Sales Talk : The boom and bust of the Swiss Frank

Carole Nash Classic Insurance Specialists

Mike Humble recounts a strange and troubled soul he once worked with. While promising to make no reference to the fact that creating an essay… is rather like making love to a beautiful woman!

Charlie Higson as his brilliant alter-ego Swiss Toni - Larger than life, yet often close to the truth too!

One of my all time favourite TV shows since reaching adulthood was The Fast Show. Readers of a younger generation may be baffled, but for those who are not aware of this superb telly nostalgia, at the time it caused a sensation when it hit the screens. With characters like Unlucky Alf, Paula the Weathergirl or Ted and Ralph, The Fast Show was one of those programmes you would stop in for and discuss and dissect at work the following day – just like you would have done at school following the previous evening’s Minder. The cast was collectively some of the finest comedic talents this Country offered and subsequently made household names of likes of John Thompson, Paul Whitehouse and my favourite – Charlie Higson.

One of the many sketch characters played by Mr Higson was Swiss Toni, a failing yet ultra smooth talking used car salesman sporting a 1960s Tony Curtis hairstyle and an off the peg Italian style suit. I found this man hilarious, not simply for the fact he was a motor trader, but also because he was so symptomatic of many a salesman not that long ago. Toni had a troubled soul, and part of the gag was the fact that he was teetering on the brink of a nervous breakdown, and during discussion with his trainee Paul, Toni would go off on a tangent, comparing every aspect of the motor trade like, ‘…making love to a beautiful woman’. Obviously, Toni’s wife had left him and the only sinking wreckage he could cling onto, was his sales job.

The BBC commissioned a full series of Swiss Toni which sadly bombed, but as a quick sketch piece of comedic genius, Swiss really encapsulated the sometimes sad and lonely place that even the busiest of showrooms can be. Employed by a large Rover dealer, I worked with circa 1994, was a used car salesman called Frank, he had sold cars from the used pitch for a number of years with considerable success. Why he had not become a manager or dealer principle was obvious, he had no leadership quality or sound acumen, but the public loved his smart suits and Cossack adorned hair. No one really knew Frankie that well, he kept himself very much to himself and lived miles away from this Midlands based dealer, but I was to find out more for sure.

Frank Kennedy sadly passed away a few years ago, and even though at best you could only scratch the surface of the man behind the Debenhams suit, he was a fascinating person to know. Even though collective sales people are all in competition with each other, you still have a laugh or a joke and often need to push in the same direction, not with Frank, he worked on his own agenda. When in full cry, he chirruped like a Canary with customers but to the rest of us, he was very quiet and spoke with few words and seldom socialised after work. You could not place your finger on it, but there seemed to be a deep hidden rage or temper within and rumor had it that some years back his business partner did a flit with the money, ruining him financially.

After coming off the tools and eventually going into sales, our paths crossed again almost 10 years later and he was still the same. Now working at a PVH-run MG Rover dealer, Frank once again ruled the used car site, never setting the world on fire, but making a decent living none the less. Frank used to charm the birds from the trees, especially with the mature customers, but his weakness, which subsequently became his downfall, were younger customers or the buyers who would not commit on the spot. If Mr and Mrs Goggins came wombling onto the pitch armed with a brace of walking sticks foaming at their mouths looking at a low mileage Dover white Rover 45, Frank would be away and out of his seat as fast as a Greyhound lure.

Should a younger couple or a mid-30s man stride into the fray, Frank would pass and allow one of the other lads to attend to the customer. This factor is known in the trade as ‘Cherry Picking’, an easy habit to fall into and something every salesman had been guilty of at least once. In one of those cruel twists of fate that is now symptomatic of car sales, we gained a new Dealer Principal for no real reason other than change’s sake, and, rightly or wrongly, this new chap wanted to make his mark on things. In no time Frank now found himself selling brand new cars and the poor bloke was like a fish out of water. Gone was the whiz bang fast turn over with used cars, Frank simply could not cope with people saying no or wishing for a little time to ponder and around the same time, his marriage collapsed, slowly yet surely Frank turned into Swiss Toni.

