John Honiotes has spent a career in the auto industry, first as a dealer, now as vice president of auto operations for Autobytel. His business roots go back to working at his family's grocery store some 40 years ago in Joliet, IL.

There, Honiotes learned about keeping customers happy and, thus, keeping customers — sometimes at a cost, but at a relatively small one compared to the repeat business it brings in.

That's reflected in a story Honiotes, 55, tells about working as a kid at Honiotes Bros. Supermarket which his dad and five uncles owned.

“My uncle Nick was pretty gruff. But he believed deeply in customer satisfaction. One day, my brother Jimmy, who also worked at the store, told my uncle, ‘There's a lady out front who says she bought a bad watermelon and wants a new one.’

“Uncle Nick said, ‘Then give her a (expletive) new watermelon.’

“A couple of minutes later Jimmy returned and said, ‘On the watermelon is a sticker from another store.’

“My uncle said, ‘Give her a (expletive) watermelon!’

“My brother left, thought about it, turned around and asked, ‘Why should we replace a watermelon she bought at another store?’

“My uncle said, ‘Because from now on, where the hell do you think she'll buy watermelons?’”

That planted a seed (not a watermelon's) in Honiotes' young mind. It's grown into a business philosophy.

It taught him that it's advantageous to establish long-term customer relationships, not by giving the store away, but by giving away an occasional watermelon. Even if you don't have to.

Honiotes took that approach while running Cadillac, Dodge and Nissan dealerships in metropolitan Chicago. He recalls when one customer of John Honiotes Cadillac bought a new car, shortly afterwards headed out on a trip and experienced serious transmission trouble more than 100 miles away.

“The customer called me from a local service station. He put the owner on the line. The owner told me, ‘This is a brand new model; we don't know how to fix it.’

“So I said, ‘Look, if I send a couple of my service technicians out there, and paid you for them to use your garage, can they fix the car there?’

“He agreed. I sent out two of my best mechanics in a truck filled with various transmission parts. I didn't want them to get there and discover they didn't have the right part. I also sent them with a pocketful of cash because the garage owner wouldn't take a credit card. They fixed the car. The customer was happy as hell.”

Who do you think that customer bought his next Cadillac from?

Sometimes quick-thinking friendly persuasion can help a dealer, especially if you don't have the right car in stock, says Honiotes.

He recalls when friends of his father, Tony Trizna and his wife, showed up at the Cadillac dealership. They announced he was retiring and she wanted a new white Cadillac.

Problem was, no white ones were on the lot. But a beautiful black one had just arrived.

“So I told Mr. Trizna, ‘Everybody knows the most beautiful clean Cadillac is black. With you retiring, you'll have plenty of time to keep it clean. Let's go for a ride.’ After that, we cut our deal, and they agreed to return the next morning to pick up their new car.”

That day the shiny black Cadillac was parked in a prominent spot. The Triznas agreed it was gorgeous. They went with the sales manager to complete the transaction. Fifteen minutes later, Honiotes was paged to the finance office.

“When I got there, Mr. Trizna was holding a pen poised over a check. He looked up and said, ‘John, we love our new car, but for the life of us, we can't remember why we're buying a black one.’”

Reminded, he said, “Oh yeah, yeah, yeah. Thanks.” Then he signed the check.