2011 Mercedes-Benz CL-ClassEnlarge Photo
UPDATED: Pied Piper's Fran O'Hagan sent in some additional comments about this study. See below.
If you've ever had the pleasure of working in retail or the service industry, you already know how much fun secret shoppers can be. (For the rest of you: not very.) Over the past four years, the folks at America's auto dealerships gotten in on the party, too, thanks to Pied Piper Management's annual customer experience study. Results from the 2010 survey have just been released, and while some of the findings were forgone conclusions, there are a few surprises on the list.
Between July 2009 and June 2010, Pied Piper sent 3,658 secret shoppers to new car dealerships across the country. Those shoppers -- who ranged in age from 21 to 65 -- rated each dealership on 50 different criteria, like:
Pied Piper then compiled those responses and ranked each brand according to how well its dealers performed.
In the "not surprising" category: luxury brands fared much better than their non-luxury rivals in overall customer experience. Sitting pretty at the top: Mercedes-Benz, followed closely by Lexus, then Land Rover. Acura and Jaguar tied for fourth, and Audi, Cadillac, and Lincoln tied for fifth. It only stands to reason that luxury brands would fare best, since pampering is one of the things that luxury automakers often tout when they talk about "the showroom experience".
In "surprising" territory, we luxury brands BMW, Infiniti, and Volvo hovering just above the industry average, caught in a nine-way tie with Chevrolet, Ford, Honda, Mazda, Toyota, and Volkswagen.
Also surprising: Porsche came in with a Gentleman's C, level with the industry average, alongside current "It" brands Hyundai and Kia. The former is more of a mystery than the latter, since Hyundai and Kia don't sit in luxury territory -- though with the impending arrival of the Equus sedan, Hyundai should probably consider upping its game. That said, both Hyundai and Kia were up from last year, while Porsche's spot on the ladder remained flat.
And then, there are some findings that confuse us. For example, Pied Piper was critical of the fact that fewer dealerships are offering take-home brochures to shoppers: the figure now sits at 57% of all outlets, down from 62% in 2007. Fran O'Hagan, Pied Piper's CEO, is "absolutely certain that paper brochures help sell cars" -- and that might be true for certain demographics. Still, it seems a little presumptuous to hand out demerits for a lack of brochures when information delivery is heading in the digital direction. In other words, not having brochures might negatively impact the customer experience for some buyers, but for others -- probably younger ones -- it's far less of a concern.
UPDATE: O'Hagan wrote to us with some useful clarifications -- particularly with regard to the brochure issue. The focus of the study, according to Hagan, is not to determine whether customers had a pleasant experience in the showroom. Rather, the study is meant to determine whether salespeople are doing things that are likely to result in a sale. So basically, it's more useful as an assessment tool for dealers than as a guide for customers. Hagan explains:
David Ogilvy’s famous statement that “long copy sells,” remains true today. His point was that if a customer is willing to keep gathering information to learn more about a product, then the moment the customer runs out of information to consume, there’s no more selling going on. Similarly, a customer who walks out the door of a dealership holding a brochure in his or her hand has something to keep selling later on when the customer is sitting on their couch. In contrast, there’s no selling going on after a customer leaves the dealership holding nothing in their hand....
A favorite quote of mine (no, not another Ogilvy one) is when Henry Ford said, “If I had asked my customers what they wanted they would have asked for a faster horse.” That quote is SO true when it comes to car shoppers and car dealerships. Many of the most important salesperson behaviors — most likely to turn car shoppers into car buyers — just aren’t very important to car shoppers.
Hagan was also kind enough to send over a full chart for the 2010 survey. Behold:
2010 Pied Piper Management customer experience studyEnlarge Photo