Well, it all came to a head one Saturday afternoon after a couple came in to view a new showroom model. I was sitting with a customer so Frank went and did the honours. The husband of the couple was on crutches owing to a long recovery period following a motorbike accident. I knew this because they both lived not far from me and it had also featured on the local news – the guy was very lucky to be still alive. They chatted, took a test drive and seemed to like what they experienced so, subsequently, figures were cobbled together with the aim of doing a deal. To help my colleague, I knew the couple on face terms so, every now and again, I would stick my head in and ask if everything was okay with them trying to boost their confidence.

There seemed to be some disagreement over part exchange allowances, so the new metal was discounted to act as a counterbalance, but the customer was failing to understand how the numbers crunched and became a tad fractious. The way I have found to work when in this situation is to simply say, ‘don’t worry how much we are paying for your car, let’s both worry about how much you want to pay for ours.’ The cost to change is the only thing that matters. Small discount with good part ex price or huge discount with market value part-ex price – the outcome is the same, it’s all in the dialogue. Either way, the customer was just a little confused about how the numbers worked; after all, buying a new car is a sometimes daunting experience.

Sitting just a few feet away, I was feeling the pain and embarrassment and it was almost like watching a plane crash from afar – nothing you can do to help, just wait for the loud bang with gritted teeth. Deciding to play devil’s advocate, I entered the fray to try and iron things out by suggesting we left them to ponder at his desk for little while. Making a let’s split gesture to Frank, we made them some drinks and popped outside for a sneaky puff, but my workmate made it quite clear outside he did not want any help. Far from being someone who takes pleasure in watching someone hang themselves, on this occasion, I decided to sit in the viewing gallery having had a genuine offer of assistance rebuffed with mild hostility.

Frank sauntered back to the couple sat at his desk and the husband asked if the deal could be explained to them one more time before they decide. This was sadly the straw that broke the camel’s back for Frank. Thumping his hand on the desk, Frank yelled, ‘Jesus wept! It’s your legs that are knackered not your head surely’. Well, in one of those surreal moments of silence, the couple with perfect timing looked at each other, swigged their coffees down and quietly walked out of the showroom without muttering a word.

Frank was duly summoned into the Sales Manager’s office for tea and biscuits before being seen quietly walking out of the premises about 15 minutes later!

The Rover 45: Akin to your local chippie offering cod and chips for £4.50 on Tuesday. This was Frank's OAP special.

Mike Humble

Upon leaving school, Mike was destined to work on the Railway but cars were his first love. An apprenticeship in a large family Ford dealer was his first forray into the dark and seedy world of the motor trade.

Moving on to Rover and then PSV / HGV, he has circumnavigated most departments of dealerships including parts, service and latterly - the showroom. Mike has owned all sorts of rubbish from Lada to Leyland and also holds both Heavy Goods & Public Service Vehicle licences, he buys & sells buses and coaches during the week. Mike runs his own automotive web site and writes for a number of motoring or commercial vehicle themed publications

45 Comments

  1. The Harsh realities of being a salesperson, when your doing well then everyone looks up to you, but if your failing then your hanging in the balance awaiting your fait, I have not been a Car Salesman but have witnessed a few being demoralised to the point of wanting to end it all.

    The 1st Garage I worked in was very much an “upmarket scrapyard” with the painted sheds in the showroom (If you could call it that) and the Bangers and Mash around the back, which tended to invite some very unsavoury characters.

    But the Salesmen (no women were ever employed at the time) were highly opinioned and very judge mental, But also had a knack of being quite abrupt in telling customers what They Wanted (for the showroom cars) but depending on how dodgy the Punter Looked resulted in almost giving the end of life cars away just to get rid of the characters (Nearly always a group of them, very rare did they purchase alone).

