Sales Talk : Browsing’s a lonely task… so it seems

Mike Humble


A seasoned salesman will always profess to be able to spot a browser or a messer a mile away. What total and utter rubbish, I once saw an elderly couple when my guard was down, thought they were goons and palmed them off onto a colleague. So convinced I was about this, imagine my surprise when my work mate qualified them, test drove them and dealt them all in one sitting.

In the trade its known as ‘Cherry Picking’ and mark my words, you only every allow this to happen once or twice in your career. Yet all salesmen are guilty now and again for taking the low hanging fruit, but during these difficult times you would really expect things to be sharper.

A short while ago, I wrote a piece about a nearby Citroen dealer and its awful sales technique. Bad sales attitudes really does make my blood boil especially when manufacturers go to extreme lengths to produce a jaw dropping car that deserves attention like the current DS range. Sadly this has happened again on a very recent visit to Cambridge on a research mission for my up coming book title. Arriving in the City slightly early, we decided to kill 45 minutes by taking a drive to the local motor village for nothing more than a quick browse before my meeting with Dr Tom Karen of Ogle Design.

Anyone who knows Cambridge will be aware of the fact one of the largest family owned dealer groups resides in this stunning City. Right opposite their group head office you will find a splendid looking collection of showrooms selling a whole raft of marques and one of the largest used car pitches you will ever see. After finding a space right outside their Citroen dealer, we parked the trusty 11-plate Golf whereby ‘er indoors asks me to show her the DS5 I so much adore. Wandering into the showroom we notice a disinterested looking Ryvita munching receptionist by the door who never even lifted her head to make eye contact to greet us.

Once inside, the sales staff were moving the display of cars around (a big no no on a Saturday) and we had a good look over a DS4 and DS3 where my other half commented on the funky bold styling. A C5 Tourer caught my eye which was placed right by the managers office window where I had the chance to scan the board that shows recent sales activity – and it failed to make good reading either. Making our way towards the door Jacky barked at me about how no one spoke or greeted us in the slightest right in earshot of the receptionist whose ears pricked up and went to speak – too late, we were gone!

A few yards down the pitch was Volvo. These cars feature heavily in both of our lives, her dad ran a few of them and swore by them while I had a brand new V70 a few years back while my company A4 was having rear end accident damage repaired. The showroom was neat and tidy with a few slightly older sales staff sat there with prospective customers. After spending just a few moments admiring a V60 we were approached by a jolly nice looking chap with a broad smile and well polished shoes. Rebuffing his advances with my secret stock retort that always works, he simply beckoned us to continue browsing – lovely stuff!

He could gained top marks for asking my name and handing me his card but on the whole I felt that had we genuinely been in the market for a new car, I would have continued dialogue with them. Volvo always had good standards to operate to, a old friend sold them for 20 years and used to tell me how they were mystery shopped all the time and how the UK importers in Slough would come crashing down like the walls of Jericho on any dealer who failed to make the grade or upset a customer. It seems that despite the various ownership upheavals of Volvo in recent years, the dealers still operate a tight and professional ship.

Coming back to Citroen, its interesting to note that after a lengthy conversation I had with a top PR man with PSA UK in Millbrook last month, they are well aware of the shortcomings of certain Citroen and Peugeot dealers and plans are afoot to deal with this issue. The French are doing a fair amount of work to revive the range of cars, yet all this is a total waste of time if their dealer networks operate with all the professionalism and finesse of a chimps tea party. But more worrying is on the part of the actual dealer group, like the above, the pitch contains a raft of different franchises – one would think they would be fighting for your business wouldn’t you?

Mike Humble


  1. Visited the same dealer a few years ago (recognised the picture). I was coming out of a company car scheme so walked in with a pocket full of cash and no trade in. Was looking for a mid size MPV, so had a look at a C Max (they are Ford dealers as well).
    The salesman did not even stand up, told me the car in the car in the showroom had a flat battery so could not unlock it to enable me to see the interior (fairly key to an MPV prchace). I asked for a brochure, he did’t have one, but printed of a spec sheet (in black & white)off the Ford website for me and suggested I look at the website if I needed to know more. Needless to say I never heard from him again, did’t my the C Max or anything else from that franchise.
    In the end bought a Berlingo (why, apart from open top motoring, does anybody buy anything other than a Berlingo anyway, a discussion for another day) from a small family dealership instead, now on my third and also have a DS3 in the family fleet.
    Clearly selling cars is just too easy and profitable.

