U.K.-based Auto Trader has revealed the findings of its annual ‘mystery shopping’ exercise, which it says shows what makes some dealers stand out from the crowd.

In a webinar, Auto Trader partnerships director Marc Thornborough said that a friendly approach, customer qualification and making the transaction easier for the customer were key.

This is the 14th year that Auto Trader, in partnership with Performance in People, has contacted the top 1,000 dealerships via anonymous customer approaches. The process involves three stages: email evaluation, phone call scrutiny and a digital audit assessing a dealership’s online presence, reviews and transactions.

Dealers were assessed using 15 different metrics, including pricing, reviews and speed of sale. Just six retailers scored five stars (the top rating). Overall, performance improved on the previous year, when there was a clear decline post-lockdown, as the market was particularly buoyant in the wake of Covid-19.

“We didn’t really need to try too hard to sell those cars,” said Thornborough. “We saw that reflected in the mystery shopping score. which last year was particularly poor.”

But Auto Trader said it still found room for improvement. Almost 20% of retailers failed to respond to initial email leads, while 60% had spelling or grammatical errors in vehicle adverts, which could impact buyer trust.

Around 500 retailers moved onto the phone call stage, where there was a minor improvement of just 0.3% on last year’s scores. Customer qualification scored lowest, which Auto Trader said could be related to issues in data capture and lead handling in dealerships dealing with high volumes.

The final stage, featuring 150 retailers, showed a 2% improvement in performance, but 57% of retailers did not provide walk-around videos requested by consumers. Instead, some sent general videos about the dealership, rather than about the car itself. Smaller retailers performed best in this regard, likely because they hold less stock and have more time to market individual cars.

Thornborough suggested dealers should read back through customer reviews to find the common denominator — a thread that links all car buyers to illustrate what they value when they transact with a specific dealer.

Yasmin Sidat, senior product lead at Auto Trader, said the study found that 94% of car buyers wanted to see reviews from the previous 12 months, while 72% wanted reviews from the previous three months.

This has led Auto Trader to change how star ratings are compiled; it now bases them on a rolling 12-month average, rather than an all-time average.

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