Undercover Report: Tips to Close the Sales Gap From a Secret Shopper

Dec. 3, 2021

On Feb. 7, 2010, the show “Undercover Boss” aired on CBS. Just in case you’ve never watched an episode, the premise was simple: some executives — or owners — don’t know what is really happening within their companies. Therefore, they disguise themselves and go undercover as entry-level employees to work with frontline employees and find out what is really going on in their businesses.

They usually spend one week undercover working in various areas of the company’s operation and being exposed to a series of predicaments, with sometimes amusing results — as well as getting to know the personal and professional challenges of the employees they work with each day.

The show was so successful that CBS even premiered a “celebrity edition” in 2018. And in May 2021, the series was renewed for an eleventh season.

Even though the producers of the program guaranteed that the brands of those companies featured on the show would not be harmed, exposure usually comes at a cost. The “undercover bosses” must sometimes spend money to fix the wrong and/or poor service provided by their companies.

In a sense, this is what happens during a “secret shopper” exercise, which my company offers to clients.

We serve as those “undercover bosses,” but it all happens quickly during what I call the “final four feet” of the tire buying experience. Even though I could get others to do face-to-face “mystery shopping” for me, I enjoy getting out and shopping tire stores myself.

And even though I prefer working with tire dealerships, a few years ago I met with a hospital CEO who asked me to evaluate the greeting process at four of his largest hospitals.

I spent several days going to these hospitals — listening, watching, taking a few photos/videos and even speaking with family members of patients in numerous waiting rooms.

When the day came to present my findings, the CEO was shocked to find that we had photo evidence of major opportunities missed during the patient check-in process, as well as photos that proved what he thought was happening was not happening.

I remember him asking me to move the yellow smiley face stickers off of two employees standing at the front desk at one of his locations.

He realized that these two employees would never have interfered with the patient greeting process at the front desk if he had been walking through the hospital’s lobby.

With our findings, we proved that the hospital had a gap to fill. (More about how to fill gaps later.)

A gap exists every time an owner or manager “thinks” something is happening the way they want it to happen — only to find it’s not happening, whether through a bad customer review or some other form of feedback.

When working with a tire company on a recent “secret shopper” project, I was challenged to improve the final four feet of the buying experience at several of its retail stores.

I was given the task to shop a variety of different retail businesses, as well as tire stores.

The end goal of such a project is to always make sure that each customer feels “served” and never “sold.”

This always involves making each customer experience is meaningful, memorable and measurable. But be forewarned — filling gaps is not easy and usually requires extensive training and/or adjusting your hiring procedures.

That being said, the return on investment cannot be ignored.

Companies like Chick-fil-A and Publix Super Markets have proven that investing in a robust customer experience process positively impacts virtually every key performance indicator. And that includes what happens at the sales counter. Some tire store owners and executives think that due to everyone in the auto repair/tire business being ultraprofitable, there is no need to improve upon the customer experience.

But statistics have shown that employees who are given the training to develop a standardized customer experience will enjoy greater job satisfaction and will usually stay longer, therefore reducing turnover.

This can be particularly beneficial in today’s challenging labor market.

Closing the gap

Now for the bombshell. As you read this article, you might think that your store is firing on all cylinders.

However, I guarantee — and I do not use that word often — that some tire store chains lack a repeatable process that is being executed with every single customer — every single time — in terms of engaging the customer in a meaningful, memorable and measurable way.

That’s a bold statement, to be sure. But please read on.

I recently went on a headhunting expedition in the Atlanta, Ga., metro market searching for people to hire as general service technicians and ASE-certified technicians, as well as sales people, store managers and assistant store managers.

I personally shopped around 70 stores and not one single outlet had a what I would call a “sales-maker” behind its front counter. Not one.

I would wager that if I called the executives of these larger stores — as well as the owners of their smaller stores — many would deny that our findings were true.

Why would anyone deny that the gap between what they think is happening and what is actually happening is the case?

Common causes of not realizing you have a gap are:

  • Employees who know when they are being shopped and will play along, with many knowing when the boss will actually visit — in other words, faking it;
  • Too many people who are consumed with their own agendas and self-interest, and;
  • Others who do not want to undertake the heavy lifting that is needed to turn the ship around and invest in their employees to improve the customer experience.

Many of the sales people we encountered during our mystery shopping exercise had virtually no process to qualify the customer and/or secure a tire sale. 

Not one person asked me to “buy” anything from them.

Only a handful — and I’m being generous — greeted me when I came into their stores. At some stores, there was no greeting at all.

I went into several stores and used the restroom, walked around the store and even sat down and talked with a few customers. Then I walked out the door with not one single employee speaking to me.

I think most would agree that this is a huge gap in what a store owner or manager might think is happening and what should be happening to make people want to buy, as well as tell others about their positive customer experience.

I also observed that many sales people offered the lowest-priced tire option and did not provide any other options — other than what they wanted to sell.

