Guest Blog : The North Wind Doth Blow…

Carole Nash Classic Insurance Specialists

Another guest blog comes from Chris North, a sole trader and ex Sales Manager with Austin Rover – Honda – SAAB & Vauxhall.

This man knows his onions (and his cars for that matter) I should know by the way… I worked with him!

 

My name is Chris North and this year marks an important anniversary in my life, I have worked in the motor trade for 35 years.

To clear one thing, I have never been a huge fan of Rover or Rover orientated products, or any other brand in general for that matter, they have been a means to an end and nothing more or less than. I dip in and out of this web site purely and simply because of the passion and love which is there for all the world to see about the former one time motor industry we had in our little island. The blame for my time spent trawling through the thousands of articles on here, lies squarely at the foot of a certain Mr Michael Humble, or as you aficionados call him, Swiss Mike.

Speaking with first hand experience, Mike is not Swiss but in fact from the North and was a hoot to work with and to watch him work the punters, he had a lot of time for people and seemed to take a genuine interest in them. Even though we had some monumental arguments from time to time, he trusted me as a senior team member and the same trust was reciprocated back. If I think hard enough, some of the guys who worked under me names including Tim Harvey Phil French Ron Porter and Frank Kennedy along with Mike were trustworthy and passionate men who not only sold cars, but achieved the highest pinnacle in the sales game, they built relationships!

As a sales manager, you rely on your foot soldiers to go into the jungle alone, gain the intelligence and sell some wheels without what we would call wet nursing. In the good old days of my time, the salesman would be responsible for every aspect of the deal from the greeting handshake to the jolly wave as Mr or Mrs Bloggs drove away from the premises in their new car. There would be none of the running backwards and forwards with sheets of paper to the back room, I had a very simple rhyming philosophy, “I didn’t want to know unless the punter wants to go”

In the modern world, they call the manager getting involved as second facing, this only used to happen as the last resort because your guys knew when there was no more meat on the bone. Today it seems they are sat there in front your customers as a part of the process, taking away the salesmans gift of negotiating with people. Irrespective of what you may hear to the contrary, people love a good haggle and a tussle with a salesman because at the end of the day no one ever became offended by saying no, a phrase I used to drum into my staff for years.

When I started out selling cars in the late 1970s we never enjoyed such luxuries as desk computers with built in diaries, everything was done by hand with a pen and so far as a basic salary went, I worked commission only, because if you weren’t hungry, you soon bloody well would be. It was a harsh cruel environment and good salesman were two a penny to employ, and in some of the big dealer groups back then you could be fired just for wearing the wrong tie. No £10.000 basic wage before bonus either, you sold cars or died of starvation, your choice and sounds cruel, but trust me they were good times for those who wanted it bad enough.

Some brands of cars were better than others too, in the modern world, your wage expectancy or earning potential will be similar irrespective of if you sell Ford Vauxhall or Volkswagen. Travel back in time to the mid 1980s when I retailed Honda and things were very different indeed. Repeat custom was the key and customers would refuse to deal with you if their usual salesman happened to be on a day off when they came in to view the new Accord Aerodeck. Once again, it’s about relationships and I recall being roundly rebuffed by an elderly well heeled couple who came to view the new Legend. I was looked upon and spoken to as if I was dirt on their shoes, the sales manager told them when the executive would be back on duty and indeed, they did come back.

Another example of this came at the Saab dealer I worked for, very briefly. This was my first promotion, I was the new car sales manager and on my first day, I rounded up the troops for a Monday morning sales talk and of course to introduce myself. It did not take long to realise they had never had any form of briefing or guidance from upon high. This was around the same time as the 9000 launch and the dealer had sensed that Saab was maybe going to hit the big time. After a month two of the four salesmen had resigned, not through any fault of my own other than to put new practices into place with this established, but set in their ways dealership.

Cars like this `85 Aerodeck were non conforming, yet everyone that came into the UK were snapped up and rarely discounted.

Fringe market brands used to be like this, and certain makes like Honda or Saab would seldom discount, hence why salesman could sit and wait for custom, the profit margins were staggering. Well after a three month battle, I sensed that the sales staff resented any form of change and senior management, too scared to rock the boat, never fully backed me up. So with great reluctance, I handed back the keys to a red 900 turbo and requested a lift back home. My efforts were wasted and it was three months of my life I shall never see again and the dealer sold out and closed down a couple of years later.

