The Five Most Important Things I Learned in 40+ Years in the Car Business

Written by Ray Shefska

My career in the retail automotive business started in 1977. Buying a car doesn’t have to be anxiety inducing, stressful, or painful. Instead it can be confidence inspiring, fun, and convenient. Let me show you how.

The car business has taught me a lot over the 40+ years that I’ve been a part of it. Today I wanted to share with you the five most important things I learned during that time:

1. Be you.

Be who you are — warts and all. It took me a while, but over the years, I figured out that it was important for me to be a little silly, a little off kilter, and a little different at the dealerships I worked at. Why? Because that’s who I am.

I remember many, many years ago, watching a guest on an afternoon talk show say that you should “dare to be different.” I hate to say it, but it’s easy to be pretty much the same, but if you dare to be different, you’ll inevitably stand out from the crowd.

For me, that meant having fun with customers, being both informative, and entertaining at the same time. When I was selling, I was giving the customer a show. Fortunately for them, there was no cover and no two drink minimum, but damnit, they were entitled to a good time.

My motto was simple, “if you give them a good show, they will part with their dough!” (As you can see, I stuck with car sales instead of poetry for good reason). Don’t feel pressured to act a certain way in the dealership, whether you work there, or you’re coming in to buy a car. Not only is it perfectly fine to be you, it’s encouraged. Be the best you, you can be.

2. Tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

If you find yourself having to tell something other than the truth, you are not only letting your customer down, but more importantly you are letting yourself down! As I have been known to share with a customer, “if the truth is going to preclude us from making a deal, then so be it, I’m not going to lie to you in order to make it happen.”

Jack Nicholson famously shouted from the witness stand in the movie, A Few Good Men, “You want the truth? You can’t handle the truth!” Maybe in the military he was right, but when it comes to sales, he was dead wrong.

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In sales the truth shall set you free. Rather than wondering down a twisting road of lies, each requiring you to remember what the last lie was, you can instead simply tell the truth. As I like to say, “if it is right, do it or say it, if it is wrong, don’t do it or say it, and if you are not sure if it is right or wrong, do both you and your customer a favor, and don’t say it.”

Tell the truth, you’ll both be better off for it.

3. Never tell the customer what you can’t do, always tell them what you can do.

In my 40+ year career in the car business, this one took the longest time for me to understand. You never want to say “no” to a customer, instead, you are always searching for a way to say “yes” to them. One way to do this? Always focus your conversation around what you can do. This puts both you and the customer on the path towards “yes.”

For example, let’s say you’ve quoted a customer a payment of $498 a month for a 60 month loan. Like most customers do, they say, “make it $450 for 48 months and we’ve got a deal.”

For the longest time my response was almost instant and almost always the same, “What are you crazy, I can’t do that,” and the ultimate result was almost always the same: we didn’t make a deal because it was too confrontational.

Later in my career, I handled the same situation very differently. I would tell the customer a story (selling is storytelling), about when I attended company-wide sales training, and they taught us to never tell a customer what we can’t do. “I should only tell you what I can do, and folks if you pay close attention to what I can do, you’ll probably notice that I am really telling you in a nice way, what I can’t do.” This was my go to script. 

“So what I can do is $498 a month for 60 months. Can we make this work for both of us?” I’d finally ask.

This wouldn’t always work, but the results were an awful lot better than simply telling the customer, “nope, we can’t do that.”

Always speak to your customer in terms of what can be done. For both of you, it’s a much more fun and positive path to travel.

4. Under promise and over deliver.

This one is as old as the hills but incredibly important, under promise and over deliver. If you tell a customer that you are going to do something, whether it be big or small, do it. I don’t care how small or trivial it is, if you say you’re going to do it, do it. Did you tell a customer that you’d follow up later on today with more information? Call them later that day, even if you haven’t gotten the information yet. If you don’t keep your promise you’ll erode valuable trust with your customer. 

I cannot tell you how much that means to a customer, seemingly small things like picking up the phone and giving them a call when you said you would, is truly a difference maker. Trust me, the salesperson down the street probably won’t keep that promise. All you need to do is under promise and over deliver to take the first step towards being their go to “car guy.” 

Remember, never promise more than you can deliver. If you do, you’ll instantly become a “typical car guy” in the customer’s eyes. Remember, dare to be different. Part of that difference is always doing more than you said you would. No ifs, ands or buts. If you promise it, do it!

5. When it comes to customers, it is cheaper to keep them than to replace them.

It costs a ton of money to acquire a new customer. Whether your marketing includes digital, TV, radio, direct mail, etc, it’s incredibly expensive to acquire new customers at your dealership.

Dealerships invest in all this marketing to attract customers to their showroom, with the hope that their sales staff can sell them when they come in. If your store is really good, you’ll close 20 to 25% of the people that walk in for the first time. That means 75 to 80% of people aren’t buying on their initial visit.

Would you like to improve your odds of closing a deal? Of course you would. How can you? By concentrating your efforts on your existing customers.

Existing customers will close at a higher rate because they have already done business with you (if you treated them right the first time around). One of the best things your dealership can do is to configure a rewards program that is designed to encourage your customers, both sales and service, to remain your customer.

Perhaps you can guarantee an extra $500 trade value if they have always serviced and maintained their current vehicle at your dealership, whether they purchased it from you or not. Take a cue from your local supermarket or grocery store, they all have rewards programs for shopping with them. Come up with something similar for your dealership.

Research shows that existing customers will pay a higher average gross profit than a fresh customer. Do the math and you’ll realize that it costs a whole lot less to keep your existing customers than it does to go find new ones.

Those are the five most important things that I have learned in my 40+ years in the car business.

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1 Comment

  1. Arnold Cox

    Hello guys
    Thank you for what you do.
    I am 95 percent sure I’m going to use your service, but I do have a couple of questions.
    I have heard that you get a better car price if you use dealer financing. I can pay cash or finance.
    Question… Would I get a better deal if I financed?
    Question… Do you guys help with that?.

    Reply

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