  2. Mike, this really made me laugh but not in a funny way. I bought my DS3 from said dealer last July and they really are the pits. Owing to a bad experience with their service department I gave the salesperson a torrid time and he had to fight tooth and nail to get my business. It’s a shame Duxford Citroen (as I have alluded to in the past) can’t compete price wise with this bunch of idiots. I used to work in Cambridge and nobody I knew there liked dealing with this company but if you wanted a new car (with the exception of Renault) this lot were the only choice.

  3. Did a similar thing recently at a large multifranchise dealer.

    Had a look at the nearly-new used section, the Peugeot section (508 caught my eye) and the Toyota section (few Avensises about), no-one acknowledged by existance.

    The Renault section, that I happened to pass to get back to the customer car park, a striking special edition Laguna coupe caught my eye. The salesman came over and talked about the car, offered me a drive which I politely declined there (was idly browsing, didn’t want to waste any more time) but did take my name and gave me the business card.

    Locally, 2 Citroen dealers are family run – Hallidays at Bushmills and Martins of Killyleagh. My dad used to get great service from the former, and the latter – if you visit that town every other car is a Citroen.

  4. Interesting comments about the Volvo dealership, Mike, as the Exeter one is certainly not like this one! Instead it is a picture of gloom, with long serving staff being moody and having no enthusiasm for the product. You certainly don’t feel valued as you walk through the entrance.

    Yet, just up the road in Taunton, the Volvo dealership owned by the same Westcountry-based family group, is more welcoming and appreciates your business. Amazing how large family owned concerns have such fluctuations in standards of customer service. I thought it was just the large corporate groups with an egocentric chairman and greedy shareholders.

    • I believe the Taunton dealer was previously owned by a smaller, if not sole company prior to its buyout by the big boys. My mum worked there in the 80s and it appears that there’s still a strong presence of the same staff now. I guess they learnt their values through the ‘good old days’ rather than a bunch of monkeys in a boardroom on a mass produced programme.

  5. The dealership in that photo looks very soulless and expensive, I’d be wondering how much I was contributing towards that!

    I think Peugeot is slowly improving, just helped my Mum get a cracking deal on a 59 plate 207 VTi automatic. The staff were attentive and helpful, letting us browse when we wanted to browse and on hand to answer any questions we had.

    Fiat however were a disaster. Not only did they try to sell us a car we didn’t want they referred to LAST YEARS brochure and didn’t even know the engine size of their demonstrator model!

    Luckily I’d read up beforehand so I was able to answer the trickier questions…

  6. Hmm its that fine line of “The Sales Person” being interested, or just stalking… One occasion I even parked my JCB on the road and wondered in with oily overalls, did get some strange looks but I must of come under the typecast of ” He,s working, He has money” so was quickly surrounded and couldn’t get away…

    Also when the Golf was in for numerous updates (sadly out of warranty and still not resolved) To relieve the boredom when I sometimes waited for the car, a slow stroll around looking at the new cars, you quickly learn never to open the doors, I’m sure there alarmed as sure enough out pops a Sales person who tries to use psychology to see if your a “Messer” But even walking about with a cup of free beverage in one hand still, they magically spring out of nowhere… Even using one liners like ” My car is in for Service” and “I shouldn’t be looking” Isnt enough one even follow me outside to look at the used lot.

    Still if I was in the market for looking at a new chariot, bit of attention aint a Bad thing, But I still hate the whole process of Buying a car.

  7. @3. Yes used to live near Glasgow. Arnold Clark are like Tesco’s. Trying to take over the world. I think that Tesco’s customer service is considerably better than Arnold Clarks however.
    Worst experience I had was at an Arnold Clark dealership in Glasgow. Can’t remember which one. Was looking at a small used car (again cannot remember which car it was). Asked the salesman for the keys to unlock it. He hovered about with us at the car and after only a few minutes asked, “have you finished looking at it yet?” When we decided to walk inside to discuss what deal he could do (I had already decided that I had no intention of doing any deal with them) he stormed ahead of me us. How rude. He was abrupt and impolite when inside. The salesman next to us slammed the phone down at the end of a call so hard I am surprised the table didn’t implode.
    The problem in Glasgow is that all the small garages seem to be run by gangsters (not a flippant comment. They actually are run by some very shady underworld characters). So you end up with no choice other than going to Arnold Clark.

