Secret shoppers see everything — at least their camera lenses do. They can tell you how well your sales reps are heeding the awesome sales training they've been getting from you — or how not-so-awesome that sales training really is. We asked three expert secret shoppers what builders most need to know about what secret shoppers find and how they can use this insight effectively.
12 Things Mystery Shoppers Can Reveal for Home Builders
1. Sales basics have fallen by the wayside
It's often been said that during the boom time, new sales professionals succeeded without good sales skills. Homes were flying off the lots, so they didn't need them. But now even those who've been around and know how to sell are either forgetting what they've learned or are too discouraged to put it into practice.
"Sometimes these reports are a wake-up call for this type of agent," says Mary LeBlanc, president of LeBlanc & Associates, a new-home secret-shop company in Carlsbad, Calif. "Not that they never knew how to sell effectively, but between what you read in the newspaper, see on the TV and maybe going days without seeing anybody, over time it just starts to eat away at your psyche."
2. Sales reps aren't asking for the close
Melinda Brody, president of Melinda Brody and Co., another well-known secret-shop service for new home builders, says in 2008 just more than 13 percent of the sales folks she shopped asked the prospect if they wanted to go ahead and buy the home in which they were interested. In 2005, it was 19.6 percent. Brody finds this alarming, especially since the secret shoppers she uses represent so-called "A" buyers, that is, those who are ready, willing, and able to buy.
"They love the home," says Brody. "They've relocated. They have sold their home. They are in a rental. They are closable prospects, ... but [then we find] the salespeople have just shut down. They've given up. They feel that no one is buying. They say, 'Even when I see a qualified prospect, I'm not going for it.'"
Poor sales training is also seen as the culprit. Both Brody and LeBlanc say video-shop close rates are much higher for clients who have formal sales training than those who do not.
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3. Sales reps don't know how to ask for the sale
Closing is more subtle and complex than simply asking a customer to buy this home now. "You have to earn the right to ask for the sale," says LeBlanc. She offers some pointers:
- Invest the time to gain your prospect's like and trust of you. Accomplishing this is almost half the battle.
- Use this time to discover who you buyer is. Are they married? Single? Do they have kids? How many? What about hobbies? Interests? Tailor your presentation to the buyer you're dealing with — their personality, sense of urgency and the like. One sales approach does not fit all.
- Engage them in a casual, conversational manner; don't question them spit-fire style!
4. Successful reps have managers who demand accountability
Sales managers are more proactive in monitoring sales skills. Using secrets shops is one way to do this, but managers are also implementing processes and tracking software to make sure sales staffs are selling and following up as they have been trained to do. We saw this with several Nationals Sales and Marketing Awards winning sales professionals.
5. Good sales reps don't let prospects set a 'gimme something' agenda
"A customer comes in and says, 'What kind of deal do you have for me? What can I get?'" says Brody. "We've seen that on some of the video shops. A good salesperson deflects that."
Mystery shopping reveals the quality of your sales team and the quality of your sales coaching.
She says one of her clients, Engle Homes, has trained its sales team on how to counter when faced with this kind of request. She paraphrases the gist of their response: Even if you don't have huge discounts and incentives to offer, the prospect is more likely to buy what you're selling once you've shown them a home they really want that's right for them.
They can say: "We have great opportunities here at Engle Homes, but before I get into any of our specials that would apply to you, tell me your situation. Where are you moving from? Let me learn a little bit more about you and then let me make a good fit."
6. You can use financing to sell homes
This calls for more than a good grasp of the numbers.
"The sales rep sits down and does a financing worksheet that pre-qualifies the prospect," says Kathy Kelly, president of Personnel Profiles, a new-home secret shop company in Boulder, Colo. "The lender rep is supposed to do this, but if the sales rep does and shows how that difference in financing can buy them that gourmet kitchen upgrade, now it's in terms of how that's going to benefit the buyer. It's beautiful when they do that!"
7. Low sales producers can score well on secret shops, and vice versa
Sometimes a top sales producer scores a big fat zero on the video shop.
Says Brody: "Then you have to ask yourself, 'Is it the community? The pricing? The location? Can anybody show up there and sell homes?"
In this market, the opposite can also be true. You may have a sales pro who scores high on the video shop and is doing all the right things but has lousy numbers because no is coming in to see the models.
"What does that mean?" asks Kelly. "Maybe your prices are too high or you need to make adjustments to your product line. The first thing you can do with a shopping report is rule out your salesperson. It's very difficult to gauge the sales reps' aptitude and professionalism from sales right now. Shopping gives you that secondary tool to monitor performance."
8. Make your sales reps feel and act like Tiger Woods
Let's be honest: Your salespeople aren't going to like being secret-shopped. "It's like 60 Minutes coming out to bust the unscrupulous jewelry guy in Times Square," says Brody.
But secret shops are most effective when you get buy-in from your people, which can be done. Tiger Woods videotapes all of his games and then sits down with his coach to watch them and get a critique. He does this to improve his game. Apply the same concept when you talk to your sales staff.
"Tell them, 'We believe in you. We want to help you,'" says Brody. "'You are so lucky, because our company is going to pay for a professional video-shopping service to tape game film of your selling process so we have something to coach you with.'
"If you approach it with a game-film mentality," says Brody, "then the whole fear of secret shopping or mystery shopping will almost totally dissipate."
9. Watching the shop tape: third time's the charm
Our experts advise sales reps to watch their video-shop tape at least three times. The first time around, they will inevitably be focused on how they look: 'Am I that fat?' 'I think I look old!' and the like. The second time that sort of preoccupation might still be linger, but sales reps will start to tune in and critique their presentation.
"The third time, you get over how you look and actually listen to what you say and don't say," says Brody. The focus for the sales rep is critiquing their presentation. The sales manager as well as Brody's team will provide a written critique of the shop tape to the salesperson as well.
10. Secret shops can be done on the cheap
Budget a little tight right now? "Pick a good shopping service," says Kelly. "Ask them to shop all your people throughout the course of the year. Then publicize the heck out of the fact that you are shopping. And do [the shops] randomly. You will get more bang for your buck, because everybody is going to be on their toes waiting for that shopper to walk in the door."
Brody says quarterly shops are ideal but if you have to do fewer shops, it's better than none. And you don't always have to tape them. Receiving written reports from the secret shopper can be helpful. If you have absolutely no money, Brody suggests making arrangements with another builder in your area to shop each other's people.
11. Results from secret shops often reflect the quality of your sales training
The key to high scores on secrets shops — and more importantly, good sales results from your sales staff — is to focus like a laser beam on training. Secret shops reveal the quality of your sales team and the quality of your sales coaching.
"The shopping is really a field test of your training department, so if your people shop badly, that's a reflection on management. If I come to work for you, tell me what I'm supposed to do, help me do it, and then test me," Brody says.
12. Secret shops should be used as an impetus for improvement
The primary purpose of a secret shop shouldn't necessarily be to fire anyone. You can use it to demonstrate a standard of accountability on which you are going to insist. You can identify areas of weakness on which a sales rep needs to work. You can provide specific coaching on those issues and check for improvement with subsequent shops.