Many made me feel like they did not care if we bought from them or left them alone. Some seemed to be more interested in checking their cell phones.

Not one asked me for my name or my contact information or even when customers wanted their tires to be installed.

Many had business cards displayed, but never offered even one of their cards.

Unfortunately, not a single person made me feel important enough to return, let alone tell someone else to come and buy tires at their store. So how do we fix this?

Quick fixes

Ask a neighbor, friend, a co-worker and/or anyone who has never been to your store to come in and shop when you are not there. This is very important.

If you are there, it will always cloud the results and give you an untrue picture of what is happening.

I would also recommend calling the store. We listen to a lot of phone calls every day and have found almost the same results. Here’s what we recommend:

  1. Know your gaps first;
  2. Ask for the customer’s name and use it a lot;
  3. Smile — almost nobody smiles these days — and if you wear a mask due to COVID-19, smile still. People will be able to recognize this, even if your face is hidden behind a mask;
  4. Deploy a robust, standardized customer experience process that is memorable, meaningful and measurable. If you don’t have a process, develop one;
  5. Ask for a commitment that makes the customer feel “served” and never “sold.” 
  6. Have fun and make sure your customers do the same, and;
  7. Don’t whitewash any customer service problem that is happening at your store. Make sure you involve your team on how, where, when and why to make it happen with every customer, every time. And consider hiring a professional third party to assist in identifying and closing gaps.

Other opportunities for improvement include being precise with words and phrases and eliminating verbal tics when your salespeople engage with customers.

During our secret shopper exercises we discovered that many counter people used phrases like “We can’t get you in” and “We don’t have them in stock” and the qualifier “Well, to be honest with you.”

The Book of Proverbs says that “Death and life are in the power of the tongue,” as well as “a word spoken at the right time is like fruit of gold set in silver.”

Not being aware of the power of words has lost more sales and turned off more customers than most tire store owners and managers will ever admit. We see it and hear it every time we shop in person, as well as listen to phone calls.

The sooner you can identify and fill your customer experience gaps, the sooner you can take your business to new heights of service and profitability. I encourage you to take action now. 

Questions to always ask — and yes, there are more

Your salespeople should always ask the following questions, while addressing customers by their names, according to Mike Townsend.

  1. “Would you like for me to set up an appointment?”
  2. “How can we earn your business?” (The answer to this question “is very seldom” providing “the lowest price,” says Townsend.)
  3. “When do you need your new tires?”
  4. “What time would you like to come in to have us install those tires for you?”

If interested in more questions to ask customers, email Townsend at [email protected].

Four good reasons to implement a standardized customer experience process

In MTD’s May 2021 Tire Dealer Survival Guide, Mike Townsend provided four compelling reasons why implementing a robust, standardized customer experience will boost your business. Here they are:

  1. Your margins will increase. “Publix Super Markets, one of the most successful supermarket chains in the country, has a defined, repeatable customer experience process and its profit margin is almost double of that of its competitor, Kroger,” wrote Townsend. “Your margins will be higher if you implement a defined, repeatable customer experience process, as well. One reason is that you will have less customer turnover and less employee turnover. And you will keep your employees longer because they will be happier now that they have been equipped to create the best buying experience for your customers. Most businesses fail to deliver a superior customer experience because their employees are unhappy or are unwilling to adopt the processes that are needed to create an amazing experience, based on each customer’s needs.”
  2. You will create brand ambassadors. Townsend wrote that this is different than traditional word-of-mouth marketing. “Brand ambassadors are what have helped brands like Chik-fil-A, Apple and Disney achieve their market dominance. And yes — each company listed above has a repeatable customer experience process.”
  3. Your business will be worth more with a customer experience process in place. “If in doubt, check out the stock performance of those companies that have a superior customer experience process. A customer experience process also will help ensure the sustainability of your business long after you have retired or moved on to another project.”
  4. Trust from all customers will increase. “When customers perceive that you are serving them through a robust customer experience process, endorphins release that cause them to feel how much you really care about them and how you keep them safe on the road,” he wrote. “This has been proven numerous times. We all know that when we trust the people we buy from, everybody wins.”

Townsend also wrote that implementation of a customer experience process “can be difficult because it requires a willingness to change. Change is difficult for some people because the other side of that coin is tension. Most of my clients are glad they endured the tension of change in order to implement a superior customer experience process.”

Mike Townsend is the owner of Townsend Strategies, a sales coaching and leadership coaching business. He has 30 years of sales experience. As a Six Sigma black belt and professional trainer, Townsend says he “has witnessed every scenario and heard every objection in the retail tire environment.” For more information, email Townsend at [email protected].

About the Author

Mike Townsend

Mike Townsend is the owner of Townsend Strategies, a sales and leadership training and marketing company that advises independent tire dealerships. To contact Townsend, email him at [email protected].