I saw a quote today that may as well have been written about me “To be Old and Wise, first you must be young and stupid “
Whenever the motor trade moves into recession (which happens far too often for my liking) and dealers try to reduce their expenses, usually, the first thing to suffer is their training program. This has an adverse effect on sales, creating a downward spiral which is difficult to reverse unless the economy recovers.
In the 1990s I worked for a BMW dealership. When I joined them, the economy was pretty dire but there had been a period where the “yuppies” were ordering rare cars and selling their place on the waiting list to someone who had even more money. Salesmen had become order takers and anyone could make money in this situation. Unfortunately, as the saying goes “if you don’t use it you lose it” and this applied to sales skills and techniques as all that was needed was a pen and a blank order form.
I had previously worked at a volume franchise in an environment where “if you snooze you lose”. If you didn’t keep in touch with your prospects and they came in and signed up on your day off you lost the deal. This was particularly annoying to me as I had already learned the value of prospecting, and had perfected my own system which I operated religiously, when it came to showroom traffic it was every man for himself. I was the newest member of the team and had the worst desk as it was positioned furthest away from all 3 doors; however I did have the best view! I had to be inventive to get to the customers first.
When it was too cold to stand outside waiting to pounce and my colleague in the service department didn’t give me the “heads up”, one of my favorite tricks was to ring the other salesman’s phone; whilst he was saying “Hello! Hello is there anybody there?” I was sprinting past him and greeting the customer as he or she entered the showroom. However, I didn’t always have it all my own way the other salesmen had a few tricks of their own and plenty of my deals were sharked.
One of the Old Hands use to shout across to a new customer “Hello there I haven’t seen you for ages, how are you” he would then walk across to him, lighting his pipe as he went, when the fact was he had never seen him before in his life, the customer was usually trying to remember where he had met this friendly salesman as he was led back to the desk away from the other staff, the first time I witnessed this coincided with the time “St Bruno” got locked in the toilets after the mop somehow fell out of the cleaning cupboard and got jammed under the door handle.
Often I would peruse the “situations vacant” columns – I wasn’t looking for a job myself but looking to see who was advertising a company car with a vacant post. I would then contact the company’s Transport Manager to see if I could quote for supplying the new vehicle and any replacements needed for their fleet.
One day however, I saw my dream job advertised at a BMW dealership and immediately sent my CV (which I just happened to have in my briefcase). I then proceeded to pester the life out of the Sales Manager until she (yes, she!!) gave me an interview. The showroom was fantastic, the cars were unbelievable a Brilliant Red 850 Coupe had pride of place, there was even a lift to the accounts department, a computer system which controlled invoicing and the prospect system, a canteen, each salesman had a pager, the wage structure was excellent (and fair), there was a pension scheme, and a very generous petrol allowance, this was my idea of Sales Nirvana.
On my second interview I was introduced to “The Boss”. I realised that he was way ahead of his time and nothing like any of my previous employers, and that if I was lucky enough to get the job, I could learn a lot from him. I wanted this job more than any other job I’d ever had but it meant I had to impress him so much that he would choose me over the hundreds of other applicants.
In years gone by, he’d also had a Porsche dealership; as a boy doing my paper round, it was their advertisements that I would always look for, when delivering “The Sunday Times” to the “posh” houses in St. Anne’s. I decided to go directly for his ego and it seemed to work my story must have touched his heart because although there were applicants with BMW experience and applicants more highly qualified in this field, my enthusiasm and persistence got me the job. I joined them a week later.
My first day was a real eye opener. The Sales manager apologised to me as they “only” had a Dolphin Grey Metallic BMW 325 SE Auto for me to use! One of my previous demonstrators was a Duck Egg Blue, Vauxhall Chevette ES, with vinyl seats, no heated rear screen, and no radio, so I was finding it difficult not to grin and kiss the bonnet of the shiny new beamer, YES I thought, no more parking miles away from the entrance to the Poachers Night Club so I wouldn’t be seen getting out of the “Loser Cruiser”. I was introduced to the other three team members; they all seemed like good lads, one of them looked like a Wing Commander and he bore a striking resemblance to Basil Fawlty, he was a real gentleman and what he didn’t know about BMW’s wasn’t worth knowing!
The guy I was to be partnered with shook my hand as if I were his long lost brother and nearly pulled my arm out of its socket. I nicknamed him Jonah because he seemed to jinx my sales whenever he was around, he also had a habit of saying one thing but meaning another, he was a great guy and you couldn’t help but like him,
On my first day, I heard a customer tell him that he “had decided to buy a BMW from another dealer” taking it on the chin he replied “Oh dear, was it something I said?” Never thinking for one moment that it was, he was speechless when the customer replied “Yes, actually it was” I had just taken a drink of coffee and was trying not to choke, I had to spit the coffee back into the cup. The other lads had heard it too, but having worked with Jonah for a long time, they did a better job of concealing their amusement and committed the incident to memory to be used against him in the future. Jonah had innocently upset the customer by saying that the majority of his customers didn’t take out finance, what he actually meant was “Basil” knew more about Lease Purchase than he did, but the customer wanted finance and took that as an insult. We all learned a valuable lesson.
