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Tori Zinger

Tori Zinger Community & Editorial Manager

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The Customer is Never Right: Interview With Ian Coburn

Ian Coburn is the author of The Customer is Never Right: Sell More Trucks, Cars, Buses, Parts… Anything in One Month. He is a former training manager at Navistar and president of the soft skills talent development and training company GPA Training, Inc., but he started his career in a rather unorthodox position: as a stand-up comedian.

“It was my job, touring across North America, for ten years,” Coburn said. “No one realizes the value of a dependable vehicle and thus a great mechanic and knowledgeable source on vehicles [more] than a comedian. I was once on the road for 106 straight weeks. Literally, the only relationship in my life as a comedian was my car.”

Uncommon, to be sure, but touring as a comedian served to build up a useful repertoire of skills. When Coburn got tired of the comedian lifestyle, it made “perfect sense” to get into sales and customer service; after all, he’d developed the ability to speak in front of people and, most importantly, how to listen to people.

“It was a huge advantage because unlike when we are dealing with a customer, I didn’t have any numbers, deadlines, quotas, etc., to hit,” he said. “I could just listen, which got me interested, which led to me asking questions to learn more and really dig into the details. I learned to do it, effectively, and quickly.”

His first job after being a stand-up comedian was selling office supplies, where he was “immensely successful,” breaking sales records. His first day on the phone, he made 39 calls. Of those, he scheduled nine appointments and sold a man twelve computers – a 26% close rate. Two weeks later, his employers created the training manager position and promoted him.

And so it went. Coburn would start a sales job, get great results, and be put in charge of the team or training after a few months. Eventually he became a sales consultant, setting up, training, and/or “revamping” sales and customer service teams. In 2016, Coburn joined Navistar as a training manager, quickly becoming a frequently-requested speaker at conferences.

So why did Coburn decide on the automotive industry? Simple: he wanted to help.

“Auto and truck have been ignored by L&D, which is too bad, because you won’t find a better group of people who deserve to achieve maximum results,” he said. “They make everything happen,” from selling and servicing vehicles that take children to their soccer games to spending long hours on their feet dealing with disgruntled people, especially in service.

“Other jobs, we hear people sometimes ‘go above and beyond.’ In auto and truck, the job [itself] is going above and beyond, like when techs drove to Mount St. Helens from Chehalis, 100 miles away, to pick me up at 2:30AM because my ball bearings had busted, leaving me dangerously stranded in a curve heading up to the mountain,” Coburn said. “So I jumped at the chance to help truck dealers improve when the opportunity arose, and then to later add auto to the mix.”


What Successful Dealers are Doing Right

One word: listening.

“Top sales and customer service people, whether at dealerships or in other industries, listen and respond. They ask questions and make few statements. Then, once they feel they have all the information they need, they sell you the solution you need,” Coburn said. “That solution is never a vehicle, part, or service; instead, it is the dealership. They also build good relationships with everyone within the organization.”

Coburn talked about an auto rep who sold Coburn’s own mother a car in Lima, Ohio. The rep asked her a few questions: What are the most important features you’re looking for in a vehicle? How will you be using the vehicle? What about passengers or other drivers? And then the rep listened to her responses and asked follow-up questions before providing exceptional service – including a free oil change.

“My mom was so impressed,” said Coburn, “that she now drives one hour to Lima whenever she needs something for her car, even though she used to use the mechanic just down the block from her.”


What Unsuccessful Dealers are Doing Wrong

Conversely, struggling salespeople and customer service employees talk more than they listen.

“They rarely ask questions, causing them to frequently take customers down the wrong path, then must backtrack, somehow blaming the customer. And they aren’t shy about letting the customer know it: ‘I wish you had told me that,’ or ‘You should have said something,’” Coburn said.

And , he added, even if a salesperson does assume everything correctly, failure to ask questions (and listen to the answers) causes, in turn, failure to build rapport with customers. Even worse, sometimes salespeople will bad-mouth other departments in their own dealership, which is unlikely to encourage repeat or referral customers.


What Can Your Dealership Do?

Coburn puts it like this: Stop marketing; start selling.

“There is a muddy area between marketing and selling in the dealership world. When we stand in front of someone and point out all the features of a vehicle to them (‘The seats fold into the floor, I’ll demonstrate.’ ‘You can remove the cupholder to reveal a hidden department.’), we are marketing,” Coburn said. “When we ask questions (‘What are your top three must-haves in a vehicle?’ ‘What qualifies as good mileage to you?’), we are selling. There’s a reason someone coined the phrase, ‘Telling isn’t selling.’”

Coburn also advises that asking questions (and – you guessed it – listening to the responses) can be used to control the conversation. There is talk in the industry about not being “order takers,” but Coburn points out that many dealerships train their staff to be just that.

