Ford could actually get it together better than G.M. and nearly as well as the Japanese.  In their home market at least, Ford were doing a thoroughly decent job.  Once I’d made my assertion that Ford were making a come-back, that was it, he wanted a Taurus brochure and thus my fate was sealed, I would meet a man whose name I remember but won’t include here (instead we’ll call him Fred), the salesman at Stroud Ford in Stroudsberg, Pennsylvania, a town only known by English people (and only then if they were particularly attentive) as somewhere featured in the film “The Long Kiss Goodnight.”  Perhaps I should mention that the dealership in question no longer exists and has long ago been replaced by the well-respected Ray Price chain of giant car-sales emporiums.

You and I know I only wanted a brochure, but Fred didn’t understand this.  “You wanna trade yours?” he prodded me, flicking his eyes through the showroom window to where I’d parked.

“No, that’s a rental.”  I answered realising that in Fred’s mind, ‘brochure’ meant ‘buyer’.  This deduction would be reasonable enough under normal circumstances, but less so when you learn that I had already said, quite clearly, “Could I have a Taurus brochure to take back to England?” and in an English accent.  Fred got me the brochure, two in fact, one for the outgoing 1997 model (it was October) and one for the new Nineteen hundred and ninety eight (sic) model.

My gaze was directed towards the White Taurus in the showroom.  “That one’s sold.” he barked, “I have just one more”, his finger still jabbing.  I thought of remarking on how often customers seemed to arrive at car showrooms just in time for the ‘last one’, but wanted to leave more than I wanted to debate his selling methodologies with him.  “I can do you the same price:  $16,448”.  Another painful reminder that Americans pay way less for their cars than we do over here.  Low car prices make up for their higher average income, bigger homes, cheaper fuel, cheaper clothes, cheaper electrical goods…. no hang on a minute, something’s wrong there.  Oh yes, the painful truth about world economics.

“Is it a GL?” I asked.  It seemed like an intelligent question as a GL was what I was renting and as such, my only point of reference.

“Uh-huh” he nodded.  We were stood side by side regarding the car at some distance the way men do, in silence, or at least with long pauses between short questions and short answers.  We could have been watching girls go by and it would have been all the same. If we had turned to look at each other things might have felt less comfortable and I might have laughed nervously – it’s what I do.  I wonder if Fred thought of the instructions to smile and make eye contact which he had heard so many times on every sales course he had ever been forced to attend/ignore/snooze his way through.

We stared.  “So that’s your last ninety-seven huh?”


“Are there many changes to the ninety-eight model?”

“Not a f@ckin’ thing.”  He said without turning.  Oh yes, the sweary bit happened exactly like that.

“Okay, thanks.”  I waved the brochure and walked out acting purposeful and pensive.  Later, curiosity overtook me.  It seemed odd that there should be absolutely no changes between the Taurus GL of one model year and the next, so I studied the brochure and discovered that far from “Not a f@ckin’ thing” changing, the GL model was in fact being entirely deleted from the range.  His answer then, could be described as a teeny bit misleading.

The Taurus was a really good car for Ford from its introduction in 1985, through years of being the best-selling car in the U.S., competing with the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry for that honour.  It costs hundreds of millions to get a new car into production and I was warmed by the notion that Ford had clearly put considerable effort into making a genuinely better car.  They make the investment, they create the car and the customers arrive at the dealership to have a look.

And after all of that work by so many people in the design, production and supply chain, what exactly do salesmen like Fred do to promote the image of the manufacturers they represent?  After some professional reflection I believe my summary would be, “Not a f@ckin’ thing.”


sales training - bad mystery shopping experience


What’s the right way to do Mystery Shopping?

That is a very good question, and a difficult one to answer.

Maybe we should just ask our actual customers?  It seems so simple, so sensible.  The problem with that is, they don’t know enough.  Whether they purchase or not, they rationalise their decision, justifying it with logic that simply wasn’t present at the time when the decision itself was made.  Social surveys show that people may have lists of criteria when they go shopping and they may be able to discuss at length with a researcher what they want and why, but when they make their purchase, often, so much of that has gone out of the window.  Post-purchase, many are forced to re-rationalise and explain how they came to completely ignore all the things they said were important, or why they compromised on the one thing they said was absolutely essential and non-negotiable.

