Has car retailing really changed all that much?

Regular contributor “Serman” begins a series of articles on his time in the trade and the changes (or lack of) that he has witnessed during his time….

I’ve been in the motor trade nearly twenty years now and having decided quite early on to see out a career in the industry, I have to admit that things haven’t really moved on a great deal.

As a young sixteen year old I was ready to leave school and having spent three weeks work experience at my local Ford garage, the trade beckoned.

I was lucky enough to get a break and was taken on as a trainee salesman, and had as a Dealer Principal a strict disciplinarian who would stop in his tracks and denounce anyone who dared call him by his first name. As a consequence of the strict regime I spent my first six months there with a huge ‘TRAINEE’ badge stuck on my shirt.

These were also the days where everyone smoked in the showroom, and I mean everyone. My desk was right by the front door and permanently by my side was a silver ashtray always with a burning Silk Cut on the go, and it would be quite normal to smoke in front of customers and for them to smoke in front of us.

Despite what we might consider now to be unacceptable, the dealer still ran a tight ship. My Sales Manager was a huge character and always had time to help even though most of his colleagues already knew the ropes and had years of experience behind them.

As a young apprentice, my monthly sales targets were still the same as everyone else’s (twenty-five cars a month). The first few weeks of a new month seemed a doddle, but I always struggled with the last few deals to make my target (maybe they can see the fear in your eyes). Even so, the support I had from my work colleagues was fantastic, and boy, did I learn a lot. They welcomed me into their world and I had two great years that I still think about with fondness now.

My time there witnessed a huge shift in the way dealers operated and the way cars were actually sold.

I remember going on a ‘Lex Way of Selling’ course learning how new ideas and practices were being put into place. Lex was one of the very few companies looking at new techniques. They were looking at lots of successful ideas from the American car trade but trying to fuse them over here. One that stuck out was making the customer feel as if they were somewhat in control. Right from the moment they walked in the door, you had to work for them. The Lex courses still couldn’t shake off bad habits, though.

For example, just prior to getting the deal closed say the customer was only prepared to sign if you would give some discount. You already knew how much there was to play with but you made them feel as if they were steering the deal. So we were told to wonder off and say that we were going to see the Manager about getting the discount where in fact we would take ten minutes out and pop into the back office and make a coffee or chat to work colleagues. Ten minutes later we would return to our desk, say we had got the discount and hey presto, nine times out of ten the customer would sign there and then.

Mind you, it wasn’t all bad. From the moment the customer came into the showroom, we had to make sure we were there right the way through and tried our hardest not to let them go elsewhere. We would still push to do a deal there and then, but some of the new ways of selling were much softer than they had been in the past. The salesman back then had to see the deal the whole way through right up to delivery. I suppose Lex at least started to tweak car selling back in the early 90s, and made a start where others have since followed.

The downside of all this was of course was seeing the ‘old-school’ salesman fizzle out and retire from the game. They just couldn’t get on with the new way of doing things and found it increasingly hard to employ the new sales techniques.

Mind you, there were still some amusing stories floating around. I remember one salesman who used to try to clinch a deal by placing the order book and pen at the top of his desk then tipping it with his knees letting it slide into the lap of the customer, no very subtle but occasionally successful.

What I remember the most were the characters; the real, honest people who enjoyed what they did and made lots of friends with their customers. They were always recommended and in return made a great career selling cars. Profit margins were also much higher than they are today. I remember selling a car with £1,500 profit only giving away £300 to do the deal and thus giving me two months wages in one hit. You’re barely left with £500 nowadays after all the expenses.

Despite these years working in the trade some practices are naturally different today than they were when I was a young wet behind the ears eighteen year old. But in my opinion it’s the actual running of the dealership that hasn’t moved on.

Do we really need so many Managers to run a dealership? And why do we still have Dealer Principals on £90K a year salary? It has to be said that in a lot of cases these DP’s barely have any influence on the day to day running of the dealership.

I’m still convinced the trade hasn’t really moved on with the times and want to dig a little deeper. Stay tuned.

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