  8. Worst experience was in an Audi dealers about 2 years ago. Wife explained she was interested in a NEW A3 1.6tdi as it would wipe out her tax bill on emmissions. After much delberation we eventually got to drive said Audi, a used one and a 3 door so not what we were after at all. Anyway throughout the 6 minute test drive the salesman kept on about what a good deal this USED car was. I remind you that we needed to buy a NEW car to take advantage of the scheme.

    We returned to the dealers and the salesman kept going on about used cars and generally behaving like an idiot. We asked for a price on the new one and after much delberation he reluctantly gave us the price and asked us if we’d like to place an order. When we explained that the A3 was the first qualifying car we’d looked at and that actually we didn’t think a 5 minute test drive was a way to determine whether or not the car was any good he announced he was busy and that ‘other people were waiting’. A quick glance around confirmed we were the only people in the dealership. I remarked that it was odd that he was concerned about the queue when they appeared to be no one there. At that point he got up from his desk and literally walked us out of the door.

    We went next door to BMW who welcomed us with open arms and explained that they got a lot of business from disgruntled people who visited Audi first.

  9. @8 Reminds me of a few years ago, my car was being repaired at Edwards Bros, a ford main dealer in Salisbury. To kill time whilst waiting I wandered into the showroom and was looking at the new cars there. I was approached by a salesman who looked hardly old enough to have left school, who asked me if I was interested in the Granada that I was looking at. When I said that I was only passing time waiting for my car he went away, only to return a couple of minutes later saying “you are interested aren’t you”. My reply was no, and I think my bank manager would have something to say if I lashed out on the car, to which he replied that you don’t need to trouble your bank manager, we lend you the money, to which I replied “yes but I still have to pay it back don’t I”. He did not have an answer to that, and went away.

  10. @11- and a few others. You seem to expect gold plated, copper bottomed service despite being downright rude and condescending to salesmen yourself. In my experience it pays to work at a developing a raport yourself – Salesmen are only human and are far more likely to want to deal with people they like. As an old colleague of mine once said to someone behaving badly toward him. “Lets get one thing straight, you dont treat me like a **** and I wont treat you like a ****” Resoect is a two way street!

  11. @13. Wise words, and very true.

    As a fairly successful ex car salesman, I learned the law of “the more mud you throw at the wall, the more that will stick”
    ….meaning that speaking to 10 punters a day (in a mainstream volume sealership) is far more likely to get a sale (or two) than spending 4 hours with 1 prospect who after test driving 4 cars on a Saturday afternoon, still may not deal.
    Having the ability to qualify punters on the pitch was the way to avoid being messed around and wasting time with tyre kickers.

    All sounds harsh, crass, unpleasent……but on a 10k basic + comission….a fact of life.

    The manufacturers who sell us all these automotive dreams and ideals distance themselves from this murky world, but i can assure you, they are the creators and controllers of it all, albeit 20 miles behind the front line without getting their hands dirty.

  12. I tend to buy my motors about a year old after someone else has taken the big depreciation hit. I have to say that dealers are highly variable. Arnold Clark in Grangemouth were pretty pathetic, whilst the nearby Honda garage were excellent. [I was working in Grangemouth at the time]. In contrast, Honda in Chester and Crewe were very poor with a collection of very junior erks trying to be smart.

    Audi in Chester were utterly arrogant so I left in short order but VW along the road were far better when we bought the wife’s Golf. The best I have dealt with in the last 10 years were Mercedes in Erdington who were professional and exemplary.

    The one thing that really hacks me off is the junior sales assistant who has no idea about car specification, no information on any offers and who can only refer you to the sales manager to talk money, but will be keen to get your phone number so he can pester you later.

  13. @Will M – 4, my buddy in NI.

    My dad lives in the bushmills vicinity and we have had a few Citroens off Halliday. Everyone there does indeed buy either a Citroen or a land rover / rover off Frankie Jamison up the road a bit in dervock! We are now in discoveries and 75’s and often call with frank

  14. You should try the Ford dealer in this group. Great cars, totally indifferent service, they really couldn’t give a damn!

    What? You want the service book stamped? Oh we forgot!

