Sales Talk : nobody walks (unless it’s for fuel)

Mike Humble shares a story of working at the sharp end of the motor trade. This one cost someone his job, but gained a sale and gave everyone else a good lesson!

L-R Sir Peter Vardy with Alasdair Machonachie of Sherwoods Darlington

All of the big dealer groups have their standard sales process (the method of getting from enquiry to hand over). They spend millions studying the buying trends and motivations of the customer, along with vivid advertising in both local press and on local TV. Some groups even have their own classroom situation or academies, where experienced former-car salesmen or managers will train mobile ‘phone sales execs or fast food restaurant supervisors into hardcore car sales executives.

Like the title says, ‘Nobody Walks’, means that you – as a salesperson – must introduce a manager or team leader to your customer, in the event of no-commitment coming from the customer before they leave the showroom.

There is a sad fact that many of today’s sales managers refuse to leave their office to work the floor or be hands-on, so to speak. This is wrong, as I think introducing your potential customer to higher-ranking member of staff can often inspire confidence and help break down that wall of defence most customers (and rightly so) have when dealing with car sales staff. Contrary to modern belief, most of today’s sales people are no longer the spivs and shysters that used to work the trade 20 years ago.

There are simply too many governing rules and regulations to allow them to exist these days. All finance deals (under £25K) are governed by the FSA, and you are legally required to be accredited by the FSA before you can even sell a new car.

The Internet has changed the way we buy a car, and as a result, sales staff have to be switched-on and professional in duty to make sure they are competitive and able to make that deal… in theory anyway. On a personal level, the one thing that annoys the hell out of me is the dreaded Test Drive. Not the actual drive itself, but the rigmarole of preparing the car.

Running around looking for trade plates. Who last had the fuel card? Digging the car out of the showroom or car park may only take 20 minutes, but from a salesman’s point of view, it seems to take hours. Once, it took so long to get a car ready that when I finally had the damn thing parked outside ready for the off, the customers had finished their coffee and scarpered!

But getting to the chase, this one is about what can go wrong on a test drive:

The former dealer group of Reg Vardy was a formidable force. Not only nationwide, but very much in the North East of England. Sadly, it succumbed to a hostile take over battle with Lookers and Pendragon (Evans Halshaw) in 2006. Even though it was one of the biggest dealer groups, it was held in high regard both in the trade and with customers. The company took the attitude that customer service came before profit and chairman Sir Peter Vardy was a religious person with values and ideas of how his staff should perform their duties. It was a decent firm to work with.

The one thing that kept you on your guard was Sir Peter himself.

At any time and without warning, Sir Peter would leave his executive office in Sunderland, jump into his Jaguar and visit a showroom anywhere in the UK. He’d enter the premises via the workshops and would stop and talk to anybody, regardless of you being a cleaner or a dealer principal. This was not done with any malice or spite – the man simply cared about his business, staff and customers.

One time, a workshop manager spotted Sir Peter sweeping the workshop floor. The manager rushed up to Sir Peter apologising and blaming the workload for the fact there was rubbish everywhere. ‘That’s okay, son,’ said Sir Peter. ‘I can see you are way too busy to keep the place tidy’. Such was the man and his methods.

I remember a memo circulating the group from Sir Peter with regards to fuel, and making sure adequate juice was in the tank for a test drive. This was prompted by what happened to someone from the Sunderland Nissan dealership. A couple came into that dealer one blustery weekend looking to test drive a car – and as was the norm, the fuel light was glowing bright. Despite that, the bandy trio of three set off for a test drive.

On their return, the car ran out of fuel 500 yards short of the dealership, and the salesperson was guilty of two cardinal sins – namely, not having his mobile ‘phone, and failing to make sure enough fuel was present in the car.

The salesman left the customers with the stricken car, and hot-footed back to the dealer for a can of fuel. But it got much worse.

As the soaked salesman panted into the dealership, looking like a drowned rat, Sir Peter Vardy and his wife just happened to be driving along and spotted the crippled car at the side of the road with it’s hazard warning lights flashing away. Stopping his car, Sir Peter introduced himself to the now angry couple, and asked what the problem was. He offered them a lift back to the dealership, and they all set off in the rain back to the showroom in his toasty warm XJ8.

In the meantime, the salesman returned to the car with a can of fuel to find it empty and locked. Back at the showroom, Sir Peter was sat at the salesman’s desk with the couple doing the deal on the car and charming the birds from the trees.

