It was summer on the lot and hot winds blew between rows of shiny new vehicles.
Despite a gleaming new facility and a much-needed inventory boost, monthly sales lagged badly.
Discontent among the dealership's employees was palpable and revolt (in the form of a mass exodus) was imminent.
Confronted with that, management decided to hire an outside firm to oversee a promotional sale event. As a prelude, “match and win” prize certificates were mailed to thousands of prospects.
Sales people for two weeks were pumped full of optimism about the upcoming event. We were told that as a result of the direct mailings, the lot would be swarming with customers ready to buy.
The outside firm's preparations for the sale certainly seemed to presage success. A tent was erected where free food would be distributed, banners were hung and balloons inflated. The outside consultant had done all the marketing and would orchestrate the event from the showroom.
The consultant delivered a brief pep talk, reminding us how easy it is to sell cars.
“Just put them in the right car,” he said. “You have all this inventory, just identify the customers' needs and match it to the perfect car for them, and it's as good as delivered.”
Certainly this is good advice. But as we soon learned, it was not quite the magical revelation that this Rolex-wearing sage claimed it to be. Yet it succeeded in pumping us up. On Saturday morning we eagerly were ready to shoot fish in a barrel.
True to his words, our consultant had filled the lot with people. Unfortunately none of them seemed to be buyers.
A look at the “match-and-win” certificate-invitation revealed the problem. It promised kids games, hot dogs and a guaranteed cash prize of “up to $5000.” As customers came in, they were ushered to a table where the consultant examined their flier to see how much they had “won.”
Everyone won only the minimum prize, $5. Our consultant would then give them a crisp $5 note and hand them off to a member of the dealership sales force.
So, we were presented with leads who were either angry about coming down to the dealership on a pretense or mildly thrilled about increasing their net worth by $5 (and not really in a financial position to swing a new SUV).
By the end of the weekend, our dreams of selling five or more cars each were gone with the wind. It was clear that the promotion had been engineered only to get people in the door, regardless of their buying intentions.
We trudged to the post-sale “debriefing” where our assistant sales manager ominously told us: “You guys had better think up some excuses for why this thing didn't work, because when the owner asks the consultant that question the answer is going to be that you guys dropped the ball.”
The consultant didn't have much to say to us. His attitude indeed seemed to be that he had brought in leads, and we had failed to convert them into sales. Yet anyone who had been on the floor that weekend could see the sales event was flawed, not us. Luckily, the owner seemed to get this.
To add insult to injury, the failed sale and its hoopla made transacting regular dealership business and customer interaction that much more difficult.
Despite the event's inability to create real buyers, it did drive traffic to the dealership and create employee enthusiasm, however short-lived. Had it delivered on its sales promises it would have been a smashing success.
As it was, the desperation felt by the sales staff was exceeded only by that of our general manager, who was in the unenviable position of having spent several thousands of dollars on a sale that didn't sell any cars.
Jesse Berger, a recent politicial science graduate of American University in Washington D.C., worked summers as a sales consultant at a New England dealership.