I’m sure you’ve been there: you’re looking round a car main dealer at their new range of cars, usually to rule out buying a new car as they lose too much money anyway, and the salesman comes up to you and asks if he can help.

He proceeds to tell you about the range of cars he’s got currently in stock, and how he can get you whatever car you want. Most of the time, he doesn’t ask you specifically which car you want. He just wants to know if you’ve got enough money in your account to actually buy a car, or is he wasting his time even talking to you.

If this sounds unfair, I have lots of anecdotal evidence. One retailer even told a friend of mine that she couldn’t take out the car again for a test drive with her boyfriend as she’d: “had lots of test drives and would only be allowed to do it if she was actually going to buy it now.” She got up and walked out, despite actually wanting the car. And she told him he was an idiot.

The salesman was only doing what he had been taught to do: hard sell. Any customer with half a brain would have got up and walked out, telling him he had just lost a £17,000 sale. Would his manager berate him for losing the sale? Or would he praise him for following protocol and write off the customer as a time waster anyway?

These days, we know you cannot make judgments on how people look or dress as they walk into your showroom, but what is worse, in my opinion, is NOT asking questions at all when they do.

My wife and I had a recent experience with one particular car dealer locally. The guy was only about 30 years old. His comments were from another century. My wife wanted the biggest car in the range, to which he replied, “You do know that’s a very big car?” My wife took the implication to mean: You couldn’t possible park it or drive it little lady. Indeed, I thought the same thing from his tonality. I looked at my wife and we agreed silently to let it slide.

But when it came down to the finance of the car, my wife asked about “Redemption” to which he replied: “Don’t you know what that is? Well…” And at that point I said to him look, she works at this place doing this job. She knows more about it than you. She said of course I know what it means. I want to know what it means in this context, to you! Again, no questions; just assumptions.

Women shouldn’t be buying cars anyway. They should be at home in the kitchen, leaving all that manly purchasing and banter to us boys…

What did he do wrong?

He did many other things wrong, and I would be happy to copy/paste the lengthy email I sent to the dealership owner in here, but you’ll probably get bored. His main problem?

He didn’t ask a single question! He even told us that he’d automatically assumed she would stick to the same model she already has.

Ignoring the patronising language, he din’t ask her what she wanted, and he didn’t ask her “What is important to you about a car?”

If he’d asked that one, very simple question, he would have elicited a whole range of values, and then been able to match a car on his lot to her specific values. NO car salesman has ever asked me that question. If they did, it would cut down their banter time by about 90%. They wouldn’t even have to go into “sales mode” for most people. I mean, the customer has walked into your showroom. They are 50% sold already. If they walk out without a car, you’re an idiot.

Value elicitation will get you answers like this:

• I need a fast car with good handling
• It needs to be spacious for my kids
• I go golfing in it
• It needs to be very safe
• I don’t care about speed: I want gadgets
• The dogs will ruin it, so not cloth

And so on. Do you see how a very simple question on values will allow you to break down what the customer is actually thinking, and how they perceive a car from their model of the world? It is such a useful question, and when followed up with: “And why is that important to you?”, any car sales person NOT able to sell a car after that should be fired!

I offered to retrain this particular dealership’s entire sales team, even giving them information and advice on such phenomena as the Endowment Effect. Google it. It’s fascinating. But, they already have their own in-house training…

What needs to change?

Their thinking. They need to develop HOW they think about sales, and how they think about how they think about sales.

This will then inform their sales strategy, and their approach to selling… But how far do you want to go?

As a final word then, I would like to see this happen, just once when I’m looking to buy a new car: the salesperson has gone through some decent Vertical Developmental Sales Training (via Gables Consultancy, of course) and as I walk through his dealership doors, he greets me, does his banter and then proceeds to ask me “what is important to me about a car”.

After listening to my values, weighing up what I value, what I want, what I need, he considers his fleet, his stock items and says to me: “I’m sorry Mr Stevens, but we don’t have anything matching your values. May I suggest you visit the Jaguar garage just down the road? They will have what you want.”

What are the chances of that happening?