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Auto Trader reveals 'secret sauce' in latest mystery shopper exercise


The ‘secret sauce’ of the top 1,000 dealerships that makes then stand out from competitors is their friendly approach and rigorous efforts to make the transaction easy for the customer, according to Auto Trader’s annual mystery shopping exercise.

In a webinar explaining forthcoming changes to the market testing initiative, Marc Thornborough, partnerships director at Auto Trader, explained that the online marketplace had for the 14th year teamed up with Performance in People to subject the dealership community to a series of anonymous customer approaches. The process involves three stages: email evaluation, phone call scrutiny, and a final digital audit examining online presence, reviews, and transaction comfort.

More than 1,000 retailers were assessed on 15 different metrics such as speed of sale, pricing, and reviews. Although only six retailers achieved the maximum score of five stars, Thornborough reported that there had been an overall improvement compared to the previous year’s marked decline post-lockdown.

“I think that because of the buoyancy of the market after lockdown and COVID where we were looking at record speed of sales and prices increasing month after month,” said Thornborough. “We didn’t really need to try too hard to sell those cars. We saw that reflected in the mystery shopping score. which last year was particularly poor. To have any improvement on that, even slightly, is an improvement but I would suggest there is room where we can improve.”

Notably, 20% of retailers failed to respond to an initial email lead, a crucial concern given the quality of leads from platforms like Auto Trader.

“I would ask, are we letting some of these inquiries slip through our fingers? Don’t forget how long a car buyer is on these platforms such as the Auto Trader marketplace. The quality of an email lead sent from Auto Trader means that they are an in-market car buyer so let’s not forget to respond to all those emails,” he cautioned.

Around 500 retailers progressed on to the phone call stage where results showed a minimal 0.3% improvement, although larger retailers experienced a drop in performance, likely due to increased volume and time constraints. Customer qualification also scored lowest, indicating issues in data capture and lead handling in those dealership managing high levels of volume.

“That means that when we look at data capture of that telephone call,” he said, “we’re forgetting to get the contact details to proceed with that next step. And next step again, was one of the areas where we fell down in terms of lead handling so the customer was left going ‘Well, I don’t know what to expect now that I’ve inquired about that vehicle’.

The final stage, involving 150 retailers, revealed a 2% improvement in performance, although 57 retailers failed to provide requested walk-around videos with some only sending a general video about the dealership rather than the car.

Thornborough said the smallest retailers scored the highest here due likely to the fact that they had less stock and therefore more time to market their cars.

However, a notable 60% of the top 1,000 retailers had included spelling and grammar mistakes in vehicle advert descriptions, raising concerns about a loss of buyer trust.

Delving into customer reviews, the top-performing retailers excelled in customer qualification and overall retail scores. Friendliness and professionalism emerged as common denominators in positive reviews, emphasising the importance of an easy and pleasant transaction experience.

“What was the secret sauce for these top 1,000 customers that made them so special?” Thornborough went on to say. “One of the areas that you can do that you can find out yourself is by reading and going back through your customer reviews to try and find a common denominator. What is the thread that links these car buyers? What do they value so much when they transact with me as a vehicle retailer?”

“I went through some of the reviews to find out what were those common denominators, what was special, and one word kept coming out time and time again. It was friendly. It was professional. All those kinds of warm, emotional things that you expect as a basic from someone that you’re buying from.”

Notably, another key factor was being perceived as ‘easy to deal with’, through ensuring an effortless transaction as well as being friendly, and professional. “Being easy to deal with is what people want. They want ease of transaction. They don’t want to be sat there duplicating time, duplicating effort. They want to do as much as that journey as possible online, and then come to your showroom.”

Explaining a key change to future mystery shopper exercises, Yasmin Sidat, senior product lead at Auto Trader, said the online platform had found that 94% of car buyers want to see reviews from the last 12 months with 72% of consumers wanting to view reviews from the last three months.

“That really told us that that recent reviews are important,” she said, announcing that star ratings will now be based on a rolling 12-month average. “At the moment, it’s the all-time average of your reviews but now we’re making that to a rolling 12 months. In terms of its impact, consumers will really get to see more around recency and how active you are at this moment in time which is hard to get across without more recent reviews. It’s also a massive plus point vin terms of negative reviews not sticking around that long.”

Kerry Leighton-Bailey, chief product & marketing officer at Auto Trader’s customer review partner Feefo, added that negative reviews should not necessarily be feared: “If you have a five star profile that is fantastic, of course and they are meaningful, but actually consumers are not silly and they understand that not every interaction with a brand is going to be perfect. It’s actually more meaningful and more powerful to have a mix which shows an authentic experience for consumers. What that gives you as a retailer is the chance to do is demonstrate how you might deal with a negative review.

“So if you are responding to that review publicly, you’re apologising, if that is what is required, and you’re offering a solution that is actually giving you the chance to turn a disgruntled customer into possibly an advocate for your brand. You’re also demonstrating to other consumers that actually you take customer service very seriously and you’re responding in a way that is going to be meaningful. If you think about being professional and authentic in your response, that actually carries more weight than just having a five star review.”



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