On-the-Point

Undercover Stealth Car Guy

The Alpha Dawg dons the guise of an average American consumer to buy a new vehicle.

September 1, 2015

Sometimes you can be so close to something that you don’t really see it clearly. Debbie and I bought a brand-new vehicle this weekend, and the story of how it went down is worth retelling. This article is my analysis of what motivated me, what was important to me and my thought process throughout the decision. For the first time in many years, I bought my new car like the average consumer would, not as Jim Ziegler calling the dealer directly and using my name to get it done.

Setting the Stage

This was one of those spur-of-the-moment impulse decisions so many people make when the mood is right. Oh, I was going to buy a new car anyway. I had been planning on maybe September or October, but events and emotions caused a shift in plans. I have always taught that people buy emotionally and that logic and analysis is secondary. I am no different.

It all started when we drove down to the Florida Panhandle to look at the possibility of buying a condo in Destin. It’s been five years since we visited, and it’s always been sort of a pipe dream to have a condo there. But the wonderful city we remembered has changed beyond recognition. It now features bumper-to-bumper traffic, crawling at 30 miles an hour almost six months of the year and, in our opinion, the overcommercialization has gotten totally out of control. We canceled our vacation after one day.

We drove home disappointed and resolved to take a complete change of direction. That’s when it hit me that what I really needed was to buy a new car. I’d been planning on getting the redesigned Lincoln MKX, which is still about a month away from the showrooms. Researching the car, however, I discovered that, for some reason, even though the MKZ was getting the new bells and whistles, the MKX was not getting the upgraded technology package until 2017. So the MKX was out and there was no sense putting it off.

This is not unusual. We’ve all seen it a hundred times: People who think they are several months out just wake up one day and decide to go buy a car before breakfast.

Since 1986, I’ve owned or leased at least nine or 10 — or maybe 11? — Lincoln Town Cars and Mark VIIIs, an Eddie Bauer Explorer, two Eddie Bauer Expeditions, several Cadillac Escalades, a bunch of Corvettes and a Buick Enclave. I have always owned domestic cars because I do business with these manufacturers. I was really hoping to buy a Lincoln this time, but the product lineup didn’t offer an option that fit my needs. In all fairness, Cadillac doesn’t have anything in that niche either. That’s why I was driving a Buick Enclave in the first place. And it was an exceptional vehicle, but I wanted a change.

Another factor in my decision was that I genuinely like the people running Ford Motor Co. right now. I consider Mark Fields, Mark LeNeve and Jim Farley to be personal friends and highly competent managers. Since Alan Mulally completely changed the culture, Ford might be one of the more dealer-friendly manufacturers in the industry. Notice I didn’t say they were perfect, but I remember the abuses dealers suffered under the Jacques Nasser Inquisition and the Blue Oval Atrocities. Besides, I’ve done some work recently with Ford Direct, speaking at some of their regional dealer meetings, so personal loyalty was a factor as well.

After much deliberation, the author settled on the 2016 Ford Explorer Limited and began the process of finding a dealer.
After much deliberation, the author settled on the 2016 Ford Explorer Limited and began the process of finding a dealer.

A New Leaf

Trading cars every year or, sometimes, even twice a year was always more about image than practicality. In the past, I’ve bought cars to show off, to create an image and make a statement. It’s a game I am now stepping away from. I’m at the age where it’s not about being able to afford anything I want but exactly what I want. I have nothing to prove to anybody. If you squint your eyes, you can imagine I’m Matthew McConaughey, cruising down the highway just because I like my car. (If it’s not working, squint a little harder.)

I’m sure by now you’re probably wondering what I bought. Don’t go overboard. I’ll give you hint: It’s neither a Fiat 500 nor a Prius nor a Scion. Don’t be ridiculous! Could you imagine John Wayne driving a Scion? Here at Casa de Alpha Dawg, we don’t do wimpy.

I bought a 2016 Ford Explorer Limited, an extremely beautiful SUV. The features and the technology are incredible. I spent the weekend driving and playing with it, and, believe it or not, hours of watching videos on how to operate my new car. Bear in mind, I went for every conceivable option, and this wagon is loaded with technology.

“Wait a damn minute, here, Ziegler!” you might say. “In your most recent speeches and articles, blogs and other assorted rants, you’ve attacked manufacturers for putting too much technology in the cars, and now you’re bragging about your high-tech ride!”

Fair enough, dear reader. The main complaint I’ve had with cars overloaded with technology has been twofold: First, nobody could actually operate some of that stuff. You needed an advanced degree in engineering just to change the radio station in a new BMW. And the second and most disturbing problem has always been that the technology caused a lot of distracted driving. I think Ford (and other manufacturers) have been addressing both of these concerns. The technology is complex, but the majority of what the car can do is operated by a wide range of voice commands. This greatly reduces looking away from the road, and that is my main concern.