    However after just leaving School I saw 1st hand how these salesmen honestly thought they were Gods Gift to anything, Like telling the Mechanic how to work on engines (He was old enough to be their granddad) But if cars wouldnt start they always shouted for Him ! And any Females came in, even as a 16 yr old still wet behind the ears … It was embarrassing!.

    But the main Partner of the place (A nice Gentleman…), was a huge Heavy Looking Man with the Manners to match, would wonder in and Demoralise everyone who worked their and wasnt actually that nice to customers, He kept the Sales people on their toes as they constantly looked over their shoulders incase He caught them Standing about and would even shout at them in front of Punters ” F”cking Sell some cars or Get Out ! ” .

    I often wondered how Bad was it in other Garages for these guys not to leave? That Car Sales is still there though many different owners over the years.

  2. I enjoy them very much indeed. Mike, more please. I could even see a one-off book of these delightful stories, similar to the much lamented “jalopy” mag.

    Alway like it when a new Mike post appears.

  3. I always enjoy these too Mike – as well as the cars. Its all part of the fabric of what we enjoy, and reminiscing. Please keep these coming.

  4. @ Andrew. No I’m not getting bored of them. I look forwards to reading Mike Humble’s stuff. And it’s not easy writing a good essay of that length, either.

  5. I love Swiss Toni. My headmaster reminded me of him. Although he never said at assembly; “Running a school is like making love to a beautiful woman…”

  6. Mike, keep up the stories. It takes me back 30 years to when I was a teenager working at a small Renault dealer in the Southeast. I did Saturday mornings and other odd shifts on the petrol pumps, as these were the days when some garages still hadn’t switched to self service. It was a small place, but did everything, new cars, second hand cars, servicing, spares, bodyshop and even breakdown and accident recovery. There was only the one salesman, sometimes assisted by the owner and as the desk for the petrol pump attendants was in a corner of the showroom, we would often see his sales technique in full swing. An instant long lost friend to anyone who looked like a genuine prospect, the punters either loved it and kept coming back, or ran a mile. But it was clear that new cars particularly required a level of patience that I knew was beyond me. In the two years I was there I only recall the one guy who knew exactly what he wanted and in which colour, everyone else dithered endlessly over cars, specs, colours, new or second hand. For me it confirmed my career choice as an engineer.

  7. I love these stories; I used to sell cars, though not at any sort of dealership – more the sort of place Keith likes to go kerbcrawling at. In an era when yes, we COULD buy a car for £50 and sell it for £150 just as easily as the 5-7 year old finance things.

  8. Wonderful thread Mike,brings to mind stories of my 30 odd years in the motor industry.Why not do stories about the mechanics in the industry,they usually just as funny as the salesmen.

  9. I like these stories too.
    I think everyone has experienced the dred of entering a car showroom, waiting for a salesman to pounce on them followed by the “Can I help you Sir? ”

    I like reading Mike stories of salesman’s point of view.
    Keep them coming Mike.
    I agree, Swiss Toni – was brilliant.

  10. @2 – What else can anyone else on this website write about – there’s more detail here on BMC, BL, ARG, MG Rover, SAIC, UK Chrysler, certain Fords and lord knows what else than any other car website out there! What more do you want? Mike – take no notice – I find your blogs about the lost art of selling motors fascinating!

  11. Another great piece, although touched with a tinge of sadness too…

    It is sad to see someone who held a degree of respect within the company even though they were nearer the bottom rung of the ladder end up being cast adrift as times change. I have seen it in my previous job, staff doing a good (but not ‘brilliant’) job for years then being expected to ‘adapt or die’ when new management/processes etc come on the scene and are expected to perform as well as ‘high flyers’ 20 odd years their junior.

    I think the big national franchises are killing off the service-focused businesses and the industry is all the poorer for it

    Keep up the articles, Mike. And I’m also looking forward to the mechanics’ takes, having had a few as best friends over the years.