But they say revenge is a dish best served cold, and this came true shortly after the above Saab dealer changed hands. By now I working with an Austin Rover dealer as sales controller and I advertised for couple of experienced car sales execs prior to the August rush. The advert ran for a couple of weeks in the local press and right in front of me was a letter from a name that rang a bell, I called the chap for a quick chat and offered him an interview. Well it was none other than the first guy who walked out on me from Saab and by looking at his resume, it was more than apparent he had no stability.

Within a few moments of sitting in front of me, I saw the colour fade from his face as he realised who he was sat in front of. Not one for bearing a grudge I asked him how he thought he would fare in a volume car world opposed to his former comfort zone selling a trickle of niche market vehicles. I never received a good answer but he put on a good show and I went on to offer him a job but at first he was a total disaster. After a couple of private chats and the threat of the sack, he pulled his pants up and matured into a decent salesman and the last I heard of him, he ran his own pitch somewhere in Wales.

So when people ask me what was it like selling cars in the past I will tell them it was hard, cruel and brilliant in equal measures. Anyone who is looking to carve a career in a modern, bright car showroom in my honest opinion needs their head examined. The internet has killed off most of the experienced salesman and spoilt the cut and thrust of negotiations we all so much used to love. New sales staff come and go and I have seen this for many years, give an 18yr old ex mobile phone store boy a new Fiesta as his demo and he will be sure to sell a car or two to his family. After a few months, his heart will be broken and his beginners luck will dry up and he will be gone. No doubt replaced by an 18 year old ex mobile phone store Saturday lad and the cycle will repeat once more.

But as for me being semi-retired? Well the internet is also a wonderful world where you find people with a similar passion and enthusiasm for the motor trade all the pleasures and horrors related to it. So how interesting it is that not only has the Internet driven down the cost of motoring and buying a new car as well as slowly making old salesmen dinosaurs, but it also celebrates and preserves the past in equal proportions. No other web site I know offers this level of dedication and unsurpassed love and affection not only for British Leyland but the British motoring scene in general.

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

8 Comments

  1. Nice article.

    Today, you can buy a car on the Monday and walk in the next day and the salesman won’t have a clue who you are.

    In respect of ‘second facing’, I looked at an MGF a couple of years ago in a dealership near where we live, and the salesman seemed a decent & easy going guy. Enter the sales manager, with a shouty voice that would put Tommy Sheridan to shame, and the no-eye-contact conversation so prevalent among trained monkeys these days. Probably someone like your Saab exec who moved on to the next job when it looked like his bullsh*t patter no longer worked, and he was about to get found out about how good he REALLY was

    Needless to say, we left and did not buy.

  2. I was always convinced that cosmetic companies made a special, extra strong “car salesman” grade of after shave only available to the motor trade. If you were just on a car lot to window shop you could smell them coming from a mile away.

    Personally I think, speaking from the customer’s point of view is that a lot of people would rather visit a dentist than a car showroom due to the oft-confrontational nature of it all with pushy, commission-hungry salesmen that has fuelled the growth of internet sites and what-you-see-is-what-you-pay car supermarkets. Not least the greed of the official UK importers of a lot of foreign makes as well which was exposed a good few years ago. Soon you will be able to buy new cars on Amazon.com – I wouldn’t be surprised. Sad that it may be a dying trade, but it is one which has sown a lot of the seeds of its own demise.

  3. Here’s one of mine, from a friend that was a top salesman at Comet (and drove an MG ZT turbo diesel followed by a MB TF incidentally). He went to work at the dealer that sold him his MG ZT, lured by the promise of wages to dream of. He did say that the money was good, but the pressure was unbelievable and the hours were ridiculously long. The worst bit was that if you were the lowest performing salesperson of the day, the fact was announced to all the other salespeople by making you drive home in the “embarrassment car” – a five year old pale yellow Vauxhall Agila with no wheeltrims and pink fluffy dice that had come in as part exchange! The best performing salesperson had their pick of whichever motors had tax on.

    My mate returned to Comet by the way.

  4. A common practice that, and I will be man by admitting I copped our graphic adorned City Rover Solo.

    In protest, I walked home that night and came in by bike the next day!

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