One way to settle a dispute between car salesmen is to take it to a manager. Another way is to take it outside.
Tom Stuker recalls seeing such a car-lot duke-out. “They were arguing over a commission, so they went outside and beat the hell out of each other,” he says.
Well, it makes for good TV anyway. And that works for Stuker, star of an upcoming reality TV series, “Car Lot Cowboy,” in which he transforms troubled dealerships after identifying problems and offering fixes. He prides himself on turning bad stores into good ones, if dealers take his advice.
“So far, we’ve shot eight episodes, four at new-car dealerships and four at used-car stores,” he tells me of the Spike TV show tentatively premiering in early 2012. “The used-car places are probably the most interesting; they had the most issues.”
Like the fistfight at a decidedly dysfunctional dealership.
“They were a couple of punks, kids that had delivered pizzas to the dealer, who somehow thought they’d make good car salesmen,” Stuker says. “I said to him, ‘Tell me about your hiring process.’
“He said, ‘I just have a knack for hiring the right people.’ I’m thinking, ‘You have employees beating on each other in front of customers, and you think you have a knack for hiring?’”
Stuker is a standout guy. He shows up for an interview wearing his signature cowboy hat and boots, a curious get-up considering he’s from Chicago and lives in New Jersey.
He started selling cars at a Buick store at age 21 in 1975. “This was when the average age of a Buick buyer was, like, 83,” he says. “Customers would say, ‘This is the last car I’m buying.’ I’d think, ‘So much for referrals and repeat business.’”
Still, Stuker became salesman of the month right off the bat. His credo: Think like a salesman, don’t act like one.
As a turnaround trainer, he has logged millions of air miles traveling the country since the 1980s.
“The first thing I do when I visit a dealership is assess the salespeople and determine their level of training, or lack of it,” he says. “Sometimes, a dealer will tell me for an hour about all of his staff problems. But much of the time, the dealer is the problem.”
Stuker acknowledges those who claim it takes more than a house call to cure a sick store. “But you can set a foundation and establish a new culture. It may take months to change behavior, but there hasn’t been one dealership where we haven’t made a dramatic changeover.”
Many well-run dealerships don’t need emergency aid from him, his training team or anyone else. Struggling stores do, as evidenced by the TV show.
“In no episode do we try to make people look bad,” he says. “They can do that themselves. One owner did, every time he opened his mouth.
“He had fired all 18 members of his sales staff. He replaced them with five good-looking young women. He called them ‘greeters.’ Their job was to smile and look pretty.” Then two other employees called “closers” were supposed to finalize the deals.
That’s an extreme. Still, most showroom staffers are expected merely to wait on customers who walk in, looking to buy a car, Stuker laments.
Sales performances soar with processes and techniques such as prospecting, a proven but seldom-used way to drum up business, he says.
“The average salesperson only works 23% of the day. I’m not looking for 100%. But if I get 80%, I can make someone a 6-figure earner.”