We’ve always understood that buying is driven more by emotional factors than logical ones, but when we think about it, we are certain that logic must surely play a large part and probably, that we personally, are more logical about our purchases than others.  There are those thoughts, right there, present when you consider making a purchase.  They might be available to access right now proving it is they and the logic from which they arise which determines choice.  When purchases follow that path, it seems to become even more true, but it is so unreliable as a predictor of behaviour as to be best ignored in most cases.

“We are irrational creatures pretending to be rational.”

Maybe we should focus on how Mystery Shoppers feel then, rather than using long lists of yes/no fields and measurable criteria?  Fine, as long as they are very finely tuned and trained.  I would like them to be at least psychology graduates to begin relying on that kind of subjective stuff and even then, the inevitable filter of the mystery shoppers not being actually in the market to purchase will distort their feelings.

Perhaps I should add that I have employed people to do it this way, asking my team less about particular details and more about what they thought and how they imagined they might behave if they were actually considering buying.  You get some real insights and usable information, but only after it’s been through some rigorous interpretation, I wouldn’t recommend taking it all at face value.

So are we stuck with the tick-box approach?  Without a team of highly qualified social scientists who coincidentally are thinking of buying the very items they are being employed to mystery shop (which by the way, introduces a whole new layer of problems), yes, frankly.

We just need to take care of the boxes they tick and the questions on which they are asked to comment.  Would you buy is obviously a problem question because no matter what they think, they can’t really predict how they would behave under real circumstances.  Did the sales assistant approach you within 2 minutes? relies heavily on what’s happening in the store at that very moment.  Being made to wait 1 minute while staff gossip or read the newspaper is shoddy, but if they are busy helping someone in difficulty, longer than 2 minutes may be entirely acceptable.

Recently, a salesperson grumbled about being marked down on a mystery shopping telephone call for not offering to send the customer a brochure, when the customer had already agreed to visit the sales centre the next day.  I can see both sides of that one; company policy and the fact that things might change versus common sense, but in this case, the salesperson was aggrieved about being marked down for something she felt was… silly.  And for some salespeople, being marked down is an issue.  One motor retail group in the U.K. fines its salespeople £500 for getting less than 95%.  Three ‘low’ scores in a row results in dismissal and because they get mystery shopped three times per quarter, it’s what the military might call a real and present danger.

Mystery Shopping (sometimes referred to as Misery Shopping for obvious reasons) is a nearly essential part of running a sales operation.   Having made the decision to employ the practice, quality control then depends upon:

  1.     Getting high quality shoppers.  Why put so much effort into recruiting great salespeople and then measure them by using shoppers recruited haphazardly?
  2.     Briefing the mystery shoppers very carefully.  What they are seeking must match what salespeople are expected to do when responding to live customers.  The mystery shoppers debrief document is usually adjusted from a template as the result of a meeting with the client.  The mystery shopping company executive, meets the sales director and pitches for the work.  Too often, the round of mystery shopping begins after too little analysis of the template, too little discussion between the sales director and the mystery shopping executive and consequently too little detailed understanding of what is supposed to happen at the coalface.  This is especially true when:
  3.    The mystery shoppers veer off script
  4.    When they are not as good at mystery shopping as the salespeople are at being salespeople
  5.     When they have not been very carefully briefed by the sales operation itself (note, not the mystery shopping company, but the business they are shopping)
  6.    Or when anyone in the chain of communication is less aware than they might need to be, including the sales director and the executive from the mystery shopping entity
  7.     Creating a totally bespoke mystery shopping debrief document that reflects the actual best practice of the sales operation
  8.     Interpreting the results intelligently
  9.     Treating the salespeople well.  I’m in favour of stick (although the earlier example of fining and firing seems a bit harsh!) but believe it needs, at least, balancing with carrot

Mystery shopping is a growing part of retailing in the fields within which I work.   Salespeople may as well assume it’s here to stay and make the best of it.  Some salespeople clearly need to step up and improve their behaviour as well as their consistency.  Great salespeople deserve great mystery shoppers though and I think that might be more difficult to guarantee.  Perhaps they should attend the same sales courses as the people they are shopping?  Now there’s a thought!  I’ll check my diary for availability.