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Car Salesman Confidential: From Hero To Zero

Motor Trend logo Motor Trend 6/12/2015 Mark McDonald

About two weeks after I started in sales, the dealership I worked for held a big “tent sale” (sometimes called an off-site sale) at the local fairgrounds. These used to be a lot more common. Two or three times a year, several dealerships took over a big parking lot at the local mall or Costco, and held a three day “Sales Spectacular.” Prices may not have been any better at these events than you could get just by walking into the showroom, but they always generated a lot of excitement and brought people out in droves.

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The first day of the sale I arrived early, as all the outdoor tables and chairs were still being set up, and sold three cars before noon. I sold another car that afternoon: Four cars in one day. If you have been in sales you know that three cars in one day -- a “hat trick” -- doesn’t happen very often. And four cars in one day is fantastic. And I was still a greenpea.

I remember one of the other salespeople coming up to me around lunchtime and touching me on the arm. Then he made a sound like he was touching a hot skillet: “Sssssssss!!!” I was a lean, mean, sellin’ machine. Nothing could stop me. That day.

For the next few days I walked around on a cloud. I was a legend. I could hear people talking about me in awed whispers behind my back: “There he goes. Only been in sales two weeks and sold three before noon!” “How long?” “Less than two weeks.” “No way!” “Yep, and two of those were head rippers!” That means the buyers ended up with negative equity. It’s difficult to describe the euphoria you get from success in sales. I’ve never thrown a game winning pass, or knocked one out of the park in front of 45,000 screaming fans, but I imagine it’s a similar feeling.

You are a hero. You can do no wrong. Everybody loves you. Women want you. Other men want to be like you. Your bosses hold you up as an example to other salespeople. Little children come up to you and ask for your autograph . . . well, okay, none of that happens in car sales. But you get the picture. And if you can maintain that kind of success, car sales can be great fun. A real blast. You can make a ton of money in a very short time, relying on nothing more than your marvellous self and your God given talents.

But you can’t maintain that.

No one is a hero every day, no matter what they say. Sales is a roller coaster. After every mountain peak comes a valley. Everybody has slumps. No one sells four cars a day every day. In sales, the trip from hero to zero is a short one. And the car business, when you’re not selling cars, is one of the worst hells on earth you can possibly imagine.

Car Salesman Confidential 1024 680© Provided by MotorTrend Car Salesman Confidential 1024 680 The very folks who praised you and built you up when you were on top are the first to tear you down and cuss you out when you’re not selling. Instead of being the shining example in the sales meeting, you become the guy who gets a reaming in front of the entire salesforce. Oh, they seldom mention you by name when they’re chewing people out for not following “The Steps to the Sale,” but everyone in the room knows who they’re talking about.

And it’s crushing. You hear them behind your back, speaking in not so hushed whispers: “There he goes again, to blow out another customer.” “That guy couldn’t close a screen door.” “Everything he does is a mini.” “Watch, the manager will have to step in and save this one, too.” “Why doesn’t he just find another profession?”

The longest stretch I’ve ever gone without selling a car lasted sixteen working days. I finally sold one car after those sixteen days, but one car in sixteen days is horrendous. Let me give you a little perspective. The average salesperson in the United States sells 10 or 11 cars a month. That’s about one car every two to three days. If you go more than three days without selling a car, you start to worry. If you go a whole week without selling a car, it’s a problem. And if you go two weeks, it’s a major problem. You may be fired. Or, you may just get so depressed and disgusted with yourself you quit.

Car sales is a game that is almost 100 percent mental. ... What really determines success is what goes on between your ears. Your mental and emotional state.

In the midst of my 16 day Death March the General Manager of the dealership said to me, as I walked through the door to get a key for a car for a customer: “WELL??? Are you finally going to sell these people?! They’ve only been here FIVE TIMES.”

Car sales is a game that is almost 100 percent mental. By that I mean, yes, you have to have product knowledge and yes, you have to have people skills, but what really determines success is what goes on between your ears. Your mental and emotional state. For that reason it’s a lot like golf. We’ve all seen great players who go out there and miss a shot, and for the next nine holes they can’t do a thing. Missed putts, shanking the ball, and so on. Something got them out of their game, mentally, and they just can’t recover from it. Sometimes these dark periods can last weeks, months, or even years. Sometimes they end careers.

And the sad thing is, when you get like this, no one can help you. Success in car sales is a mysterious thing. No one really knows what “The Secret” is, although they may claim to. And the only thing more mysterious and less understood than success is . . . how to get out of a slump. Whether you’re an athlete or a salesman, there is virtually no advice, no words of wisdom, no little helpful tips, that will snap you out of it. It’s just something you have to work through. It’s a long, deeply personal struggle.

Usually, what ends these streaks is a bit of luck. A customer comes in and turns into a “lay down” -- an easy sale. You get a little confidence back, and the next thing you know you’ve sold three more. You’re back on top.

Looking back on my highs and lows, I would say the one thing sales has taught me is how to handle highs and lows. When people ask me what it takes to succeed in car sales, I say “resilience.” Because there are days you’ll be the hero . . . and days you’ll be the zero. In the long run, neither of those is really you. Don’t get too carried away by the highs, or brought too low by the lows. Go easy on yourself. Remember . . . it’s just a job.

And whatever you do, don’t ever give up.


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