  15. @16

    We live nowhere near Bushmills, but my father used to source his Citroens from there. They seemed to be a lot more helpful than the big Boucher-based multifranchise dealer….

    Strange how some towns prefer particular brands purely because of the proximity of a local dealer.

    The Honda dealer I’ve dealt with for a couple of service items, but they seem very helpful, and labour is 1/2 price because it’s an older car.

    Have never dealt with the local Audi dealer (and likely never will), they do cracking trade as they are situated right beside a large Corporate/Investment banking office. Often see them taking some junior assistant deputy manager in an A4 TDi for a test drive, racing up the road. Got bad press recently for sacking a pregnant lady –

  16. The smaller Citroen dealers are definitely better. Looking to replace my lease car (much underrated Volvo C30 2.0D RDesign) I had a specific list of new contract vehicles available, and went to the multi-franchise Wilsons of Epsom. I’d phoned and booked a time to drive an Astra GTC turbo 180 and a DS3 THP155, and confirmed these were the specific models I’d be testing (didn’t let on I wasn’t a buyer).

    It took me ages to find anyone to speak to, let alone being approached. The guy I had an appointment with was ‘busy’ so I ended up waiting for a good 20 minutes. It then turned out the Astra they had in mind was back in the showroom and the only GTC I could test was a diesel. After the Astra test the chap from Citroen wasn’t available and I had to wait an age for another salesman to show up. He went into proper old-school sales mode, asking me to stand back and look at how ‘beautiful’ the car was, and trying to up-sell me spec before I’d even sat in it. I noticed the test car only had a 5-speed box and commented that I thought all the THPs were 6-speed. ‘No, it’s just an option’ was the reply. I thought the car was gutless for 155bhp (even though I they’d only let me do a ridiculous short test route through stop-start suburban traffic) and dismissed the DS3 out of hand.

    When I got home I double-checked the Citroen website and confirmed that all THPs were 6-speeders – he’d had me driving the non-turbo! So either incompetent or a liar. I’d spent 4 hours of waiting around and driving two cars I didn’t want to test.

    I was visiting my folks a week later so decided to give Citroen a 2nd chance and book a test drive at nearby Motorhouse Citroen in Coleford, Glos. The experience couldn’t have been more different. The salesperson was waiting for me and they got an unregistered demo limited Red edition out of the showroom, handed me the keys and let me see what the car was made of on my own. None of this ‘we have to drive you out off the premises and follow our test route for insurance purposes’ rubbish.

    I noticed Citroen had some finance and service packages to rival my lease deal, so started talking numbers. They worked really hard to get my business, and I was so impressed that I bought the demo there and then! The car was registered on a new 13 plate the next day and I got a follow-up call a week later to check how I was getting on.

    I’d gone to them with no intention of buying privately – not only did I come out a happy man, Motorhouse’s great service got them a sale too!

  17. I had the same “test route only” crap off the Honda dealers in Mansfield. I explained that I wanted to see what the Insight would do on a Motorway as that was where it was going to spend its time and that it had to prove itself against the Prius. No chance, the salesman got even grumpier..
    I called into Listers Toyota in Lincoln and it was totally different. Even though I could only afford a Gen 2 Prius and made it very clear, they gave me the keys to a brand new Prius and let meo out for two hours on my own to play.
    So I bought a Prius instead of the Insight simply because I couldn’t get a decent test drive of the Honda to let it prove its figures against the Toyota.
    The guy at Toyota Nottingham was a prize bell-end, however. 21 year old wanna-be Swiss Tony.

  18. Living near Cambridge as I do I am not a bit surprised.
    Both my father and I, have, on several occasions left that dealership after being either ignored or treated as half-wits.

    But, they used to have a really good parts department, only to close it last year!

  19. I was a salesman for over 40 years and I can remember working with a salesman who looked out of the window and judged his chances of selling a car purely on what the “punter” was driving, so if anybody rolled up in a Citreon BX or a Alfa Romeo 33 for example he always let somebody else go out and meet and greet and he would wait for the Ford Escort/Fiesta or Vauxhal Astra/Nova to drive up and always end up with a very mediocre deal and yet some of the owners of the less popular marques were very of 0ten very well educated to what their car was worth having done the rounds and just wanted to offload and get back into a mainstream model and very often you could have a big earner from just that one deal .