More importantly, I had rented an Explorer recently but had not considered buying one since I was focused on Lincoln. Then I saw that Ford had done an incredible facelift on the 2016 and added the modern SYNC technology upgrade. That might not appeal to every buyer, but to me, the technology is intriguing and appealing. My choice made, it was time to find a dealer.

Savvy customers use a host of maneuvers to keep sales personnel from tracking their online behavior, including using “Stealth Shopping Mode” and clearing cookies after visiting dealer websites. 
Savvy customers use a host of maneuvers to keep sales personnel from tracking their online behavior, including using “Stealth Shopping Mode” and clearing cookies after visiting dealer websites. 

Breaking Down the Decision

Now, let’s look at the process I went through to buy the Explorer and how several dealers responded. I did not disclose who I was until I picked my dealer. Nobody else knew it was me they were corresponding with, and I was careful to erase tracking cookies every time I got off a dealer’s website. Admittedly, I used a lot of the tactics we know consumers use online.

First, I created a very generic and nondescript email address. I didn’t use Donald Duck or Mickey Mouse, but I did remain anonymous. I didn’t want to jerk around hardworking sales and BDC people, but I did want to see the level of professionalism and training they had. I also wanted to clock their response times and gauge the effectiveness of their processes.

Next, I got one of the most common things any dealership or manufacturer faces in the sale of a car: spouse objection. Debbie had two big negatives in her mind and she wasn’t going down without a fight. First of all, she loved the Enclave — I mean really loved it. It was a beautiful car with every option and luxury, and she didn’t want to part with it. It only had 29,000 miles, it was paid for, and it was still in showroom condition.

Her second objection was the brand. You have to understand, my bride is an uptown girl who married a (mostly) reformed West Jacksonville redneck. She was OK with the Lincoln and Cadillac nameplates, and she never said a word about BMW, Lexus or Mercedes-Benz, but the sight of the Ford badge just rubbed her the wrong way. This was going to take some salesmanship on my part. She and I are a team and I would not have bought the car if she wasn’t onboard.

I had already stayed up late the night before to get all the information I would need. The top-of-the-line Explorer is the Platinum edition, but it seemed as if nobody had one and I couldn’t see the value over the Limited. I spent hours visiting websites, including the OEM site as well as four different dealerships. Of the dealerships, three of them were family-owned, and the other was a Van Tuyl location.

Truthfully, I could have picked up a phone, but this time I wanted to go anonymous to see the true experience. Vendors and lead generators keep telling us how bad dealers’ processes are. I wanted to experience this “abuse” for myself.

The Explorers range anywhere from the low $30,000s to the mid $50,000s, depending on the model and equipment. Dealers were loaded with 2015 inventory at some really steep discounts and rebates, but the 2016s were in limited supply. Like most of your customers today, I wasn’t going to wait for a locate-unit or factory-order. I wanted the car now! That’s where manufacturers just don’t get it. The consumer wants instant gratification and they’re not going to wait.

Color-wise, once I paired the Ruby Red exterior with the Light Stone (whatever happened to “beige”?) interior, I knew that was the winner. Narrowing it down, there were four units at the various dealerships I was shopping that met all the ­requirements.

I set my computer to “Stealth Shopping” mode so the CRMs wouldn’t be able to track me. At the first dealership, I used their chat feature. They were right on top of it and readily supplied the information I needed and, righteously so, kept hammering me for my name and for a phone call. I told them I’d rather wait until I was ready to buy to supply that information. I asked for a lease vs. purchase comparison and, once again, they did it at the advertised Internet pricing. However, they jacked up the rate and I thought the residual was a little leveraged. At this point, they were not aware I had a trade. Bear in mind, I was doing every trick customers do to dealers and, since I teach this, I was also aware of every tactic they were trying to use to ­convert.

Sealing the Deal

And the winner is … Five Star Ford in Snellville, Ga., just three miles from my home. Early in the process, I had actually sent them a text message saying that I was insulted by their offer and pissed off at the price and rate on the quote they gave me. Later, once I had made my decision, I sent them correspondence that included my name. I found out later that the Internet manager Googled me to see where I live. He found me and told the general manager, “Hey, boss, you better take a look at this deal!” My cover was officially blown. It was fun while it lasted.

At this point, the GM, Adam Stetler, stepped in to close the deal. He gave me a much ­better price, along with the discretionary $500 Ford gives them to throw into a deal. I protested the document fee and, poof! It was absorbed. Bear in mind, they’re still holding some gross. I never want to grind a dealer that hard. Besides, I am about to drop the trade-in into the deal and tell them it isn’t going to be a lease. I’ll just finance at the 1.9% rate.