  12. Why do some people think tey have the right to dictate what content is included as if the site was created for their exclusive enjoyment?
    I ignore certain fetures of my prefered newspaper but I don’t complain that the bit I don’t read shouldn’t be there !
    AR Online’s thrives because of it’s variety, all of it interesting and a lot of it amusing.
    My father was a sales manager with a Datsun dealer (Bawns in Bristol-formerly British Leyland as far as I know) I dabble myself occasionally and I love the sales talk secion. MORE please..
    I worked in one of the so called “upmarket scrap yards” selling cars-after I’d tarted them up, wheel siver and tyre black works wonders on most bangers! every receipt stated “spares or repairs” and MKII Cavaliers routinely had “timing adjustments” to shut the buggers up if the big ends were banging a bit..
    We’d take ANYTHING in p/x, some idiot would buy it. A very nice Cortina taken in px at £50, somewhat less than the possible discount of the car purchased donated its camshaft to a very nice but noisy MKIII Granada which was then sold on at top money of course..
    I must say my personal opinion on these practises differed from the owner’s view, I was all for good relations and repeat business but his approach was there are plenty of new punters, and responded to one oomplaint with a baseball bat. Glady there are less of those types these days but you can find them if you look.
    In my early driving career I was a regular customer of an outfit that avertised in the paper as “Banger car sales” Hubert Gay, the owner was a nice enough guy but the stock was the stuff the upmarket scrap yards rejected ! happy days..

  13. Great stuff Mike, keep them coming.
    Great to hear stories about the dark arts of car sales.
    Must have met many a Swiss Toni type over the years. But others as well.
    I went through a period of student bangernomics years ago to see if I could get away with running cars that cost almost as little as a bus ticket. Thankfully, not far away was a guy who traded under the name of ‘Dan The Banger Man’ who always had some offloaded p/x metal for pin money that he cheerily flogged to punters for a few quid profit a time. He was always very genuine, never tried ripping you off ‘It is what it is’ was a favourite phrase of his, and would even have a small bet with you to see how long it would be before the car gave up the ghost.
    Had a literal fleet of “good runner” types off him over an 18 month period which usually had a month or two’s ticket and a smidge of tax and got me around and about until the scrappy came calling. Great memories.
    You tend to find salesmen (or would that be sales persons now?) in dealerships now seem to have little time or interest in you as they always appear to be clock watching and working on a fixed amount of time per punter.
    However, there are some examples of good service.
    My father recently decided to change his car and took a look at several brand new cars before half settling on a Merc A Class. Out of all the dealers he went to (this would be a cash on the nail sale, btw so surely of interest in cash strapped car sales times) the only one who bothered to call back and enquire about his thoughts on both the car and how he was looked after when he visited and took a test drive, was the Merc dealership. So, you can guess which car he ordered….Nice new A Class on it’s way to him very soon.

  14. Great article as always Mike. These bring back so many memories of being in sales (and no doubt open the eyes of those who have never had the dubious pleasure of working to sales targets). The car industry would be nothing without car salespeople – keep the stories coming Mike!

  15. They are cracking tails, but I do have a degree of sympathy with Andrew @2 comments. The website does seem to have drifted towards a car salesmans forum in recent months. I do miss the constantly evolving Leyland/BMC etc history that used to be the centre point of this website.

  16. I went for an interview at a Ford dealership in the North East. I can say without question the most daft interview I have had bar Go-Ahead buses. They went through all the usual stuff, experience, car knowledge etc then asked me about the sale process and how I thought it would work! After I gave my theory he then sat there and told me I was wrong in a fairly arrogant manner before asking me to sell him his own pen!!!!

    By this time I was put off the job entirely so said, ”Do you need to write notes for this meeting?” He nodded.

    I said ”Then you will need this pen”

    ”Why would I want to buy this pen?”

    ”Because this pen makes blue marks on paper and other materials which when arranged in a certain order form words. It also the only writing instrument in this room which represents something Ford have not done since the 80’s and cornered the market. Since the arrival of cheap credit it does not matter how good the Mondeo is, badge snobbery will always mean the Germans will win hence the number of Audi’s with Lloyds TSB Lendlease on the numberplates. The major failing I can see with this exercise is that one the one hand you want me to sell you a disposable and freely available item from your own stationery cupboard. (He tried to say something at this point but I beat him to it) Moreover, in order to make a sale one must first gain attention, interest and desire. Why would you grant your attention or be interested in someone who was trying to sell you something you already have?”

