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Car Salesman Confidential: When The Turnover Isn’t Tasty

Motor Trend logo Motor Trend 2/9/2015 Mark McDonald

About three, four months ago my dealership hired a bunch of new salespeople. We had just lost a few guys -- some to other dealerships, some who had been fired -- and our normal 15-person sales force was down to 10 or 11. So management went out and hired a new crop of six "green peas," or first-time car salesmen.

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Of course, not all of these folks were green peas; two had been in the car business a long time. One guy was in his 60s, wore cowboy boots, and looked a lot like Porter Wagoner (extra points if you know who that is). The other guy, J.T., was in his 40s and owned a small "dirt lot," but I guess he got tired of the headaches of being an owner and decided to try working for someone else. The other four were in their early 20s and had never sold cars before.

A couple of weeks ago, I walked into the sales meeting and noticed we seemed a bit shorthanded. "Where's Porter Wagoner?" I asked. "Oh, didn't you hear? He quit." And so had J.T., and so had two of the green peas. About a week later, one of the remaining green peas got fired, and a few days after that the last green pea, a guy who was exactly the kind of sharp, clean-cut, honest young man you'd want representing your company, got disgusted and quit.

We had lost all six of the people that had been hired just three months ago. And looking back over the past two years, I was not surprised. I've watched at least at least 16 salespeople come and go in that period of time.

Unfortunately, high turnover is not unusual in the car business. Chances are, if you buy a car today, when you come back six months from now to buy a second car for your son or daughter, the salesman who sold you your first car won't be there. Now, of course there are exceptions to this. The first dealership I worked at, the "new guy" had been there five years. Some of the old-timers had been there more than 20 years. But that's becoming increasingly rare. The average dealership has a 66 percent turnover rate among sales consultants, up 4 percentage points from the previous year, according to a study compiled in 2014 for NADA by ESI Trends, a Florida-based research firm.

So why is there so much turnover in the car business?

That's a question without easy answers. I would say, first and foremost, the car business demands a lot of time. I regularly work 10-hour days, but it's not unusual for me to work 12 hours a day two or three times a week, give up one Sunday a month, and sacrifice my day off the last once a month. And some people would call me a "part timer." In some areas, folks work 14 to 16 hour days, seven days a week. I used to work with a guy who was a manager at a large dealership in south Florida, and he told me that after working this kind of schedule for nearly a year it suddenly dawned on him that the only time he had with his family was when he slipped into bed with his wife at night (because she was always sleeping by the time he got home) or eating breakfast with his kids before they left for school. At that point he was making "ridiculous money," as he calls it, but it just wasn't worth it. So he quit and went back on the sales floor. Basically, if you're single, being in car sales is not that bad. But if you have a family, it can take a terrible toll on you.

Stress. Every job has stress, of course, but the stress can be so bad in dealerships it's almost palpable -- behind the scenes, in the places you're not allowed. Up front, we're all smiles. At the desk, everybody's on edge because we're not selling cars that month. Voices rise, tempers flare, fistfights can even break out. There is tremendous pressure put on everyone -- from managers on down -- to sell cars. Sell, sell, sell. That's the name of the game, particularly in the last week of the month, and everything else -- eating, sleeping, going to the bathroom, and your overall health -- is secondary.

This stress is compounded by the ups and downs of commissioned sales and the anxiety it produces. Will I have enough to pay my bills? Will I wind up "in the draw" again? What if the Simpson deal gets unwound? There goes my unit bonus. One month you're bringing home a fat paycheck, the next month you're making minimum wage. There are some people who simply can't handle that.

Respect. You won't get any in car sales. Meet someone at a party and tell them you have a Ph.D. in this or that or you're a technical writer for an aerospace firm, instant respect. Tell them you're a car salesman, and watch their faces drop. Oh. That's nice. Suddenly, they're treating you like you're a pickpocket.

And if that's not bad enough, sometimes even the people you work for don't respect you. Being in sales at some dealerships is like being in perpetual boot camp. I've had managers who make the drill sergeants at Parris Island look like Mr. Rogers after sensitivity training. Their preferred style of management: scream in your face. Call you names. Threaten to kick your ass or fire you or both. If you don't have a thick skin, you will not survive in car sales.

Lack of training. Here is the way salespeople are trained at most dealerships:

There are the cars. There are the customers. Go get 'em, tiger!

And that's it. That's the whole program, the sum total of what some of us are taught when we start. Throw 'em in the deep end. If they don't drown, they'll make good car salesmen.

No Perceived Cost. Here, possibly, is the biggest factor, the one that hurts us most because it's invisible. It goes unrecognized. People in management don't think of turnover as a problem because, after all, they're really not paying us anything. We're on commission. If we don't sell, we don't make money. Simple as that. And they don't have to spend any money training us, so if we quit, in their minds there was no cost. Replacements? Easy to find. There's a long line of green peas waiting to fill out applications. This is closely related to …

Car Salesman Confidential 1024 680© Provided by MotorTrend Car Salesman Confidential 1024 680

It's not a career. Let's face it. For many people, car sales is not their first choice of career. It's something they're forced to do because they can't find work in their chosen field. So they do it until something better comes along. This will continue to be the case as long as everything I've mentioned above stays the same.

Every good business needs good people to be successful. You can get by with high turnover rates, maybe even do well for awhile, but your business will never really thrive or reach the levels it's capable of without a good, dedicated sales force that is well-trained, knowledgeable, and there for the long haul. If you can't keep good people, you're doing something wrong. Even if your numbers are good, you're doing something wrong because your people aren't happy. The sooner people in the car business realize that and actually do something about it, the sooner high turnover could become a thing of the past.

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