We worked in teams of two and it soon became apparent that these guys had had it far too easy for the past 5 or 6 years. As a result their skills had suffered – no, “suffered” is too harsh a word, a better description would be, “submerged” all it needed was the right button pressing and their skills would rise to the surface. “Basil” was actually being serious as he recounted how terrible it was on some occasions in the past when they were so busy they didn’t have time to go to the toilet or that when people came to pick up their new car they also wanted to order another car for the next year. How I wished I had been there then but times were changing and people were sometimes in need of a little persuasion and assurance before committing themselves. However, this gave me a slight advantage for a short while but I realise now that I was no better than them, they welcomed me and helped me settle in immediately, I had a lucky start. I was a little more hungry than they were – they were certainly more polite than me, taking turns to speak to customers and sharing sales calls, whereas I still had the “don’t get between me and a customer unless you want to get trampled” mentality.
I got off the mark very quickly and had a good run of sales. The Boss was very pleased with my performance and one off the cuff remark he made “you lot had better watch it or Barrie will eat your lunch” soon landed me with my new nickname “The Closer”. I liked this name and I became a legend in my own mind, the other lads came in for some tremendous stick and although we all got on really well it still caused resentment, to them I was “The Closer, Ha My A*** (sound of spitting) #### !!!!” I did notice that the other lads now seemed to get of their chairs a lot faster than they had in the past, Jonah who wasn’t the fittest guy I had ever met was now beating me to customers, he had previously been the brunt of one of my wind ups, when the day before he was going on holiday I had made an announcement over the tannoy, “This is your Captain speaking, will passenger “Jonah *****” please run to the back of the plane as I cant get the front wheels off the runway” I was starting to wish the Boss had kept his mouth shut. His remarks had hit the blow all tanks button.
Even with his new turn of pace things still went from bad to worse for Jonah and he had a dreadful run of luck, after spending hours going through different specifications and demonstrating a vehicle, I overheard the customer tell him that he would definitely be back to buy one “in about 18 months” that was followed by a very deep sigh from Jonah; nothing was going right for him and he was given a letter in which it was suggested he should, and would be given time to look for another job. We all liked Jonah and as a group, decided to confront the boss asking him to reconsider his decision, promising we would all work together and help increase his sales. Initially, the Boss did not look impressed and I expected him to explode, pointing out to us that he was in charge and that he actually did know what he was doing.
He took a deep breath and I thought “this is it” but then I saw his expression change from one of anger to a kind of “Hamlet Moment” I could almost see a light bulb over his head and Pound signs in his eyes, as he smiled and realised that he had a just created the sales executives’ equivalent of the Musketeers, On the way out of the meeting I couldn’t help thinking that he had calmed down remarkably quickly I wondered if this had been the Boss’s plan all along and if he should he have been nominated for an Oscar for his performance, the bottom line was he had just got us all to promise to work harder, and he didn’t have to pay us any more money, Win, Win.
The Boss was someone I admired; having started from scratch he built the business up himself, his motto for the business being “CQI” which stood for “Continuous Quality Improvement”. He wanted to be second to none. When he applied for BS 9000 accreditation, he invited all the staff out to a nearby hotel where he had reserved the banqueting suite, there was lots of food laid on, he paid for everyone’s drinks for the whole night and at the end of the night he made a speech in which he explained to us that he didn’t want to get the accreditation by just doing the minimum to achieve the standard, he wanted to do as much as humanly possible. After his speech I think most of us would have followed him in to a war zone, we all came out of the meeting feeling like we were going to be instrumental in building the best BMW dealership in the world, each and everyone of us was prepared to do whatever it took to blitz the accreditation standards no matter how much extra work was involved, the penny dropped he’d only gone and done it again, this guy was good!
The Boss knew that we could all improve certain aspects of our sales techniques; the areas in which we were lacking needed to be identified and improved. At about the same time, BMW UK had realised that the dealers had cut back on their training programmes just when they needed to be at their most professional to secure sales and market penetration, so they decided that they would provide training at their offices in Bracknell for free. Our Boss quickly decided that the company would take advantage of BMW’s generosity and booked us all on the full program of training courses.
As salesmen on commission, we only made money when actually in the showroom selling cars, we were all very unhappy as we couldn’t see the long term benefits of the training. I was also unhappy at the prospect of the course as I thought I knew everything already and the other lads because they didn’t want to be away from their families, I didn’t totally understand this as the 4th member of the team had a wife who was horrible to him, and made his life a misery, she use to make special trips to the dealership to tell him off, I assumed this was because she couldn’t wait till he got home, and so he couldn’t just put the phone down and go for a brew leaving her to berate the inside of the waste bin which is where he usually put the receiver when she rang him, The hotel that the Boss booked us into was excellent and I for one wouldn’t have blamed him if he had asked to live at the training centre. The courses usually lasted for 2-3 days with a 4 hour drive to get there and finished at about 4.30 on a Friday afternoon when the traffic was gridlocked. After one course it took me till 1 in the morning to get home meaning that this training malarkey was now interfering with my social life which had improved exponentially since I had got a new BMW demonstrator – I was mightily fed up.