    ”Thank you Mr. Crane we will be in touch”

    I never heard from them again.

  17. When I sold Fords I worked with a guy who looked and dressed just like Swiss Tony. I thought it was a wind up first of all until I realised actually that was just the way he looked and dressed.

  18. Another Mike Humble “inside story” – very interesting. Luckily I’m not the stereotype customer as discussed here but nevertheless I wouldn’t put up with that attitude/behaviour from a salesman either…

    Secondly, looking at that photo of the silver 2004 MY Rover 45 reminds me those short lived nine-spoke alloys looked rather good

  19. @22 I have the opposite experience of a Mercedes dealer. A few years ago, pre-recession and kids the wife was looking for a brand new car and one of the cars she was interested in was a Mercedes SLK. So went to the dealer in Belfast and a salesman came over and she asked about the car, saying she was interested in it. And every question she asked about the car the salesman looked at me when he answered it which really annoyed her. At the end he just handed her a brochure and said to call him back if she wanted a test drive. So she went a bought a Ford Focus ST instead.

  20. Thanks for another tale Mike. I occasionally get my fix of Swiss Tony from Youtube – there are loads of chucklesome clips of him on there.

  21. @ 27 thats fantastic and at the same tragic because its true!

    Several years ago I was told the phrase ‘Analysis Paralysis’ where by one analyzes a situation so much they actually kill it. And this is what todays managers seem to do, I don’t completely blame them, there is usually some eejit above them telling them to do it!

    It always seems mad to me to move someone from where they are moderately successful to a position where they are uncomfortable and will struggle.

    The major point that the dealer/interviewer missed and its so crucial it hurts. A salesman needs to help you decide that you want to change your car for one of the cars he is selling. Therefore it needs to be better otherwise why bother?

  22. Good stories. There’s more to cars and the car industry than just engineering and it’s great to have Mike filling the gaps.

  23. I find this website cracking, I really do enjoy the saleman tales as they bring to life the other side of the deal when going into a dealership. Best tale I heard was from my own aunt (who unlike myself is well to do).

    When Carcraft opened up in the North East she went for a look as she was in the market for a new car. She was pounced upon and then asked to sit for a ‘breifing’ on how to buy a car as they make it easy. She soon realised (suprising how many people haven’t though) what overpriced metal they were selling and just decided to humor them.

    After 30mins or so she decided she had enough and went to leave (which trust me is quite hard when you visit there as the practically bar the door!)and the salemans asked why.

    She said that there was nothing there in her price range, he said no problem we do easy finance and can sort out a good deal. She said no, you don’t understand, you don’t have anything expensive enough and promply left and bought a new BMW 6 series.

    Don’t worry, my nine year old Avensis still keeps me going!

    Great site, keep up the fine work and keep the salesman tales coming!

    • Ah yes Martin, the dreaded car supersites!

      I foolishly attended and interview with a similar outfit after a row with my sales manager. I sat there waiting on my day off for about 20 mins after the alloted time, and just as I was about to scarper due to boredom, I was called into the sales upstairs office.

      Well they picked and poked everything about me, right down to the fact I had a moustache at the time. The panel of 4 managers asked me to explain how I sold a car and what my process was. This I explained and one banged his hand on the desk and barked “forget everything you have learned”

      Another asked what my biggest weakness was. So I told them I sometimes make mistakes with decisions. So does everyman said the manager, he then asked for an example.

      Coming here on my day off was my retort, and I bode them good day and walked out

      Just as I was plipping the car locking, a manager came over and said they needed people like me, someone with bollocks he quipped.

      “No thanks, I said…. This site is bollocks” and drove away.

      The site went into liquidation and was sold on shortly after!

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