Can you imagine the horror of that salesman as he returned to an abandoned car, then returning back only to find the top man sat at his desk, doing HIS job with HIS customers?

He could only watch from the wings as a florist arrived with a bunch of flowers for the lady of the couple, and they both got a mindblowing deal on a new Nissan. All topped off with Sir Peter’s sincere apologies. After they left smiling from ear to ear, the motor trade tycoon took the hapless salesman aside, and simply asked him if he would like a lift home!

Motor trade slang for the being fired!

Mike Humble


  1. My father worked for Vardys for years as a sales manager, loved the company, left though when the evil of Evans Halshaw (Pendragon) took them over. He said they were a bunch of greedy villains who cared nothing for either the staff or the customers. I remember on one occasion my father telling me of how he and his staff team been sent on a course (he’d been in the business doing very well for over 20 years) run by a 20 year old college leaver, teaching him and his experienced colleagues how to close a sale and generate maximum potential from a sale…

  2. Evans Halshaw only give reasonable service when you buy all their add-ons like extended warranty and servicing/MOT contracts

  3. Aha! So that’s the Mr. Vardy whose name graces the tag-lines of my number-plates!

    Love the test-drive anecdote, must have been a memorable day for all concerned!!

  4. Great Feature Mike and takes me back to my days of being at the coal face.

    Interesting that you mention the introduction of a senior member of staff. I worked for a Nissan Dealership that used the Pendle method (which, in retrospect, sounds like a menthod of contraception)

    Most of this seemed to revolve around the sales staff tooing and froing from the customer to the dealer principal to see what deal could be struck.
    A colleague of mine actually lost a customer as they took there opportunity to flee whilst he was in the managers office for the umpteenth time!

    It was an interesting time to be doing this as a living 20 years ago but I am not sure that I would like to be out there doing it now (and certainly not knocking out MG6’s at the moment!;-) )

  5. I don’t remember Peter Vardy, but as a small boy back in the early 1960s, I accompanied an aunt as she selected a replacement car. We were shown around the “showroom” by Reg Vardy himself in his gaberdeen suit and matching hat. She selected a Hillman Minx (registration 1664PT, two tone paintwork). He seemed a thoroughly nice chap. Later, my aunt commented that when she took her car there for a service, she would be invited into the house by his wife, for a cup of tea. Looks like the whole family were nice people.

  6. I spent over 40 years as a salesman and can remember many a take over, the new owners always told you that their new way of doing things was far better than what you had been doing before, we had Controlled selling systems introduced, all incoming telephone call had to taken at a desk where they could be recorded and anylised by a “specialist” later on, targets based on units where a “metal mover” would sell 35 cars and be salesman of the month, where another would sell 22 and make the company far more profit than the 35 but would be deemed a failure. As well as salesmanagers Sales controllers were introduced, “F & I” men(and women) the old skills of correctly appraising the PX went out the door we once had an ex-Comet electrical salesman taken on as a salesmanager who was given the job with no training at all you can guess the mess that got the company into ! I will bore you no more I thoroughly enjoyed my 40 years and met some great customers and workmates who I still keep up with today,

  7. Interesting anecdote – I remember Vardy’s & Sir Peter well.

    My most recent dealings at a dealership (not Evan Halshaw) were with the salesman until the haggling over part ex value got going, then the salesman kept scurrying across to his “Business Managers” office (I already knew that chap too). When I was about to “go away and think about it”, the Business Manager came up with a better trade in and some road tax added. The deal was sealed and deposit paid! These days it seems the Showroom Sales Execs just have the authority to get the ball rolling and get the client “loosened up”. All the hard cash talk is passed to the Line Manager types.

  8. It does look wrong to see the Jaguar dealership between Houghton-le-Spring and Sunderland branded as Stratstone these days.

    I still believe so much is down to the individual salesman as people like to buy from people they are comfortable with. I have come across good and bad at both small companies and larger companies.

    Incidentally I am currently in the process of buying a Jaguar and the dealership, Barrets of Canterbury, has been very very helpful and the salesman has kept me informed throughout without being overbearing – just what I want.

  9. I assume that most people who read this site know a thing or two about the car they’re looking at. I know I research thoroughly before I go looking for a car.

