Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The Bigfoot Diaries Go Secret Shopping

I didn't know Jonnie Wright when I first introduced myself to him.

Somehow I came across his blog and then added him as a friend on Facebook from there. I enjoyed reading his customer service reviews at the (Un) Secret Shopper and found his wiry sense of humor to my liking. His smile was contagious, as was his attitude. I felt drawn to him like a moth before a flame. Ok, maybe not in that dramatic sense, but we did share a common bond, the knowledge that customer service is the most important attribute a business has, and it's seemingly strange disappearance in today's society. Having worked in the restaurant business for several years I learned this knowledge first hand. A customer was only as happy as the person who waited on him/her... And a smile or a frown has the power to make or break that person's day.

I asked Jonnie about doing some secret shopping. I envisioned eating in a nice restaurant perhaps cutting into a giant and juicy steak... Keeping notes as I reached for the A-1 sauce, paying particular detail to the service and attitude that was being attended upon me... So I got excited when Jonnie called and said he had a gig for me. As it turned out, it was a far cry from the experience I had envisioned.

My assignment: Infiltrate and secret shop a popular auto dealership in Des Moines, Iowa.

I was a bit apprehensive about the gig to be honest with you. I mean come on... Why did my first secret shopper trip have to be at a car dealership and not something a bit easier... If not a steak restaurant, say a Quick Trip or something?

Car dealerships were like foreign lands to me... Bright lights, pushy salesmen, the smell of burnt popcorn and day old coffee in the lobby... Enough weirdness to drive me way out of my comfort zone. Every car I have ever bought came from the discount section on the advertising page in the newspaper, or often from somebody I knew who needed to upgrade and found it convenient to push their old rust box off on me for a handful of pocket change.

Car dealerships hold that stigma of being over-priced and over-staffed with con artists who's job it is to screw you out of every penny they can to fatten their own wallets, while flattening yours. Aside from the high pressure salesmen, there are the hidden costs in the contract, the high interest rates, the inflated warranties, and the knowledge that if you need them, the men in the repair shop are trained to break off your radiator hose in order to sell you a new one... I was apprehensive.

But nonetheless, I took the job. After all, Napoleon didn't become a great leader by invading Rhode Island. He pummeled tough British and Spanish forces at the Siege of Toulon to start his military career.
With my right hand in the breast of my shirt, and upon my white steed, I ventured in to conquer... (Mostly my fears).

Now, my white steed is a 1994 Geo Metro that has over 240,000 miles on it. I picked it up last fall when the desperate owner needed to sell it cheaply in order to get himself (and his newer pick-up truck) to Arizona for his annual winter hibernation. He didn't have a means to take both vehicles, and sensing that time was running short, he pushed it off to me for just a couple of hundred dollars. It was a good buy... I have since travelled in it worry free. In the glove box is every receipt that details any purchases that have been made towards the car. The tires are generally new... Have a receipt to prove it, and the motor was rebuilt in 2008. A little notebook details every oil change since 1996, and there are also lists of gas prices with dates along with the itemized MPG from the car's previous tankful. (Did you know that gas cost just over 2 bucks a gallon in 1996?) It was a good buy then, and it is still an excellent car. Aware of the fact that the last thing I need is a car payment, I drove it into the bright lighted foreign land and found a parking spot right up next to the main building.

I got off of my steed and wandered over to where the new cars were parked. I was feeling extremely self-conscience, afraid that I was emitting the smell of someone who was only there to evaluate the dealership's level of customer service. I wandered past a few high-end sports cars, and put myself into the mind frame of what I would be looking for, had I actually come to buy a car. The high-end sports cars would be nice... But not very practical. Nor did I figure it would be convincing to a salesman that I was serious about buying a new Dodge Viper per say, after driving onto his lot in a Geo Metro hatchback. I scanned the lot in search of something that might appear to be a little more in my price range, and I was a little amiss to realize that there actually wasn't anything on the lot that was within my price range. I felt like a stranger in a strange land.

Suddenly I heard the voice behind me.

"Can I help you?"

Probably not, I thought. I'm a lost cause right now... I turned around and sure enough, one of those high pressure salesmen was approaching me.

Or was he?

He just stood there, a row of cars away from me right outside the door of the building I had parked next to. I waited a second or two to see if he was going to come any closer, and when it was apparent that he wasn't, I walked towards him.

"I don't know really", I said as I approached him. "I'm kind of new at this car buying thing." I held out my hand and offered my name.

He eyed me surreptitiously and then he eyed the Geo Metro. He cautiously shook my hand and said his name was Barney. Maybe it was the Corsican army uniform I was wearing I do not know, but he didn't befuddle me with high-pressure.

"Let me know if I can help you with anything."

Alright. Now stop.

I am new at this secret shopper thing, but having read countless posts from Jonnie's secret shopper visits, and having been coached by him just a few minutes earlier, I knew that this wasn't going well. Jonnie, if he were writing this would explain in great detail how salesmen shouldn't use open-ended questions when dealing with customers. They generally lead to nowhere, and it seemed that nowhere was exactly where this was leading. This particular sales person wasn't making my first visit to a car lot enjoyable, nor was he easing my tensions. I was already weary of these guys... Now I felt even more flustered, not because this guy was hitting me from all sides with high pressure, but because he was doing just the opposite and not engaging me at all. There was no friendly hand shake, no smile, not even an indication that he cared about me being there one bit. I was miffed that he hadn't approached me and I had to retreat back to him. Suddenly I saw the value of customer service from a buyer's standpoint. This guy didn't like me, and I certainly was not about to buy a car from him.

