What we learned from mystery shopping KBB, CarGurus and your dealership

I’ve often heard top process people say something like “The first step to process improvement is understanding what needs to be improved.” Knowing, they say, is half the battle.

We mystery shop hundreds of dealers each year and like to think we learn something new with each shop. Certainly, the shop reports can be eye-opening for the General Managers and Dealer Principals, but we sometimes uncover activity or behavior that even we’ve never seen before. automotive mystery shopping

Whether we’re conducting a 30-day or a 7-day shop for a client, we read every text message and email, and listen to every voicemail. It’s because of this thoroughness that we reveal the sometimes dealer-unfriendly activities that our clients had no idea were occurring.

Moreover, none of these actions were recorded in their respective CRM tools – this means these dealers would likely never have learned they were happening. It’s impossible, of course, to correct negative behavior of which you have no knowledge.

Three Shops; Three Interesting Discoveries

Three of our recent shops were especially informative – and potentially costly for the dealers involved. And, while what we learned could probably fill more than a dozen blog posts, I wanted to share just our three most interesting learnings:

What We Learned by Shopping KBB’s Instant Cash Offer

One of our regular clients wanted us to shop them through Kelley Blue Book’s Instant Cash Offer on KBB.com, because he wanted to see this relatively new service from his customers’ viewpoint. While we found nothing nefarious with this shop, there was still plenty for dealers who partner with KBB on their Instant Cash Offer to understand, specifically:

The KBB Instant Cash Offer Certificate

The first thing that stands out about this certificate is that it takes four pages to print. That’s not only a lot of paper, it seems it’s filled with information that our client wasn’t happy about:

  1. Because the owner is the main contact for KBB, they print his name on the certificate and inform the prospect to ask for him. This isn’t a good experience for either the consumer or the dealership, since in this case the dealer splits his time between stores and he might take hours to return a call.
  2. Although the sedan for which we received the instant cash offer was worth less than $8,000, the certificate we received indicated that the dealership felt we would be interested in a truck that was priced above $70,000!
  3. Despite using the dealer’s actual ZIP code for the prospect’s location, the certificate showed the consumer two of the dealer’s competitors as additional Buying Centers (both more than 50 miles from the prospect).
  4. The certificate also informed the consumer about nearby Trade-In Centers (all competitors of the dealership paying for this lead). These competitive listings included the verbiage “Rather trade in your car? Take a look at these Participating Dealers. They can also buy your car for cash.” (So are these Trade-In Centers or are they additional Buying Centers; since the last line indicates they will also buy the car for cash?)

The KBB Auto-Response

The Auto-Response was actually pretty good, though it did include the following message:

No appointment is needed — go whenever it’s convenient for you before the offer expires. In the meantime, someone from the dealership will probably contact you to see if you have questions.

While I’m sure this was written with the best intentions, it sets up a less than desirable experience for the prospect and the dealership. Both parties will be better served if the prospect speaks with the dealership in advance and an appointment is set and kept. The dealer, especially, would be better served with a message like this:

Don’t wait, your offer expires soon! While no appointment is needed, we recommend you call the dealership before arrival so that you can enjoy the fastest service possible.

The Next 3 KBB Emails

It’s possible KBB sends more than four total emails to Instant Cash Offer prospects, but this was a 7-day shop, so we only saw four (the Auto-Response and three others).  For our dealer, the three emails that followed the Auto-Response (on Days 2, 3 & 4 of the process) not only created the possibility that our prospect might feel like they’re being spammed (receiving KBB’s emails plus the dealer’s), but they were not what you would consider “dealer-friendly” since none of the three emails included any information about the dealership.

What We Learned by Shopping CarGurus

Right from the first email, it became clear to my dealer-client that CarGurus’ overriding goal was to generate more leads, not necessarily help their paying dealers to sell more cars.

The 1st CarGurus Email

Besides a prominent blue button encouraging the consumer to view “Similar Cars” (which takes you to a search results page showing vehicles at competing dealerships), the very first email from CarGurus also encourages the customer to sell their car online by writing “Get more by selling it yourself — it’s free on CarGurus.”

Gosh, if only dealers wanted trade vehicles…

The Day 6 CarGurus Email

On the sixth day of the mystery shop, CarGurus no longer requires your prospect to actually click to see competitors’ offering; they include them in the actual body of the email. While I’m sure this drives additional leads for other CarGurus’ dealers, my dealer-client had no idea this direct marketing to his prospect was happening behind his back.

The CarGurus Dealer Survey Email

Although this was a 7-Day Shop, my dealer-client wanted to see every email from CarGurus to the prospect, so we also evaluated their Day 8 Survey Email. On the surface, a survey email seems innocuous enough and it will certainly drive consumers back into CarGurus.com; but for many dealers, asking someone who didn’t buy from them to review them online is dangerous.

Think about it: consumer submits a lead on a vehicle they love through a third party. They learn from the dealer that their dream vehicle was just sold, but that the dealer has a very similar unit for sale. Immediately, they assume the dealer is participating in some old-school bait-and-switch tactics; so they move on.

A week later the third party asks this consumer to review the dealer. Will their review be positive or negative?

If you’re closing 10% of your CarGurus leads, this means 9X more non-buyers will be asked to survey you versus those who bought. How would your dealership appear to prospects if your online reviews were 9:1 non-buyers?

What We Learned by Shopping Your Team

Well, the real fun of the Mystery Shop is what we discover about your team, right?

One of the most entertaining messages I’ve ever read during a mystery shop came last month via a text message sent by a BDC agent for a long-time client. Before I share the text with you, it’s important to stress that we never opted-in to receive SMS messages for this shop. This means every text sent on behalf of this dealership to this prospect carried a potential $1,500 penalty.

During the course of this shop, the BDC agent sent four unauthorized messages from his personal mobile phone. That’s $6,000 in potential liability for the dealership for just a single prospect! (How many prospect phone numbers do you receive in a given month?)

By discovering the unauthorized texting, we were able to advise this client on the ins and outs of the TCPA; and help him create a process for texting that fell within the federal guidelines. But… that’s just the official stuff we learned from this shop, the best part was the content from one of the offending texts we received. It read:

“If we play pathfinder, Will needs to play a bard with the blistering invective spell so that he can literally burn people with his sick rhymes.”


Let’s be clear, even though I have no idea what language this is, it still cracks me up every single time I read it out loud!

Probably not the case for the dealer…

Of course, the first step to process improvement is understanding what needs to be improved. As painful as the truth can be, knowing is half the battle.

Good selling!