    What I want from a salesman is respect. I’m not an idiot and I know basically what I want; I don’t need someone telling me I don’t want a diesel becuase I don’t do enough miles. If I want a diesel, I want a diesel.

    What I need is a test drive over a range of roads (not the half mile I got from my local Ford dealer, having waited 3 weeks for them to arrange it!), a deep knowledge of the product and an introduction to the delaer principle at the right time.

    I bought 2 R75s from Evans Halshaw in Aston Birmingham with a wonderful old school guy. When Rover went, the appalling Stratstone took over, who when I’d bought my Volvo were vile to deal with when I challenged them about an aspect of the deal. Thankfully Stratstone lost the Volvo franchise and it is now a family owned dealer, where I have met both the principal and his wife and I feel far more comfortable. The salesman understands my needs and it is a proper relationship. Why is it that when you spend tens of thousands of pounds do some dealers think they can metaphorically rape you?

  10. The story is a great one; shame the man was fired. I once worked for a top-class manager (whom I recruited some years earlier!), and his attitude would have been to keep the sales person, since he’d just had a very expensive training lesson that he’d never, ever forget.

    Making mistakes should be turned around to the positive (assuming of course they are never repeated…).

    BTW – I’ve had appalling sales attitude from BMW (Chelt) and Audi (Worcs); but good at ‘Old Rover Dealer in Tewkes’, Honda (Worcs) and BlackHorse (Jn2/M5).

  11. earlier this year i was intent on purchasing a new land rover rover freelander and visited three dealerships the first salesman could only give me the retail price rather than what i would actually have to pay , to get any further on this he would need to consult his manager, when asked to do this he said he was unavailable at this time….. a later visit to a second dealership where i actually had a first test drive resulted in being quoted a more realistic price subject again to confirmation by another “missing” manager…..from that day to this i have never heard from either of them again……visiting the third dealership a few days later i was treated like a king,given a slightly better price than dealer two,introduced to the manager and ordered my new vehicle for delivery in a couple of weeks..both earlier dealers could-or would not give a sensible date. i have now had six months of very satisfied freelander ownership

  12. My Grandfather started working for Old Reg just after the War at Stoney Gate Houghton Le Spring, Driving Ex USA Left Hooker Army Wagons with very little brakes, Mr Vardy has come a long way since then as his original premises is now the Prestige Aston Martin/Jag sales site! When Grandad was alive He had plenty to say about this character.

    As for buying from Vardys I have always found them slightly ruthless, adding bits on here and there and the old skool type of trying to sus the customer out rather than listening to what the customer needs so have never bought from them, Though you do get good and bad Sales team which can leave a bad impression on that Franchise!

    Which brings me onto “The Salesman”, some people find buying cars quite pleasurable However this to me is like torture and trying to get a discount about as pleasurable as fighting with a vicious Alsatian Dog.

    The Last car we tried to buy (Not from Regie) was the typical VW Dealer, whilst I can see both sides of the argument of a very fresh faced young Man on a basic, but could easily double his takings for “the right sale” but time and time again I went to buy a car not start a fight .

    So despite doing all the paperwork before hand, Car Colour spec etc Then mentioning “I don’t want a sales pitch” and presenting the young Lad with “So how much could You sell it for?” Thinking this would be quick and He could get on with customers who want a good chat? Instead He was persistant in giving the full Sales Pitch, He even asked “Whos name is the car going in?” (My other half) So and quite brassent turned His head to Her and cut me out of the conversation…Brilliant, except it was me paying for it!

    An Hour and Half Later We got our price…. £500 more than the “On the road Price!” I asked how could this be? Then the usual countless trips to his Managers office 10mins at a time (To make the customer waiting game) He returned with “will knock £500 off the price… But could we sign now?”

    Before I could get up here was the Sales Manager and the salesman leaning over me Telling me that is a real good price! I had enough and walked out, They didnt seem bothered with this? two days later I had Head office asking me why didnt I buy the car?

    I told them they wouldnt “Discount” which Head Office replied “will sort this out” Then the Sales Manager phoned me and said will do for £500 less than ORP, At this point I lost the will to live and I replied is that all? He shouted down the phone “What are you expecting to knock the VAT off?” and He slammed the phone down… Lovely people!

    I then bought a copy of Whatcar and looked at the Target Price, £2k off they were quoting, so placed an order, No sales People to Haggle with just straight deal what you see what you get! Just wish we didnt buy Stupid motion.

