Death of a used car salesman

Thinking of ways to illustrate the changes which have occurred in the car business over the last decade, brought to mind a classic example of not only why change was inevitable but perhaps, just as importantly, why it had got into such a situation in the first place.

Back in the old days basically anyone could be a salesman; if you spoke English and had a suit you could get a job. The basic salary was often £2,000 a year or less and sometimes nothing. The commission, however, was always great and could help a person of limited ability but who had a good personality earn a decent living.

Unfortunately because of the nature of the employment package it could also encourage salespeople to cut corners and, in extreme cases, blatantly lie to customers just so that they could get that precious commission cheque.

The industry in those days had a reputation as being among the worst professions, alongside estate agents, for rip-offs, questionable sales techniques and nefarious characters as there was little or no legislation or controls and dealers ended up doing pretty much whatever they wanted. In fact to be called a used car salesman was only slightly better than to be called an ex-convict.

Examples of dodgy dealings included the clocking of speedometers, selling cars which had been in accidents and not declaring the fact to basically telling customers anything they wanted to hear so long as the car got sold.

The business was partly to blame because by paying such a low basic and encouraging payment for profit, good practices like service, transparency and ensuring a customer bought the right car and had a good back up were way down the list of priorities when it came to selling cars.

This situation could obviously not go on indefinitely as sales meetings and conferences were all about profit and volume and hardly any were about building good long term customer relationships. Eventually of course the erosion of trust and goodwill started to breakdown the whole set-up and customers started to look elsewhere for their cars.

I remember distinctly at the time, as another poor sucker drove off in a car which was way overpriced and clearly not suitable, that this could not go on forever. As the old adage says ‘you can fool some of the people all of the time and all of the people some of the time, but never will you fool all of them all the time’ and so it started to happen buyers started to look abroad at importing their own cars, figuring that if they weren’t getting the service at least they were getting it cheaper.

The industry realised it would have to clean up its act but before it really got a grip there was, what turned out to be, a carmageddon moment which can take an industry years to recover from – as the banks are discovering presently. The headlines read “RIP OFF BRITAIN” over a picture of a few cars and there the chain of events started to unfold. Customers were no longer prepared to put up with bad service, extortionate prices and dishonest sales people suddenly the “spivs” from “Dodgy Car Sales Ltd” were running scared.
The internet came and suddenly buyers were empowered to find out information for themselves. Thus the power had shifted and dealers have been forced to comply or die.

Slowly but surely the old school sales type have gone to be replaced by the new breed and only time will tell if the industry will one day shake off all the bad press of the past.


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