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16 Lessons in Customer Service from a Car Salesman

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car lotThis week has been a bit of a challenge. I’ve been haggling with car dealerships over purchasing a new car. I’m sure I don’t need to explain how frustrating that process has been, but I will say that I’m surprised at the customer service lessons I’m getting out of the experience.

  1. Don’t rush your customers. Pouncing on them as soon as they arrive is not enticing to customers and can come across as a bit desperate. Give them space to consider their purchase. Stay accessible, but don’t smother them.
  2. Don’t hound your customers. Give them room after they leave to evaluate their options. A phone call or email a day is fine, but don’t go overboard (calling an hour after they leave the showroom is a bit excessive).
  3. Don’t argue with your customers. You obviously have strong opinions for and against certain features relating to your product, but if your customers have opposing opinions, it’s best to disagree respectfully — and gently.
  4. Don’t downgrade the competition. Berating your competitors won’t win you any points. By showing respect for the competition, you demonstrate a quiet confidence in your own product.
  5. Listen to your customers. Are you paying attention to what your customers are saying? Are you listening to what’s important to them? Be fully present and listen to the needs, desires and frustrations that your customers are sharing. This is invaluable when it comes to fitting the right product with each person, and the ability to recall minor preferences is even more impressive.
  6. Focus on your customer’s needs, not yours. This may be surprising, but the customer doesn’t care about your bottom line. They’re not worried about making this work so that you benefit. They don’t care about your timetable either. Instead of worrying about your needs,¬†focus all your effort and attention on doing an exceptional job.
  7. Don’t be condescending. Don’t patronize your customers. Consider the possibility that they may have actually done their homework and know what they’re talking about. Your customers understand that you have “inside” knowledge, but don’t talk down to them or be dismissive. It’s insulting, and that alone could cost you the sale.
  8. Know what you’re talking about (and find the correct answers when you don’t). Here’s an example. I went into one dealership this week and had settled on colors for the interior and exterior. When I went to another dealership, they said that color combination wasn’t available. (Yes, it was. I had seen the car myself.) It turns out that the combo was available, but the person relaying the incorrect information knew that they’d have to get it from the company’s other dealership, which was an hour away. That’s three strikes. One of salesmen didn’t know the facts about his own vehicles and suggested that I didn’t know what I was talking about, and the other lied for the company’s benefit.
  9. Don’t just say what you think customers want to hear. “What? You need a certain price? No problem. We can do that.” Yet when the customer shows up with checkbook in hand, that price no longer exists. Puffing and bluffing isn’t going to impress your customers, and if you’re only trying to appease them, eventually that will surface, leaving customers feeling very frustrated with you.
  10. Shoot straight. If you can’t do something, you can’t do it. Period. Say so. Say what you mean. Mean what you say. Be direct and upfront and never skirt the truth.
  11. Communicate clearly. Go over things slowly and carefully (and then go over them again). Be thorough and detailed with your responses to avoid misunderstandings.
  12. Stay cool under pressure. When you’re dealing with other people’s money, there will inevitably be tension. Proceed with caution. Take breaks. Take a few breaths. Keep things in perspective and consider the other side. Do not, under any circumstance, lose your composure. Talking too quickly or loudly and seeming frustrated or agitated will only risk evoking the same response from customers.
  13. Keep your promises. Call when you say you’re going to call. Have what you say you have. Do what you say you’re going to do.
  14. Know what’s really going to impress customers. Take cars, for instance. Customers want the best in safety, and a good-looking car with low gas mileage is important, but what about reliability and how about some proof? Rather than going on and on about how super awesome your brand new cars are (they better be), show me one with 500k miles on it that’s still rolling. Paying $30k seems much more appealing when I can think about driving that car for twenty years.
  15. Make things easy on your customers. In general, making a big purchase (buying a car, hiring a VA, etc.) can be a stressful experience, so find ways to make things as easy and painless as possible for customers.

I have not been impressed with three-fourths (or more) of the salespeople I’ve come across this week, and if things don’t get better quickly, I might be the customer who simply drives her car to 500k miles — that’s the final lesson. I actually had a salesman tell me that their goal is to wear customers down, until we eventually give up and give in. I will, but it won’t be the way they expect. I’ll go home and keep rolling in my faithful car, because they forget (or weren’t listening when I told them) that I work from home.

