Tales From Sales: The Fatal Flaw With Auto Telephone Sales

By Matthew Guy, 30 April 2012

Telephone “ups”, meaning new customers first contacted over the phone, have been a staple to sales folk of all stripes ever since Alexander Graham Bell and his extravagant beard rang his neighbor in 1875, possibly asking for directions to the nearest bar in order to cope with yet another frigid Canadian winter.

Phone Auto Sales

On this particular day, I remember hearing the phone ring during after-supper hours. When I say ring, I actually mean “shrill piercing tone with a high pitched noise of such gravitas as to drive away every canine in a two mile radius”. The dealer had installed a system that amplified ringing telephones in an effort to abolish missed calls. There were no missed calls but I’m pretty sure I answered in a deafened state on more than one occasion.

The customer on the other end was inquiring about a small van he had seen on our website. During this point in history, digital media was in its infancy, so our gazillion dollar digital camera was permanently locked away save for the times when the used car manager gave his kidney as collateral so he could take a few snaps of our inventory. I answered a few basic questions based on my mental knowledge of the car, took his information, and pledged to follow up.

Later that evening I was back on the phone, expounding the virtues of this van.

“Mr. Customer, this vehicle will fit your needs to a tee. It’s a beautiful dark green and has features you seek such as air conditioning. It’s super clean”, I enthused.

“Great!” said the customer, “Let’s talk about my trade.”

“Shit!” I wanted to exclaim, but didn’t. Trades over the phone were generally verboten, given the inherent difficulty of trying to appraise something that wasn't physically present. Remember, digital photos were space-race stuff at this point.

I gamely took down his information, noting to him in my gravest of tones that it might be difficult to sort out a trade value given the fact he was over 600km away. He was certainly hot for the van in our inventory though, so I made sure he was satisfied with our conversation and, as it was almost closing time, assured him that he would be hearing from me the next day.

A chat with the used car manager revealed the dearth of pre-driven, pre-dented, and pre-owned vehicles being sold that month. When he started to search for a pack of cigarettes, I knew he was thinking about going ahead with this deal, especially given that this van had been on the lot for over 100 days.

“Offer him $1500, at most, for his trade”, the used car manager rumbled through his walrus moustache that was always frayed out at the ends. “I need this deal.”

Thinking for a second, I leaned forward and said “I’ll get it for less if I can keep half the difference, plus my normal commission.”

“I need every dollar I can get, so go for it,” he replied. Looking at it now, a lot of our sentences started with “I”. There’s a profound observation there.

Right as rain the next morning, I called the prospect and hashed out a deal. It really was a good van he was buying, so that part was an easy sell. The trade was more troublesome but I did end up getting it for $1000 even, a bit less than wholesale value, based on a single declaration.

“It’s a bit rough on the right rear”, stated the customer.

Not only that, but keep in mind that this customer was 600km from my 6x6 office. We worked it out where we would meet halfway, swap vehicles, sign paperwork that I would bring with me, and part ways. Had I known how rough the trade was, a drive of 3km, not 300, would have been deemed too far.

I vividly recall driving to the prearranged meeting place with my girlfriend at the time, who was more than pleased to go on a road trip away from her perpetually boring roommates. Labelling her as an Excitable Female would be a gross understatement, so the 300km trip was punctuated by side-of-the-road pit stops, followed by illegal speeds to make up for lost time. Once we arrived, I quickly wished that we had stayed at home.

The trade was an utter wreck. A door handle was made of jute twine. The backlight was replaced with what appeared to be a painter’s dropcloth installed by Edward Scissorhands. The right rear was indeed rough, if you consider the complete lack of sheetmetal to be rough. Plus, the tires were balder than Mr. Clean.

A deal was a deal. The customer had faxed agreements signed by both parties so we exchanged keys and he was on his way, leaving me and my female friend looking at a forlorn vehicle in an empty parking lot.

“At least it smells nice!” she happily chirped. All I could think of was how in the name of God I was going to get $1000 for this wretched heap once I got back to the dealership. Plus, we had a 300km drive ahead of us. Adding to the dismay, it started snowing about halfway back, causing the bald tires to skate across the roadway as if they were qualifying for the Winter Olympics. The brown pants factor was high. There were no side-of-the-road pit stops on the return trip.

Back at work, I called every single wholesaler in town. No one would touch the thing. If I’m honest, I couldn’t blame them. The used car manager was no help; he evaporated when he saw the jalopy, instructing me to make the deal.

“Get a grand or the difference comes off your commission” grumbled the Walrus.

I ended up calling in a favor from a friend who owns a scrapyard, insisting that he could make his money back on parts. He was skeptical but gave me the $1000 I needed. The customer was never heard from again and over-the-phone trades were once more discouraged by the dealer. Sometimes, Pa Bell’s invention needs to have an intelligent operator on each end in order to be truly useful.

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Find Matthew Guy on Twitter @matthewkguy (Matthew the Car Guy)

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