Humble Opinions: Are you being served?

Mike Humble is wondering why despite their constant cries of tough trading times and badly needing to shrug off reputations of poor practices in the trade, dealers and sales staff just don’t seem to care or want our business…

What killed this dealership? - An ever increasing sight.
What killed this dealership? – An ever increasing sight.

The typical car salesperson in most peoples eyes, is often thought about with similar fear and distrust as swimming with sharks or watching a party political broadcast. Just like Politicians and sharks, a car salesperson is indeed part of life’s food-chain – in other words, loath them we may do but we cannot live without them. In many cases I have defended them, partly because I have done the job and partly because most of the ones I have known on the whole ply their craft and do it well.

Once, they could sell you a car with complete disregard for the law and ram some ridiculous finance packages into the bargain and it was also not unknown for the exec to earn more than the dealer principle. Those days are long gone with the Financial Services Authority (FSA) keeping a watchful eye on all transactions or finance deals under £25.000. The modern sales person has to undertake FSA accreditation before they can ‘legally’ sell a car or related finance and that includes the finance & insurance based policies like GAP protection.

We would laugh a while back at TV characters like Swiss Tony or Frank Butcher even though their smooth and charming had dark secrets behind them, they weren’t far off the average pedaller of motor cars. They had time served experience, a gift of the gab, knew the trade inside out and what made customers tick – you only lost the shirt off your back if you allowed them to. On the whole they were good fun guys to know or work with and their managers would often work the floor too just keep a hand in.

The late Frank Thornton as Captain Steven Peacock - Once a mature dignified sales manager would rule the roost of the showroom floor - Bring `em back I say!
The late Frank Thornton as Captain Steven Peacock – Once a mature dignified sales manager would rule the roost of the showroom floor – Bring `em back I say!

It was not uncommon for some to work on a purely commission only wage so their demeanour and attitudes were both pencil sharp – the best enjoyed the good life while the rest simply went hungry. You can now buy a car in a supermarket, on the net or even from your mobile phone which means the traffic walking into the average showroom has decreased massively over the last 15 years. Taking this into account, you would think that practices and customer service would be at an all time high.

Even more so if you consider we are now only just coming out of a truly disastrous recession, but this is seemingly not the case and its been demonstrated time and time again. Every now and then, I love to wander into a random car showroom, not to waste their time but to just soak up the atmosphere and see how they work the floor. I play the browsing punter, ask a few questions and scoot spending no more than five to ten minutes – a salesman’s time is very precious but that brief period is an education.

I have perused the premium cars and meandered around the mainstream and it seems most of them cannot be bothered to acknowledge your presence, look like a professional salesperson or in some cases, even have any member of staff on the premises. Once I stumbled into a quiet Mazda dealer where in all the ten minutes I sauntered around the outdoor pitch and showroom, saw no one in sight. The exec had left his desk drawer half open where I noted a few sets of keys, a mobile phone and a wallet – I could have had a field day in there!

A Citroen dealer I visited had a full compliment of staff on hand that totally ignored me for almost 15 minutes and only spoke to me when I approached a sales desk and asked a question – his computer screen showed his Ebay account too I kid you not. When the other half’s car was due to be changed a little while back, we nipped into a local Renault showroom and were equally sent to Coventry, so much for the hard times I so often hear dealer groups bickering on about – my heart bleeds for them.

Its not only myself who finds this either. I hear the same stories time after time about shoddy salesman, dodgy dealers and customers being ignored. Yes its true we all hate pushy execs in cheap suits but just the same, we like to be acknowledged if not appreciated from time to time. The current lack of experience and attitude from so many dealerships provide the ammunition to the countless internet sales sites that fire a salvo into the showrooms. But oddly enough the public actually do prefer the old fashioned way.

People enjoy dealing face to face and would rather commit to a new car purchase by a meaty shake of the hand than by a click of the mouse in my experience. The main problem with many dealer groups is that they refuse to accept the fact that staff retention is worth its weight in gold. Instead, they recruit ex mobile phone reps who still live with mum and dad for a crumby basic but throw in a company car. They more often than not do some deals to close family members and friends and when the sales run dry – they’re sacked.

At the end of the day, this is how people like to buy a car - Face to face and by a shake of the hand.
At the end of the day, this is how people like to buy a car – Face to face and by a shake of the hand.

The process then starts again… and again, keep an eye on your local paper situation vacant section –  I’ll bet you’ll see the same dealers advertising for the same roles with alarming regularity. Move up the tree a little bit and it gets no better with the sales manager. Whereby once they ruled the floor with an iron rod akin to Captain Peacock looking refined and respectful, they now hide in a back office only showing their acne pimpled faces if they think your customer is walking off without buying there and then.