So, Lesson #16, don’t treat your customers as opponents to be beat. If you do, they’ll eventually think of you that way, too, and eventually move on to someone who’ll work with them instead of against them.

I’m amazed at the treatment I’ve received this week from car dealers, but it’s made me appreciate exceptional customer service even more. How do you ensure that your customers are impressed rather than appalled?

Image from Flickr by thebig429

32 Responses to “16 Lessons in Customer Service from a Car Salesman”

  1. imcoachfreddy

    Thanks Amber for sharing your experiences. Great customer service is important regardless of the industry. I don’t think I’ve ever had a bad experience with car salesmen ( except when they get pushy with the credit app ).

  2. chris rod

    Why does everyone get on car sales people. When you go to the grocery store and you put everything on the conveyor belt and the cashier rings up all your groceries and she says that will be $180.00 you don’t say i will give you $120.00 take it or leave it and then tell them don’t bring out your manager. Car sales are one of the few things that you can negotiate with go into a furniture shop, jewelry store any retail store and try to negotiate and see what you get, probably the same thing you came in with NOTHING.

  3. Unless you are buying a really high demand vehicle (like the Prius) or a vehicle that has virtually no profit built-in (like the Scion), you are getting taken if you pay invoice or higher.

    The two Toyota Corollas we purchased this month were $1200 below invoice.

  4. jorge lopez

    im a car salesman and i hate shoppers or people that want to pay invoice on vehicles…if the public only knew what we have to go through to sell a damn car they would act so stupid when they come into our dealerships..we dont get paid by the hour so stop wasting our time if you are not ready to buy,if you want to shop use the god damn internet..

  5. Thanks Amber for this great post!

    I think one of the most important things you stated is about listening to your customers. I recently attended a seminar with Ivan Misner, founder of Business Networking International, and he stressed this same point. Thanks for reinforcing it here!

  6. Joe Commorato

    It’s really too bad that so many people have had such bad car buying experiences. This should be a fun thing! How often do you get to go get a new car, or a car that’s new to you? I’ve been in car sales for 11 years, and my success is driven by my love of cars, and wanting everyone to have a great experience. My dealership, Dreyer & Reinbold Infiniti in Indianapolis, has been rated the number one dealer in the city three years running for sales AND service satisfaction. Seeing all these posts makes me see why people come from hundreds of miles away to buy from us. We also have a huge repeat customer base. It doesn’t hurt that we sell the top rated luxury cars in the world for reliability. I invite any of you in the region to come in and see if I can’t change your opinion of the car buying experience. There’s a difference between a car salesman and automotive sales professonal.

    • Amber Riviere

      It’s great that you’re taking time to participate in these types of discussions, Joe, and that you’re working hard to ensure that your customers have a good car buying experience. I wish other sales people would do the same. Thanks for commenting!

      • Joe Commorato

        Amber-I just wanted to let you know that I used this post as material in our weekly training session. As I said, we take customer service VERY seriously, and to new levels. Even though we don’t put our customers through what you have gone through, and what a lot of your posters have, it’s still important to know the perception of us out there. We remind our people every day that we sell a different kind of car, and we’re a different kind of dealership, for both sales and service. Thanks for the article. -Joe

  7. Great post, Amber!

    I’ve purchased my last 3 cars online. It is a great experience. Some suggestions for what has worked for me.

    1.) Figure out what you want
    2.) Get online quotes from 3 different services (, vehix, yahoo autos, etc) and, if possible, 3 different dealerships from each of them (9 total).
    3.) Grab the 3 lowest prices from that list and get them to start low bidding one another. Forward the quotes and say that you really want to buy local, but this guy wherever has it for $100 less. Do that for a day or two, you’ll be amazed.
    4.) When you are 100% ready to buy the car, explain to the person that you want to come to the dealership, but you have a small child and you need to be home in 1 hour to bail out the sitter. Tell them that if they can’t do the paperwork in an hour, you’ll have to leave. The fastest I’ve been in and out is about 45 minutes. Longest was about an hour and 20.

    Good luck.

    • Amber Riviere

      Great strategy, Scott! I wish I could have posted this a couple of weeks ago before starting this process. I will keep it in mind for the future, though, and anyone else considering purchasing a car, TAKE NOTE.

