The Most Valuable Lesson I Ever Learned Selling Cars

A friend (who happens to also be a client) called me today hoping to pick my brain about his presentation at a conference. He's an experienced General Manager who has seen it all. Sometimes, seeing it all means it's difficult to pick out the gems that you've come across in your career.

In talking about customer retention, it's easy to see the importance of having a single customer type, of building true ambassadors rather than customers, and of establishing a company culture that permeates noticeably across the entire organization. However, the best presentations are ones that have true stories attached to them. One that I will always remember has guided my career for a couple of decades.

There was a customer in service that nobody liked. I was relatively new to selling cars and didn't really know not to talk to them. After all, they were our customers. They had purchased a new F-150 a few months before from someone else and they quickly became a problem in service. They were the type of customers who would come in demanding new tires if they ran over a nail.

The wife approached me and wanted to know if I could check on their truck. It had been in for more than two hours for an oil change. I had already heard of them and had no doubt that the service department was pushing their ticket back out of spite. They weren't very nice and were completely unreasonable with their expectations.

She mentioned that she needed to hurry because her husband was diabetic and needed food. I happened to have a sandwich that I hadn't even opened out of the vending machine and offered it to her. She latched onto me instantly and the next thing I knew I was showing them other vehicles on the lot while he ate my sandwich.

I came in for some keys to a used F-150. The manager gave me a look, rolled his eyes, stuck his finger in his mouth and made the "hooked" sign. I knew. It didn't matter. They wanted to look at trucks and I didn't have an appointment so I took them on a test drive.

Things went swimmingly. I learned about their laundry business. That's why they needed a truck. They pickup up laundry from the elderly and disabled and washed it for them for a minimal fee. As it turned out, they weren't unreasonable but really just needed a softer hand to guide them through the various processes. By the end of the test drive, they loved the truck and acknowledged that running over a nail wasn't grounds for making demands of the dealership.

We wrote up the deal. The manager was annoyed. Then, he pulled their credit report. As it turned out, they had recently mortgaged their home, paid off all of their bills, and had a $17,000 ACV on a free and clear trade. The truck I showed them was older but was a Lariat crew, better than their XLT supercab.

Over the next six months, I made seven referral sales and sold them another vehicle.

More importantly (for the dealership), they found a service writer they adored and brought cookies every time they had service. They literally brought cookies.

The story won't be used in the presentation for my friend but it did remind him of a similar incident at his dealership. That's the point. We aren't in the car business just for the money even if that's the primary motivation. There are very few professions that give us the opportunity to change someone's life every day that we work it.

One might read this and think that the lesson is to not prejudge or to treat everyone like they can buy. That's the business lesson. The real lesson that will always stick with me is that every car deal is a paycheck to us but it has a much bigger impact on the buyer. We must always remember that our daily activities. whether in sales or service, make a real difference.

It might just be a sale to someone on the floor. It's a unit to the bosses. It's a statistic to the manufacturer. To the customer, it's a profound moment that will be a part of their lives every day for years to come.

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Comment by Brian Bennington on August 18, 2015 at 9:18pm

Hi J.D.,  And, here I thought the lesson would be "Never give a sucker an even break."  Now calm down.  I was only kidding!  As you and I are both members of the "Use to sell cars and loved doing it" club, I immediately related to your story of the "improbable customer" and how consideration, respect and relating to them can win them over and generate big benefits.  Not too surprising to those of us who believe in it, that philosophy works well in many situations when you want to gain trust in order to motivate people to do what you want them to do.  I especially liked it in my previous life when I use to "hunt desirable females."  Some might read that statement and find me disgusting, in which case I'll plead guilty on all charges, but I was young then and thought of little else.

The moral of your tale really hits home, and if a rep is generous in their heart, they'll find a special satisfaction living up to and surpassing their customers' expectations.  (Hope all is well with you, J.D.!)   

Comment by James Stanley on August 18, 2015 at 11:55am

Great read need to encourage mangers to read and remember how qualifying is not in the sales process.

Comment by James Stanley on August 18, 2015 at 11:53am

Great post, thank you

Comment by David Ruggles on August 17, 2015 at 8:31pm

Great post and a reminder to NOT qualify.  Let your process allow the buyer to drop in the slot they belong in.  Short cut methods cost sales and gross profit.

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