“We teach them to ask, ‘How may I help you?’ at the onset of the conversation, which tees up the customer to ask the questions and our staff to answer. The problem is, customers aren’t experts, so they don’t know which questions to ask,” he said. “Better to teach your staff to ask, ‘What part/service/vehicle are you interested in today?’ It sets up staff better to continue asking questions.”

Take the time to walk around your sales floor and listen to your staff, and see who ends up asking the questions. Chances are, you’ll find it’s almost always the customers. Once, as an experiment, Coburn walked around 22 different car dealerships in the western suburbs of Chicago, and the salespeople were the ones asking the questions in only four instances.

Another thing you can – and probably should – do is answer questions with more questions. People usually tend to answer questions with statements, but oftentimes, the question being asked is not the “true” question. The goal should be to identify and answer that “true” question. To find out the real question, Coburn recommends following these three steps:

  1. Acknowledge the question.
  2. Get permission to ask your question.
  3. Go straight into asking your question.

Coburn referenced an interaction he witnessed at a dealership, involving a sales rep and a customer. The customer asked the sales rep if a particular vehicle got good gas mileage on the highway, to which the sales rep replied, “Yes, sir, 24 miles.” The customer thanked him, refused the his offer of a brochure, and began to walk away.

At this point, Coburn jumped in, asking the customer what qualified as “good” mileage on the highway to him. The customer said it was 28 miles, so Coburn asked the rep if there were any vehicles that fit that standard. When the customer was asked if he would like to see those vehicles in particular, he said he would, and the rep led him off.

“The ‘true’ question was not, ‘Does this vehicle get good gas mileage,’ but ‘Do you have vehicles that get at least 28 miles per gallon on the highway?’” explained Coburn. “That’s the question the rep needed to identify and answer. Why didn’t the customer ask that question? It goes back to L&D – how the adult brain works.”

“The customer  knows what qualifies as good mileage to him, he knows the car he is looking at, he processes the information, and then asks, ‘Does this get good mileage on the highway?’” Coburn elaborated. “Interestingly, a child would have been more likely to ask directly if the car got 28 miles on the highway, because children’s brains aren’t developed to the point where they do such processing.”

Coburn says your dealership should also practice objection handling. The simplest way to do this is to bring the customer with you, by “repeating the objection, [getting] permission to ask a question, [and asking] your questions instead of making statements.”

When Coburn and his wife went into a Toyota dealership to buy a minivan in 2016, they looked at the Sienna. Coburn told the sales rep he liked the folding seats in the Pacifica, and the sales rep retorted, “Yeah, but it doesn’t have [this feature] and [that feature].”

“None of those features mattered to me,” Coburn said. “He pushed the product, came off slightly confrontational, and turned the atmosphere negative by putting down the product – worse, it was a product I had told him I liked, which some customers could mistakenly take as him putting down their personal tastes or judgment.”

You can circumvent this effect by bringing the customer with you. Instead of putting down certain features, sales reps should ask the customer questions to determine why they like a particular feature.

Coburn’s final piece of advice? Have fun!

“Take it from a former touring comedian: when it comes to communication, delivery is more important than content,” he said. “If you’re having fun, the customer will have a much better experience, because your delivery will be much better. Top sales and customer service reps are always having fun, regardless of their numbers or the challenges they may be facing outside of work.”

Coburn’s book, The Customer is Never Right, is available here. DrivingSales members can receive a discount by using the promo code DRIVINGSALES.

Ian Coburn

I had a lot of fun doing this interview and just want to say thanks for envisioning and conducting it. I hope you all find the information useful. Here is an example of Objection Handling with Bring the Customer with You so you can see it in action:

Say a customer is looking at the Sienna, as in the interview, and mentions they really like the Pacifica's ability to have the seats behind the driver fold into the floor. You know they want a minivan because they have a 2-year-old and are expecting. Here's how it would look:

You (sales rep): "Sure, that's a great feature (acknowledge their statement). Let me ask you a question (get permission to ask a question), you obviously will be using car seats, correct (go immediately into your question)?"

Customers: "Oh, of course.."

You: "Are those easy or difficult to constantly put in and take out?"

Customers: "Oh, wow. I see your point. We didn't even think of that. Pretty much negates the folding seats option."

You keep it positive by not badmouthing the competition, let the customer draw the conclusion, etc. (If you were selling the Pacifica, you would, of course, use the same technique in response to a comment about car seats negating the folding seats with, "That's very true and a good point. Let me ask you, could you use extra storage in your vehicle for toys, and so forth?" Etc. You would not simply comment, "Yeah, but it could be extra storage." The technique is softer, presenting us much more as friends and advocates; advisors.

Again, hope you all find it helpful and, again, thanks to you and your team Tori for interviewing me and sharing this!

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