  8. Great tips about customer service. I’m an Avon Rep and am always looking for good ways to improve my business. I like what you said about Knowing what you’re talking about and finding answers when you don’t know. It’s really important that you give customers the answers they need, if you do this they will come back to you.

    • Amber Riviere

      Absolutely, Melissa. It’s all about helping the customer. So many times this week, I’ve wanted to ask, “Do you want to make a sale?” It hasn’t seemed like it. If they would only give me the information I need to make a purchase and be helpful throughout the process, I would make a purchase. It’s pretty straightforward, but seems to elude them somehow. Maybe it’s just deeply ingrained in the industry.

  9. This is an excellent set of lessons for sales organizations as well. Too often in sales environments, closing a new sales is compared to a conquest. With that mentality, it’s definitely an “us vs. them” culture that’s created, which in essence means, if you make the sale, you win. But if you’re selling something your customer needs, that will make them more successful, solve a problem, or improve their lives, shouldn’t that be a win for them?

    Successful selling (just like good customer service) is only achieved when you’re improving the lives (or business results) of your customer. Frictionless selling is what generates happy customers, word-of-mouth, an higher lifetime value on BOTH sides.

    • Amber Riviere

      I agree, Matt. It’s not just about today, today’s sale or today’s end result. What about tomorrow or next year, when this customer is considering another purchase? You’ve burned the bridge. I’m a Honda person, always have been, and up to this point, I’ve been exceptionally satisfied with the product, raved about it all the time. I’ve driven cars to 245k and 92k without a single issue, great vehicles, but after this week, I’m very disappointed by the Honda brand, all because of their sales people. What was a branding and word-of-mouth success story has now become a story of frustration and letdown. If that were my brand, I would not be okay with that. I think that’s another lesson in the importance of knowing firsthand what the customer is experiencing at every level of working with your organization. You never want to drop the ball.

  10. I won’t buy a car from a dealer. I don’t need/want the hassle and I hate haggling. Why should I have to get into an argument and fight someone to buy something? I would rather buy a used vehicle from an individual and be done with it.

  11. “Don’t push your customers”,” Don’t hound your customers”, etc.,all of which proves to us — over and over again — that the way we market to our customers presently ( think telemarketing, door-to-door sales, etc) has always been flawed.

    Attraction marketing, opt-in marketing and permission marketing are in. Using emails for marketing achieves just what you suggested we do — never push them, just nudge them. We can use it provide more information and allow them to wallow in a pride that comes with making decisions for themselves.

    I know, because I am a consumer too and there are some services that I am now considering to buy after 3 years. Guess what these guys who sell those services have been doing until then? Nurturing me by sending me more information through emails all this while.

    3 years….long time.

    Great stuff. Powerful points in your post. I am glad you mentioned these things ;)

    • Ashwin and Amber — right on. I was looking over a couple of books I have on sales letters as I needed to write one up. I wondered why I ever bought these books. They’re pushy and bothersome like the stereotypical car salesman. How did these letters ever succeed? (They’re reputable authors who had success in direct mail.)

    • Amber Riviere

      Absolutely, Ashwin and Meryl, I am totally turned off by pushiness. To me, if there’s inherent value in the product or service and if I can respect the person behind it, I’m going to go with that when I need the product or service. If I’m aggravated, I’ll go elsewhere. It seems so obvious, but I guess the other approach has to work at some point, or why would they continue using it? Makes no sense to me, though.

      • Joe Commorato

        Is it only car sales? Why do people think nothing of paying a jeweler or furniture store profits of up to 300%, but think a car dealer should make less than a 2-3% profit? There are reputable dealers in this world. I work at one. I sell Infinitis, and fortunately I have a clientelle that is of a professional nature,and doesn’t think profit is a dirty word. Often times it seems that people think car sales people should work for free. We treat our customers very well, and our repeat and referral business speaks for itself.

  12. Excellent post Meryl!

    I’ve always said that if I need to be a “Car Salesman” in the
    Online World, I’ll never make it!

    Thankfully, over the past 12 years, the thought has never
    crossed my mind.

    As for buying a new vehicle, I do my research online, walk into
    the dealer, point at the vehicle, state my price and if they
    don’t accommodate me immediately, I walk away.

    They either chase me down agreeing to the price or I keep walking!