This dealership is owned by Wes Pope, a friend of mine. I did business with his father and grandfather, and the Pope family has always shot straight with me. They had the car cleaned and ready, standing tall out front. Adam and one of their top sales professionals, Mike Seay, greeted us as we drove up for our appointment. This is a young dealership with a lot of energy, and it is extremely tech-savvy and customer-friendly.

But remember, they still had to overcome Debbie Ziegler, the spouse factor.

The walkaround was first-class. Mike knew his product and he knew how to present it. Heck, I’m in the business and I was amazed at what this car can do. Most of the features were sophisticated but easy to operate. My smartphone has more than 9,000 names and phone numbers stored in it and the Explorer downloaded all of them. I can call any of them just by saying “Call …” and their name aloud. It’s a one-button, one-command operation.

The car has blind-spot alert and a feature that keeps you in the lane you’re driving in, responsive cruise control that maintains distance between you and slower cars ahead, a kickbutton under the bumper to raise the tailgate and hundreds of other small innovations a consumer must see before they buy. I studied the car online, but you cannot envision these features with the awe and excitement of Mike’s presentation. That’s salesmanship, and it is what all of these people trying to kill the sales process will never understand.

That leads me to one of my main criticisms of sales pros today: We have lost the art of the presentation, and some vendors are telling our people it’s not important. The Explorer has so many hundreds of accessories and features that most consumers don’t even know exist. You could never sell this car without a full presentation. Anyone who tells you to skip the walkaround is terminally clue-impaired and should be chased off your lot with a broom.

And I’ll tell you this right now: If Mike and Adam had not done such a detailed and wonderful walkaround and product presentation, we would not have bought the car. They completely sold and amazed my wife. They converted her to a true believer and raving fan of their product. I asked Mike how he was doing in sales, and he told me he had sold 24 units in July and 23 in June. With his professionalism, he’ll have no trouble becoming a 30-car guy.

Now, we had to work the figures. I had booked my own trade before I went there, and they gave me the correct number the first time. I could have grinded out a little more — my trade had extremely low mileage and it was really, truly, extra clean. I even kept all the maintenance records. But again, I wasn’t about to be that guy. Let everyone have a good deal.

Ziegler believes a thorough presentation, including the walkaround and a run-through of convenience and safety features, is absolutely essential for customers buying new vehicles packed with increasingly sophisticated technology.

 
Ziegler believes a thorough presentation, including the walkaround and a run-through of convenience and safety features, is absolutely essential for customers buying new vehicles packed with increasingly sophisticated technology. 

Well Done, Grasshopper

Speaking of which, now it was time to meet the F&I guy. To my surprise, waiting for me in the finance office was none other than Lewis Carr, a young man who attended my F&I school 10 years ago. I remembered him as having a great personality and the perfect demeanor for the position. Deb and I walked in, shook hands and took our seats. It was then that Lewis’ friendly expression turned dour.

“Mr. Ziegler, we had a slight problem here,” he said, holding up a printed credit bureau report. “Your credit score is 580.”

My mouth fell open. I was too stunned to speak. Deb, who pays the bills, reacted first. “Let me see that!” she cried.

That’s when Lewis starting laughing and said, “Gotcha!” Son of a gun. Here I thought I had the upper hand and my own student got the best of me.

My blood pressure fell to a safe level and we all had a good laugh and got down to business. We had enough down payment equity to forego GAP protection. We finance all our vehicles because our investments make more than the rates you can buy a car for with good credit. Lewis said he’d never seen a score as high as Debbie’s. Nor had I! We opted for the Ford ESP Premium Care service contract with six years and 100,000 miles. I knew the cost and asked him to mark it up $100. He did. This was the most pleasant experience you could imagine in finance.

Folks, I was pleasantly surprised and amazed at the professionalism and the detail in the processes I experienced at Five Star Ford. You may think I’m kidding myself. Yes, they knew I would write about my experience, but you can’t fake a high dealership IQ. I honestly believe every customer gets the same amazing sales and F&I experience Deb and I received.

Truthfully, each of the dealers I contacted did a good job, and I could not find a complaint with any of them. The fact that I remained anonymous until I was ready to deal was a disadvantage for those I did not buy from, but rest assured they were all fantastic and their people were professional. My experience as an undercover stealth car guy only reinforced what I already knew: Dealers are not mistreating consumers. It is a long-outdated stereotype being kept alive by hostile vendors to benefit their own goals at a detriment to the dealers, who they often seem to forget are their customers.

Well, it’s time to shut down the computer and find the keys. I was up late last night, watching more videos about my new ride, and Debbie and I are both itching for another spin. We’ll be on the road for the next hour, so I’ll reply to your posts on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube when we get back. Keep ’em coming! 

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