Four to the Floor: Car Dealers Reviewed and Rated

EngageSportMode isn’t usually concerned with the technicalities of the car buying process, typically eschewing shiny main dealers for independent traders. However, ESM does enjoy wandering around checking out new cars, so when ESM’s mate Steve wanted some company on researching cars for his girlfriend, there was only one answer.

The options had already been narrowed down; a new Seat Leon, a MINI Cooper, a VW Scirocco or finally an Audi A1. So the process should have been fairly easy. Go to dealerships, talk to the salespeople, test drive cars and walk away better informed. The reality was somewhat different to this. Given that some manufacturers keep making noises about difficult trading times in the car market, some of our experiences on Saturday make this hardly surprising. There was a clear gulf in the customer service from the various dealers, which would strongly make me think about where to spend my hard-earned cash. To try to explain these varying experiences, I’ve decided to rate and compare the four dealerships we visited.

#1 Western Seat Newcastle
Website: www.westernseatnewcastle.co.uk Twitter: @Western_SEAT

Initial Impressions: Somewhat confusing brand wise. This used to be a Saab dealership until that marque disappeared down the toaletten. Today it sells SEATs, but also services Fords? Not a normal combination I know. As with most car showrooms, there is bugger all parking so we had to abandon Steve’s car on the road. The forecourt was chock full of Spanish built VAG products.

First Contact: There wasn’t one. Steve and I wandered in a sea of Leons and Ibizas for over half an hour without anyone bothering to ask if we wanted to buy something. This included checking out the cars both on the used pitch, and actually inside the dealership. Would loudly shutting the door of a Leon attract some attention? No. Even wondering about the merits of why anyone would actually buy an Exeo failed to produce a response. Other customers came in after us and were seen to within minutes.

Test Drive: I sat in an Ibiza and then in a Leon. Both were stationary so I guess they don’t really count.

The Hard Sell: At Western SEAT it would have more likely needed to be the “hard buy” should we actually wanted to have spent money. This surprised me, given that Western SEAT are perpetually sending me marketing info via email and post.

Final Score: 1/10. Perhaps the sales staff forgot how to sell cars after being a Saab dealer for so long? A confusing brand image, and a complete lack of customer service made this an entire waste of time. Based on this experience, it’s not difficult to understand why SEAT remains the perpetual black sheep of the VW Group family.

Right to Reply: Both Steve and I tweeted the Twitter account for Western Seat after our visit. Their response, several hours later, was that Saturday had been exceptionally busy and that they could arrange something should we wish to do so. First impressions count, so no second chances unfortunately.

#2 Stratstone Tyneside MINI
Website: www.stratstonetynesidemini.co.uk Twitter: @MINI (Main brand)

Initial Impressions: Sharing a large site with a sister BMW dealership, the Stratstone Tyneside MINI showroom makes a big effort to show off its wares. A neatly regimented row of used cars outside, a good selection of new models inside and a Countryman on the roof gave a good impression. Also, as an added bonus, Tyneside MINI had acres of customer parking!

First Contact: MINI likes to try to be cool and causal. I mean, hey kids, their sales people wear t-shirts so you totes know they’re hip and urban like you. Maybe. Either way, it’s a refreshing change. The sales guy wandered over fairly quickly, but wasn’t pushy. Steve outlined what he wanted, I got distracted looking at Clubmans, and they chatted about what might meet Steve’s requirements. They settled on a MINI Cooper D, just as I wandered back over. Steve mentioned the idea of taking one for a spin, which was seemingly no problem at all. Inside we were immediately offered a drink by another very attentive employee. So far, so good.

Test Drive: I’ll admit, being in the back of a MINI hatchback isn’t great for assessing the merits of a car. But luckily Steve was driving, straight out of the dealership, and he got the chance to properly test the little Cooper’s diesel torque. The route gave a good mix of roads and lasted just about long enough to decide if the car was a contender or not.

The Hard Sell: There wasn’t one. Steve had outlined that he might not really want to buy until the new year before we went on the test drive. From experience, I expected the sales guy to baulk at this and tell us not to waste his time. He didn’t. Back at the dealership, again there was no pressure to sign right there. Sales guy suggested Steve bring his girlfriend down to check out the car for herself, and left us to play around in the showroom and out on the used car pitch.

