It's never TGIF when the pay envelope is skinny.

Some weeks are like that of course, but if you want your next pay envelope to be fat with sales commission vouchers, spend most of your time with your customer learning how they'll use their new vehicle, the average miles they drive in a year, whether they have kids or not and their budget.

“The selection process is very important; this is where most deals go bad,” says Glen Crawford, vice president of AutoMax Sales Training, Northfield, NJ.

“I tell new sales people that unless they have selection with the customer they have nothing,” says Tom Tarczon, sales manager for Victor Motorsports, a Ford dealer in Wauconda, Ill. “You want the customer to see himself in his mind's eye driving that car away.”

That relationship-building time translates into dollars in your pay envelope.

“The rule of thumb is there's $16-$19 worth of commissionable gross for every minute the sales person spends with the customer in the selection process,” says Richard Libin, executive vice president of Automotive Profit Builders, Framingham, MS.

Get customers to slow down

Selection begins by taking control of your customer — and guiding him along your timetable, not his. You want to defer price and price negotiation until selection has been made, but that can be difficult to manage with customers who come to your dealership “just looking,” “in a hurry” and who “know exactly” what they want.

“Customers usually don't know what vehicle and options are best for them when they first come on your lot. It's your job to slow them down,” Crawford says. “You do this first by spending the time to properly qualify the customer, finding out their needs and wants while building some early rapport. Remember, people buy from people they like.”

Only after you've helped the customer select the right vehicle should you sell them on the product and off the competition.

“If you don't properly qualify them you can spend hours selling the product only to find that you have to switch vehicles because you put the customer in too much car,” Crawford says.

Libin points out the need to sell the first $15,000 of the $20,000 car — the standard features and safety aspects — before you move onto the moon roof and other add-ons.

Too often, he says, sales people forget how important some consumers value safety features and when shopping often buy from the one sales associate who happens to point out the redundant safety of the dual-reservoir master cylinder “even though cars have had dual-reservoir master cylinders since the 60s.”

Another technique is to get your customer emotionally involved with the model he or she is selecting, says Tarczon.

Place your hands over your customer's on the second row seat latch to show how easily they fold up and out of the way for the third-row passengers. Get them to bend down with you to look at the tow hitch welds under the truck frame. Finally, invite the customer to sit behind the wheel and then go together on a test drive.

Handling the shark tank

At some dealerships, the selection process begins the minute the prospect walks onto the lot. At others, effort is made to guide walk-ins to a sales associate's desk where the process can get underway.

In the real world though, “it's hard to shuffle folks into a shark's tank that quickly,” notes Ron Catronio of The Professional Edge trainers, Coral Springs, FL.

“I start with a warm friendly greeting to create a casual dialogue. Selling isn't a race, but a slow, calculated process of building a quality one-to-one relationship and selecting the right vehicle to meet the customer's wants and needs,” he says.

Adds Crawford, “Normally this is not the way the customer will want to be handled, so it's our job to sell the customer on the benefit of doing it that way.”

Those benefits include saving time and energy. Walking the lot looking for the “right” vehicle gets confusing even for the salesperson. Crawford says qualifying at the desk first where you and your customer make sure the first vehicle selected is the only vehicle selected can eliminate this confusion.

Closing the deal

Spending the right time on vehicle selection — about an hour — means having to spend less time on price negotiation, which most customers dislike.

Says Tarczon, the Ford dealership sales manager, “The sales process encompasses more than price and we lose CSI and profit the longer we negotiate. We can't sell a customer something he doesn't want. He might buy the vehicle, but if it's not the right color or doesn't have the right features he's not going to be willing to pay as much for it, and the more you are going to have to negotiate for what you get.

“The customers who allow you to make money on the deal are the customers who'll refer business to you because you had something more in common with them than just price.”

As the sales associate, your freedom to set or adjust price may be limited by management policy, but you are in full control of the selection process.

When you work the selection phase properly before you talk price, you'll build your customer's excitement for their new vehicle — and you'll put more commission dollars in your pocket.


Jim Leman writes about automotive retail from Grayslake, IL. He also publishes a newsletter for owners of 1946 to 1949 Plymouth automobiles. He's at jleman@interaccess.com.