Nonetheless, I had a job to do so I answered back even though he didn't actually ask me anything.

"I am actually looking for something pre-owned... Am I in the right area?"

Again, Mr. Not-engaging lived up to his name.

"Over there" he pointed. There was a lot adjacent to the one we were standing in just below us down a few stairs. "That's our used car lot... Somebody will be happy to help you out over there. I only deal with the new cars, but there is somebody down there who can help you out."

"Um thanks, Barney." I replied, feeling like I just got chased off of private property.

My secret shopping debut was not starting out too well... At least for this sales lot. Not actually dressed like Napoleon, I was wearing a pair of casual shorts and a white t-shirt. I actually began to wonder if I had under dressed for the assignment, and even wondered if I should have chosen my other car to drive onto the lot. But that was a ridiculous notion. Barney did not know what my motives were, and he never took the time to find out.. His interaction with me was short, unprofessional and belittling. It certainly wasn't something one would expect from somebody who makes his living based off of commission from selling automobiles. I drove onto the lot in a dinosaur, and was dressed as though I was just driving by and thought I'd take a look at what was available. I should have been the perfect customer in his eyes... Not somebody to chase away.

I walked down the stairs onto the lot with the pre-owned cars. Another building occupied space on the lot, and hundreds of pre-owned cars were lined up in rows across the front of it. I was hoping my experience would gain a little momentum and get a little better.

It didn't.

Once again I found myself walking aimlessly around looking for an automobile that seemed to fit my style. I eyed the prices on the windshields more than I eyed the cars themselves, looking for something a bit more realistic towards my price range which I decided was $15-20,000. It didn't take me long to find a car or two in that range, and it didn't take long to be approached by another salesperson. And once again I was approached with an open ended question.

"Can I help you find something?"

I turned around to find myself face to face with a different salesman.

"Hi," I said, extending my hand. I told him my name and that I was interested in looking at pre-owned cars.

He introduced himself as Bill, but instead of engaging me at this point, walking with me and showing me the cars around his lot, he basically turned me loose.

"This entire lot is pre-owned," he said pointing around the lot we were standing in. "There are more used cars in the back too... Let me know if you have any questions!"

I was shocked. Where was the high pressure that I was dreading as part of this assignment? The dealership was not busy at this point; in fact besides Bob and myself, there was nobody else on the lot. It was hot outside... Miserably hot I am sure for somebody wearing a tie, but it wasn't unbearable. If we were standing in a rainstorm then it might have made sense to turn me loose (not acceptable, but sensible), but not on this day. I stood there in utter disbelief as Bill turned away and went back into the building. Feeling like I had just arrived at this place and hadn't given it a fair chance, I decided to wander to the back of the building to look around. I had been blown off twice now in about 10  minutes, but I wasn't about to leave yet.

The rows of automobiles on the back lot seemed endless. As I walked amongst the cars I wondered how I could ever find one that suited me and my needs all by myself. There were way so many options available. It would have been nice if somebody had come with me to ask me questions about my specific requirements and wants, to help me narrow my choices down a bit. It would have been a nice touch to have somebody walk with me, to engage me... to make me feel like a wanted customer, not an outcast in a strange world. It would have been nice for somebody to address me by name... To make my valuable time spent there worthwhile. It would have been nice to have a pleasant experience during my very first secret shopper expedition... Unfortunately, it wasn't in the cards on this beautiful day.

After about 15 minutes of walking between the rows of cars I decided I had spent enough time at the back of the lot and started the long walk back to my little Geo Metro. It didn't feel much like a steed at this point, just a lowly old car that had already lived through it's glory days. It didn't have the glossy finish that the cars around it had, and it didn't have a bright yellow numbers across it's windshield. Despite it's maintenance upkeep, I had a sinking feeling that the old car was on it's last legs and could only be squeezed for a few more miles. I might be in the market for a new car soon, I thought. And I probably won't be coming here when that time comes.

I thought of a quote I read from life coach Tee Crane: Stand in your power - speak your truth clearly and beautifully - make a massive contribution to the higher purpose. When we live in truth with integrity - we naturally influence our environment and everything in it. Live deeply and completely - with power and purpose as your island. you ARE the power and presence of the universe - this is YOUR creation.

We live in truth with integrity-we naturally influence our environment and everything in it... That line repeated itself over and over in my head as I walked back to my car.

As I neared the stairway that led to the parking lot where my car was I encountered a man who, judging by the uniform he was wearing, worked in the service department.

"Have you been helped?" He said to me cheerfully.

"Well, I was talking to Bill," I said, "But I..."

"Oh Bill..." said the serviceman, interrupting me. "It's your lucky day... He's our best guy!"

"Wow..." I replied, getting into my car.

As I drove away, in a sick twist of ironic fate I had to pass a sign to get out of the lot. In big cheerful letters it thanked me for my business.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

jesus, this text color is hideous!