Final Score: 9/10. Honestly, this is how it should be. Low pressure, friendly and with an obvious knowledge of building brand expectations from the staff. Steve would happily go back there, so would I. They let the products speak for themselves and didn’t ram finance figures down our throats. If only more dealers could be like this.

#3 Benfield Volkswagen Silverlink
Website: www.drivebenfield.com/volkswagen Twitter: @BenfieldVW

Initial Impressions: Part of the Benfield franchise behemoth, this showroom occupies a huge plot on the Silverlink retail park. Used cars displayed outside on ramps, in rows under canopies and wedged onto the pavement outside. Slightly overwhelming in a car-supermarket style. Plenty of parking to abandon your car in though.

First Contact: Ah, back to the traditional car salesman stereotype. Too much hair product, too much eagerness and a suit that was wearing him rather than the other way round. Immediately wanted to know exactly what Steve wanted, what his exact budget was, before leading us inside to check the used stocklist. At no point did he really attempt to extol the virtues of the Scirocco Steve was after. He might as well have been selling photocopiers or double-glazing.

Test Drive: Didn’t happen. Once it became apparent from the omnipotent stocklist that the group didn’t have a car meeting Steve’s requirements it was game over. Sales man boy then launched into something which veered through explaining the current used Scirocco landscape in great detail, pointing out every possible iteration of price/product. At this point I wondered out loud if Steve had actually driven a Scirocco, but this was missed. Meh.

The Hard Sell: Sales boy essentially talked himself out of any kind of deal. Showing off the woefully optimistic VW dealer used pricing made it obvious that this was not the place to pick up a used Scirocco. Failed to suggest alternatives in budget or to try to upsell their stock to Steve.

Final Score: 5/10. Scored points for initial enthusiasm, but lost them by failing to actually consider the Scirocco as an emotive purchase rather than just an item on a stocklist. Lack of beverages also.

#4 Tyneside Audi
Website: www.northeastaudi.co.uk/tyneside Twitter: @northeastaudi

First Impressions: These weren’t helped by the fact there was a large warehouse fire going on just down the road; the fire engines constantly flying past did dampen the image slightly. Otherwise, very shiny, lots of nearly new Audis and some parking once discovered. Forecourt inhabited by lots of people who ten years ago wouldn’t have even considered something from Ingolstadt, but would now saw off their left leg to own one.

First Contact: Another epic fail. Despite wandering around outside for 5-10 minutes, then literally standing inside the dealership for another 10, no one approached. I also cannot believe all staff were busy, because they weren’t. One was lazily wedged in the corner flicking through some paperwork, whilst another straight out ignored us and instead spoke to a guy in cut-off denim shorts. Yes, seriously, cut-off denim shorts.

Test Drive: Obviously, no. I wandered around the new A3 which, in the flesh, looks ridiculously like the old one. Confusingly it was also badged “A3 2003-2012” which is clearly wasn’t. There was one A1 inside; a metallic brown Sportback but we couldn’t get anywhere near for people fawning over it.

The Hard Sell: Nope. None whatsoever. Perhaps we should have been more adventurous and ventured outside and looked interesting in buying an R8.

Final Score: 2/10. Scores one mark more than Western SEAT for actually acknowledging we were there. But then choosing to speak to someone in cut-off denim shorts instead. Audi is very much the BMW of yesteryear. However, even in its halcyon days, I remember BMW customer service being far better than this.

Overall, I was hugely surprised by the huge differences in the levels of customer service experienced at the respective dealerships. In these tough economic times, surely every possible sale counts? Suffice to say the MINI, which had only been an outside bet for Steve, has now found its way to the very top of his list. It’s also given me serious food for thought when replacing the Polo.

Not everyone likes salespeople hassling them the moment they step over the threshold into a dealership. But at the same time, nobody wants to be ignored. I realise Saturdays are the busiest times for car showrooms, but that shouldn’t be an excuse for poor service. The other three dealerships should visit Tyneside MINI for a lesson in how to sell cars with a softly, softly approach.

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