Another thing to ponder over are the manufacturers themselves. In a time where profit margins are slimmer than a razor blade, manufacturers are going to great lengths to make appealing cars. To go further, nobody makes a really bad car in the present day but the car itself is often judged by the dealer groups. The makers need to play a much bigger part safeguarding their multi-million pound investments by taking a hands on role with the dealer groups forging a bigger and more beneficial relationship with the end user – you the customer.

The motor trade is sadly lacking the experience of a few good men that could make it so good again for everyone concerned, but they seem to be unable to recognise this and refuse to adapt to changing market forces. Good customer service and the almost guaranteed repeat or recommended sale has to be worth something more in value in the medium term than breaking your arm to agree to the super dooper fabric and paint protection. Service with a smile and unbroken promises make money, churning the staff and burning the customer? need I say any more?






  1. “The main problem with many dealer groups is that they refuse to accept the fact that staff retention is worth its weight in gold”

    Sadly this is not just Car Dealers, most firms have this issue….

  2. I agree with all of this.

    In fact, it’s another reason why I’m not sure I’d ever buy a new car. With classic/used cars, you HAVE to inspect them, ask careful questions of the seller, and at least part of the decision to buy depends on the trust you place in the seller – and therefore they HAVE to put the effort in.

    The few times I’ve ventured into new car dealerships, I’ve either been ignored, or treated like an idiot.

    The worst thing – not something you’ve mentioned but I’m guessing you’ve also encountered it – is the total lack of any attempt made by salesmen these days to work out precisely what it is you want from a car. Instead, they’ll dig deep into a course of psychological sales-bullshit the boss sent them on, then rattle off a big list of ‘essentials’ and ‘things you want’ in order to try and up-sell. You go in with a vague interest in looking at a basic estate car and they’ll throw their heart and soul into trying to flog you a cramped little hatchback loaded with unnecessary tat for nearly twice the price.

    They also don’t know their products very well. I perused a Citroën dealership once because I had a brief interest in the DS4. No, I couldn’t have it with smaller wheels. No, I couldn’t delete any of the options. And as I later discovered, no, humans cannot fit in the back seats despite it being a five-door diesel hatchback.

    The salesman squirmed and mumbled, then claimed that it wasn’t a five-door diesel hatchback at all, but in fact a ‘sporty, driver-focused 2+2’.

    No it’s not, it’s a five-door diesel hatchback, it’s just not very well packaged. And all the people in car dealerships seem to know are the ins and outs of their finance packages. One mate of mine was actually refused his offer of cash to buy a new Audi A1, as the salesman was on commission and would only accept a finance deal (with interest). Said mate spent some of the money on a secondhand Focus instead, and the rest on a fly-drive holiday, America coast-to-coast in a Camaro.

    However, I think the people the new car dealerships should emulate are the new bike dealerships.

    Rather than buying a new car, I bought a new motorbike instead. I went in having had a flick through What Bike and knowing very little else beyond owning a learner-legal 125 a few years earlier.

    The first thing I was asked was what I wanted the bike for, and how much I was looking to spend. How fast did I want to go. How little fuel did I want to use. Was I going to be doing a lot of motorway riding? How many miles was I going to do each year? Was I planning to keep it indefinitely, or trade it in for another bike?

    The people on the sales floors of bike showrooms also seem to know the bikes from a technical point of view too. They know what goes wrong with them because they’ve serviced them, so they’ll tell you. You aren’t treated like an idiot – they’ll tell you how much they cost to service, how often this is, and what the strengths and weaknesses of each bike is. Crucially, they’re all bikers. They love bikes.

    Yes, they know how to do a finance deal, but their primary interest is in their product. Their enthusiasm rubs off on you, so you feel more likely to buy from them, and you get the distinct impression they understand you, as they’ve taken the time and effort to work out what you want.

    The ex-mobile-phone salesmen in car dealerships just don’t seem to get this. Their passion isn’t for cars, it’s for ‘selling’. Problem is, despite this rhetoric, no-one really has a ‘passion for selling’, they have a ‘passion for making money’ – and no customer will ever respect that.

  3. I have to say, that my past experiences in car dealerships has been pretty much as described in the article. I can’t stand ignorant or inattentive sales people who make you feel like your presence is an inconvenience.

    Then last week I was looking at a new Suzuki at a dealer in Kidderminster and they were the total opposite. Helpful, polite and non-pushy, they made the process just about as painless as possible. Thanks to them I’ve ordered a car which I should be picking up in two weeks. If there had been any sign of being pushy or unhelpful, I wouldn’t have hung around. It makes a nice change to see there are dealers who can get the basics right.

  4. I’ve just bought a nearly new Astra from a Vauxhall dealer in Uckfield and found the experience to be excellent. Once I’d swept away the nonsense prices and APRs the whole process became very customer focussed and, dare I say, pleasant…

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