    I apologise to the sales people out there trying to make a living, finding cars sorting out finance etc but after the Whatcar way, I cannot see the point in sitting though another sales pitch! which gets me as that magazine isnt Top Secret Information, just pop into your newsagent, so why the hard work trying to get the price down…

    Incidentally went along with a relative with the same Franchise but Renault Dealer, who couldnt of been nicer the young Lad could not have bent over more!

  13. Speaking of good and bad dealers, Reg Vardy always had a high reputation in the North East as Peter Vardy kept a close eye on his business and still ran it as a family firm. Similarly Edgars in Cumbria, a very successful former Rover dealer now selling mostly far Eastern cars, still keep their decent reputation due to the Edgar family keeping a tight rein on their business and demanding the best from their staff. I visited Arnold Clark a few months ago and the staff only seemed interested in selling dubious warranties and insurance policies and rip off finance deals and I promptly walked.

  14. I’d not give Evans Halshaw the time of day ever again, nice as pie until the car was bought, no we didn’t want to take out tyre protection, no we didn’t want this that or the other, and no I’m not paying a fee for you doing YOUR paperwork! £99 admin fee GTF! To save us walking they graciously dropped the charge, no discount on the price, but then it was cheaper than same model and spec so took that one, after sales they just don’t care, despite them pinching the locking wheel nuts off the car and denying it despite being given photographic evidence. Give me a proper, family run dealer who treats the customer as a person rather than just someone who will bump the commission up this month, it’s not rocket science.

  15. If Peter Vardy was so brilliant how come he lost his firm to some shisters called Pendragon and Lookers? Simple he got offered a shedload of cash and he realised he would never have to speak to the general public again and own any Jaguar he damn well liked.

    @ Rob C, it would be great to have a dealer like that but firms have these ideas that they need to make BILLIONS a year just to stay afloat!

  16. Ben:

    I take it you don’t understand how a PLC works?

    The shareholders own the company, and all you can do is advise your shareholders to either accept or refuse an offer.

    In this case after Sir Peter advised to refuse, the board decided to accept anyway. But he was smart enough to be title holder of the family name.

    It was not as simple as taking the money!

  17. Thanks Mike. I had a vague idea it was to do with shareholders, however he had control of the company in 1976 but just 16.6% by 2006 so he allowed the majority shareholding to be held by someone else? And could not convince the board to follow his advice when the time came?

    Some reports suggests that the family agreed to the initial offer. He held 16.6% so he made around £83m. Not bad for 30 years work!

  18. Ben, the local Ford dealer here is a family run business, and I happily use them. OK I did my work experience there, and also had a Saturday job there when I left school, and I loved every minute of working there. There are still a few that are still there now after all these years, and the place has expanded since the 80s, so yes they are out there, you may have to look for them. Would have bought from them but they couldn’t find the car we wanted, the shysters in Cardiff were one of the few places that had one in the colour and spec for the price we wanted to pay.

  19. Back in the late eighties I was a trade buyer, dealing with main dealers through out southern England, on visiting a local Vauxhall dealers, the usually chirpy sales manager was looking very glum indeed, the reason being a salesman had just ‘lost a deal’ on a top of the range Carlton. Sure the ‘chat’ leading up to a test drive had gone very well, on the test drive the salesman had offered the ‘customer’ the chance of a drive, pulling the car onto a layby the salesman got out of the car, as he walked around to allow the ‘customer’ to get out, the customer had other ideas and had scrambled into the vacant drivers seat and sped off along the bypass, to the dismay of the salesman now standing in the layby. eventually the salesman returned to base,and the above story unfolded. Despite a good reward offered for information the Carlton was never seen again. On checking the ‘customer’ details it was found his name was listed as a Mr J Bond, the ‘shaken and stired’ salesman did keep his job, as he was family.

  20. I have bought more new cars than many people will have as I’m in charge of our small fleet and we work for OEM’s who ask us to buy competors cars for them to tear down (or we do that for them). I get tired of the time it takes for the sales man to agree a price with his dealer principle… its a game of poker every time.

    Best look I ever had was buying a 306 GTi… yes i’ll take the showroom car, no I’m not too bothered about the mark on bonnet. Any extras; mats, mud flap, seat covers? err yes, just one, I’d like and engine and gearbox assembly! I did the same at the Renault dealership the followign day for Megane Coupe. Both cars and their engines were tested to limit before being scrapped.

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