  20. @21

    I agree Stephen, I have sympathy for car salesmen with all they have to put up with. As I have seen from the rest of Mike’s very interesting articles, it must be frustrating when they go all out to provide an excellent service for someone who doesn’t appreciate it at all or turns out to be a timewaster. Together with increasing pressure to meet sales targets from demanding managers/dealer groups/manufacturers, while of course it isn’t an excuse for lack of effort, I can well understand how their passion and enthusiasm for the job could diminish after time.

  21. @25

    But when you have sales staff who totaly ignore walk in customers (a rarity these days) they are guilty of wasting the time and money their dealer group invest in them.

    Sure, we were only browsing, but how were they to know if they fail to ask or qualify us?

    More worrying is the fact that this is the 2nd Citroen dealer to fail in this area…. piss poor training and standards – NOTHING else.

    I can sympathise with flagging attitudes but when the fire has gone out, its time to find another job

  22. 13 & 14. Well said both of you
    I have been at the sharp end of “retail motor sales
    ” for more than 20 years. You do develop a sense for people who will slow you down.
    Bear in mind BMW encourage a slower and more thorough process but we are only Human. The conventional wisdom of service seems to get abused at every point in the Motor Trade.
    I have had customers take 4.hours of a Saturday then buy from a broker or come clean at the first service that they were up for a company lease car all along. Plain dishonest at times.

  23. Marshall’s don’t have the best reputation for customer service around here to be honest. I went to look at a used Jaguar XF at the Cambridge site and after a good few minutes peering in to locked cars with nobody coming to assist me, I wandered in to the showroom. The salesman unlocked the car for me but didn’t seem bothered about offering me a test drive or showing me any other stock that fitted the bill – poor effort I thought. Very different to the Mercedes dealer I had just come from.

    Anyhow, can someone tell me how the manufacturer can improve customer service vs the franchisee doing their own thing? Marshall’s are one of many large groups who like to have their own ‘brand’ but it sometimes seems at odds with the manufacturer’s own? How does it work? Who has the last say?

  24. The worst I encountered were Phoenix in Muswell Hill when they took over the venerable Palmsville Rover Garage. They went from good customer service to awful almost overnight. They tried to sell my sister a Rover 25 with an obvious door fault (clang & rattle), and then had the temerity to argue that there was nothing wrong with it.

    The final straw with Phoenix was charging £400 to service a 5 year old 214. When questioned why so much they replied “we steam cleaned the engine”.

    It was a shame when I remembered back to 1997 and we were treated extremely well when buying said 214. Very good service back then.

  25. I recall walking for the first time into a Fiat dealership in Camberley some 23 years ago to be greeted by a salesman who had both feet up on his desk laid back in his chair who preceeded to let of a rather large belch!!.
    I could only assume he did this because I was a guy and dressed in working clothes but I could quite easily have been a punter with money burning a hole in my pocket.
    Needless to say the garage has long gone!

  26. 32. I could hazard a very good guess to the identity of said Salesman. Used to introduce himself to everyone as Doctor T********.
    Was once a Vauxhall Salesman and sold an old retired couple a Nova. The legend has it he proceeded to order, prep and register an Astra for them as he couldn’t tell the difference!
    When they came to collect the car and pointed out his mistake, he simply said “what a deal!”

  27. When we were expecting our third child and therefore needed to fit 3 carseats in the back, some kind of medium MPV was required.

    I went into my local VW dealership with my wife and were there for (I kid you not) 45 minutes looking around, climbing all over Tourans, sitting inside, measuring, the full works. I think the receptionist acknowledged us, but there was not a word from a single sales exec. Not even eye contact.

    After a while, it became a game: just how long could we keep it up before anyone spoke to us, but we could only keep it up for so long…

    They never deigned to speak with us, we duly left and subsequently bought a Zafira.

  28. The best car salesman I ever met was at Coronation Car Sales in Swindon – now long gone, this was back in the 60’s. One would walk in to a pretty average and rather grubby showroom of about 20 cars and he ‘d appear after a few minutes. He stand behind you, light his pipe, get it really going and then say “if you need any help or want to drive it, give me a shout – I’ll be in the office”. Great – one knew exactly where one was. In those days one would simply swap keys and then go off for half an hour and have fun!
    Bought several cars that way.
    I later became a Vauxhall salesman and took up the pipe but I’m not sure I quite mastered the art – I got moved to the Parts Dept quite quickly – but I was only about 20.

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