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Jared Hamilton
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Bill Playford

Bill Playford Vice President

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Stop Being that Guy: Change the Culture of Car Sales

Normally, I have the topics of my blog posts picked out well in advance of posting, however this month I can’t stop thinking about the events that are happening right now. During the last few months of last year, and the first couple weeks of 2011, I’ve been involved in some eye-opening conversations. The subject matter of these conversations is now a matter of public discussion (or amusement?). Whether you’re pointing and laughing, or disappointed, we need to realize that we can be our own worst enemy.

One of the reasons I got involved in the car business is that I wanted to help improve the negative reputation car salespeople have. A variety of polls conducted over the years have shown car salespeople to be viewed among the least honest and ethical of any professionals. While some of the sources are questionable, the granddaddy of pollsters, Gallup has shown in a recent poll that car sales people are tied with lobbyists as the least trusted of professionals. Congratulations us.

I’ll admit it’s bad form to send someone off a blog post before it’s finished, but do me a favor: run a Google image search for car salesman (or just follow this link). What do you see? Is that you? Are you the guy smoking the Grenadier? Are you the guy with the Mr. T gold chains? Are you the guy with the plaid suit? Didn’t think so. Unfortunately, this is how people see us.

So, what are we doing to fix it? Apparently, we’re adding more fuel to the fire.

I’ve certainly seen some questionable car sales practitioners over the years, but I’ve also seen a lot of good ones, too. The funny thing is that you don’t hear much about the good folks. Certainly the nefarious ones have customers who are more than vocal about their dissatisfaction (their customers are friends and family to everyone else, by the way). For some reason or another, you don’t hear much about the sales people with strong moral fiber. Or the sales people, who are youth ministers, involved in 4H, participating in Relay for Life, volunteering at animal shelters, or have served their country overseas. Or how about the professionals who have not only read the blogs, but have developed their own expertise, created their own strategies, and have shared their own success with others. We all work with people like this, or at minimum, have made their acquaintance. Why don’t we hear more about them?

Instead of learning more about exemplary sales people, we get to hear and read about new consultants who seemingly pop out of the woodwork. Unfortunately, the term consultant is a bit ambiguous in the retail automotive world. In the rest of the business world, as well as in health care and the public sector, a consultant typically possesses subject matter expertise and pedigree that is well beyond what can feasibly be attained in-house. Look at the executive leadership of Accenture, Deloitte, and Booz Allen Hamilton, to name a few. These folks are among the very best the world has to offer. Our industry, on the other hand, is wrought with empty-chested, fly-by-night “experts”, who glorify the negative stereotypes, charge exorbitant fees, plagiarize material, and seem to multiply by the month.

This is what I find most troubling. The dealerships who have recognized the need to change, and decided to commit considerable resources to bringing in a consultant have to choose from “experts” who fit the negative stereotypes they need to change.  How exactly do you expect to overcome these pejoratives if you continue to contract the same type of people who ruin reputations in the first place? Moreover, how can dealers hire them in good conscience when there are videos on YouTube of them publicly flaunting their jewelry, McMansions, and sports cars?

The true measure of a consultant’s success is not what they have financially accomplished themselves, but what their clients have financially accomplished on their behalf.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I too possess some of the above items. I wear a (1) gold chain, and, from time to time, wear an aspirationally branded Swiss watch. The gold chain (and the gold crucifix that hangs from it) was given to me by my deceased grandfather after I went on a pilgrimage to see the Pope sixteen years ago. I’ve only taken it off for medical reasons. The watch I purchased several years before I was in the car business when I was doing due-diligence at a venture capital firm during the go-go dot-com days. I’ve acquired my fair share of material possessions over the years, but you won’t see me flaunting them on YouTube (you’re welcome). I take far more pride in the results I have achieved on behalf of my clients.

Whether you are new to the business or have been involved at multiple levels for many years, it is our burden to overcome these stereotypes. How do we do that? We can start by:

  • Offering consistent and outstanding service.
  • Overwhelming customers with honesty.
  • Educating customers with information that is not available online.
  • Adding so much value that we are indispensable to our customers.
  • Sharing personal details about ourselves.
  • Participating (regularly) in our communities.
  • Supporting causes.
  • Hiring manageable people.
  • Working with skilled trainers that produce verifiable results.
  • Resembling the nurses, military officers, pharmacists, and teachers who have strong professional reputations (and who are our customers).

If we do these things every day, we can surely start to chip away at the negative reputation we’ve given ourselves.

If you want to keep reinforcing these stereotypes, just keep dressing yourself like a Kay Jewelers vomited on you. Keep asking customers if they are calling about the (nonexistent) specials. Keep practicing the underallow/overallow numbers game. Keep on not using your CRM/ILM to capture important personal information. Keep flaunting your material wealth (and general douchebaggery) on YouTube. Keep winking sweet nothings at the camera.  Keep promoting yourself as an expert when you haven’t been recognized as one.  Keep doing these things… and let those of us who want to be recognized as respected professionals blow right by you.


Shaun Raines
Bill, Hands down... best industry focused material I've read in a LONG time. Thanks for your honesty and candor easily identified in this post. I've known you for years, but you just earned 1000 respect points for this gem. Driving Sales, Big pat on the back for a community that puts forth this kind of content. This is exactly the kind of Kool-Aid we all need more of. Shaun Raines
Eric Miltsch
Bill, That was great. I like how you described the desire to change the perception. When the founders of ADUSA originally asked me to join, they shared the same sentiment. While not being a car guy then, I thought that would be an awesome challenge to be a part of... I love those times when I get interact with the customers in the stores - they're often quick to put their guards up, but how quickly they come down once they realize I'm not trying to sell them anything. (Go ahead & try it yourself, tell them you're the "computer guy" - they'll cozy right up to ya) It not that difficult to change the culture...just need more people willing to try.
Arnold Tijerina
Thanks for the excellent post, Bill. It's this type of unique content and honesty that will improve our industry and help those who need it to improve. Can we call you Dr. Bill?
Bart Wilson
I haven't met any salespeople lately who look like the Google images, but I think the perception is INTERNAL now. It think its important to take a step back and ask ourselves why customers need us (because the do).
Bill Playford
Bart you make a great point. Self-esteem plays a large roll in the perception. In my opinion, it may be why some of us overcompensate with the over-the-top personas (or personae) and the shiny accessories. I know some dealerships have gone to dealer-branded clothing (akin to the hospitality industry), which I think is a great idea. A little pride in what we do, what we represent, and the team we work with goes a long way.

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