We were all still working well together as a team but would take every opportunity to wind each other up. As I was convinced I was “gods gift to sales” I wasn’t paying much attention on my latest course and it was while I was staring out of the window that I came up with what I considered to be the ultimate wind up, so I managed to procure a piece of letter headed paper from the training centre and started to compose a letter, which, from memory, read like this,
I would like to thank you for taking the time to attend our training courses. However over the last few weeks it has become blatantly obvious to us that we cannot teach you anything further. Therefore, it would be a waste of our resources; and your time would certainly be better employed in the showroom selling our product.
I only wish I could say the same about your colleagues and I will be writing to your Dealer Principal to ask him to increase their individual training programs in an attempt to bring them up to your exemplary standards.
I cannot express how much we appreciate your input and we will be working hard to implement your ideas in order to improve the content of our future courses. Should you ever tire of selling cars please be assured that there will always be a place for you on our training team.
Head of Training
I knew In order for my plan to work the circumstances of the letter’s arrival had to be believable. I was going to fax it from BMW head office but my typing was so atrocious I needed help to make the letter look authentic. When I got back to the dealership, I had to recruit one of the secretaries to be my accomplice. I asked her to type my words on to the letterhead, correcting the grammar and spelling but keeping the sarcasm and insults. Then, as we had a plain paper fax, I asked her to photocopy the letter and place it in the incoming fax tray as if it had just been sent from BMW. My accomplice was then to ring Basil and tell him there was an urgent fax for the sales department, thinking it was perhaps a fleet enquiry or a purchase order I knew he would get there as fast as he could. I sat at my desk and waited for the fun, and my opportunity to gloat but unfortunately “best laid plans” and “sod’s law” joined forces. My phone rang; the secretary told me that our accountant had walked past, before “Basil” got there, noticed there was a fax, picked it out of the tray before she could stop him and after scanning through it walked off shaking his head in disbelief!
“Never mind”, I thought, “surely he’ll realise it was a joke and bring it back.” Sadly, he didn’t. Neither did the Boss, I thought his judgment must have been impaired because secretly he liked me, and also because the secretary’s letter writing skills had overpowered her sense of humour she had paraphrased my letter and actually made it believable. The Boss and I were very much alike; we shared a lot of the same interests out of work, we both loved gadgets, sport and motorbikes and we were both Gemini’s! I could usually tell what he was thinking. Unfortunately, he could also tell what I was thinking too, sometimes even before I thought it.
I was sat at my desk trying desperately to formulate plan B which up to now consisted of clutching my chest falling to the floor feigning a heart attack and waiting for an ambulance, or going along with the scam, pretending the letter was genuine and hoping he didn’t find out the truth until I had cleared my personal effects from the desk and caught the bus home,
I could see him in the Sales Manager’s office waving the letter about and gesticulating towards the other lads. Then the moment I was dreading – a voice over the tannoy boomed “all salesmen to the sales manager’s office.” He didn’t get straight to the point but it soon became clear that the meeting was primarily to congratulate me and then to take the opportunity to brow beat the other salesmen into accepting that they were in desperate need of intensive training. I had no choice but to come clean immediately as I had too much respect for the Boss to let him say anything that could be used against him in the future, I had to stop things before they went too far.
The one thing we all dreaded was when the Boss put his hands in his pockets and leaned back in his chair for we knew we were in for a lecture; we also knew that he would usually have good reason to lecture us.
When I owned up and explained that it was a joke he did all of the above and then went a previously unseen shade of purple. Never missing an opportunity to kick a member of the team when he’s down, Basil remarked later that the colour was Daytona Violet – you could only get that colour in an M5 and the reason I hadn’t seen that particular shade was that I was useless and had never sold anything that expensive before. The Boss gave us all a rollicking which lasted about 2 hours and as you would expect I came off worst.
“The Closer” got his wake up call with lots more training courses and natural order was restored to the rest of the team, Jonah was no longer on “the crest of a slump” and he was eventually appointed Used Car Sales Manager, and as I sit here almost 18 years later writing my memories of the event, I am kicking myself that I thought I knew better and that i wasted a golden opportunity, I am left to wonder how many more cars I would have sold if I had actually listened to and learned from the people who had my best interests at heart and were trying to help me become a better salesman.
I read a comment the other day on Twitter it was “He who laughs last thinks slowest” I am starting to think I should have this chiseled into my headstone, I promise you that it has only just this second become apparent to me all these years later that the Boss wasn’t taken in by the letter, he saw a perfect opportunity, seized the moment, and manipulated the situation to get all the sales team to agree not only attend the BMW training courses but to volunteer for even more in house training after work on a Wednesday nights, and it was me who got the blame! Game, Set and Match!
Boss I salute you, they should print your face on money, it was a battle of wits and I was unarmed, the only thing you were lacking was a menacing laugh and a white cat to stroke.
If your reading this Mr B, I would also like to take this opportunity to apologise yet again for causing the Bomb Scare, but that’s a story for another time