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Selling to the ethnic customer

Tapan Shah walks along the many rows of new cars on the lot at Bill Page Toyota in Falls Church, VA. His eyes wander over the shiny Avalons and Camrys, but he eventually settles his attention on three, nearly identical Corollas.He huddles with friend Arunabha Majumdar, and discusses in the hushed tones of his native Indian language the relative merits of the various options which drive the sticker

Tapan Shah walks along the many rows of new cars on the lot at Bill Page Toyota in Falls Church, VA. His eyes wander over the shiny Avalons and Camrys, but he eventually settles his attention on three, nearly identical Corollas.

He huddles with friend Arunabha Majumdar, and discusses in the hushed tones of his native Indian language the relative merits of the various options which drive the sticker price of a particularly snazzy-looking model to over $16,000.

Standing off to the side, intent but not interfering in the discussions of the potential customer and his confidant, is salesman Darwin Hurtado-Jordan, a native of Bolivia.

With seven years in the auto selling business, Mr. Hurtado-Jordan knows, as country singer Kenny Rogers once sang, "when to hold them and when to fold them." He has no intention of intruding on the discussions unless asked.

"The customer pays for the service you give them," he says. "They don't want to feel pressure," Hurtado-Jordan says. He adds that his selling technique is simple: Give the customers the price. Wait for them to speak. Let them sell themselves.

Paul Cummings, president of Chatt-anooga-based Training Strategies Inc., advises salespeople to "avoid attacking the customer with verbal vomit."

Show interest in customers, he says, and put them at ease, because they're asking themselves three questions:

"Can I trust you? Do you care about me? Are you committed to excellence?"

That's true of customers in general. It's especially true of ethnic customers, who are becoming a growing buying force in the automotive retail industry.

Back at the Page dealership, Mr. Shah comes to a decision. He is interested in a new Corolla with the sticker price totalling a little over $16,000 and would like to sit down with Mr. Hurtado-Jordan to run some numbers.

While they enter the showroom, Mr. Majumdar, who hangs back, is asked why he and his friend went to Page Toyota.

"Darwin is a good salesman...He is helpful, arranged financing for me and tells you the truth," says Mr. Majumdar, a computer professional who has himself bought a car from Hurtado-Jordan, as have several of his friends.

Meanwhile, in a tiny office off the main showroom, Mr. Hurtado-Jordan tries his best to close the deal. "This is my cost. I am charging you just $200 over (dealer invoice)," he says.

With taxes and tags, and a generous $500 Toyota incentive coupon, the price of the car comes down to $15,444. Mr. Shah, a software engineer from Australia, who has recently transferred to a job in Northern Virginia, reveals he has no driver's license at the moment, but plans to take the Department of Motor Vehicles test soon.

Mr. Hurtado-Jordan promises to hold the car for him at that price until the end of the month. He even offers to help Shah study for the DMV written test because, he explains, with a twinkle in his eyes, he is sure he knows exactly what questions to study.

Mr. Shah mumbles something in Indian to his friend Majumdar, they nod knowingly at each other, and he then agrees that he will buy the car at that price as soon as he passes his license exam. The expected purchase will bring to 14 the total number of cars and trucks Mr. Hurtado-Jordan eventually sells that month.

There is the famous Cantina bar scene in the original "Star Wars" movie, where one of the heros, Han Solo, listens to and converses with a creature named Greedo. Although the audience has to rely on subtitles to know what Solo and his adversary are saying, those two main characters, one alien, one human, understand each other perfectly.

Perhaps this is the unusual analogy that strikes one who tries to fathom a dealership's success with attracting business - much of it repeat business -within its ethnically diverse consumer base.

For instance, Page has more than 80 employees in its dealership, whose backgrounds range from Bolivian, Spanish, Ugandan and Korean, to Vietnamese, Jamaican, Afghan and other nationalities.

"Many years ago we realized there was a cross-section of people here in the car -buying public and we needed employees who speak those languages and could blend the customer in with whatever department they are working with," says Raymond Page, a 26-year veteran of the auto business. He's owned Bill Page Toyota for two decades.

"The ability to communicate in a native language helps shorten the buying process", says Qui Nguyen, Page's former general manager and vice president, who now works for an investment advisory firm outside Washington D.C.

The Page dealership sold about 2,000 new and 1,000 used cars in 1998. That makes it the 10th largest Toyota dealership out of 134 in terms of volume in the Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia and Washington, DC Central Atlantic sales region. It is 127th out of 1,200 Toyota dealerships nationwide.

Unlike many of its competitors, Page Toyota does not list its prices in either the Washington Post or the Hispanic, Vietnamese or other community-oriented publications in which it advertises.

Page's ethnic diversity among its sales force results in people in the community to request them when shopping for vehicles, says Mr. Nguyen.

"Foreign-born customers like to speak in their own language, and they don't want to get ripped off," says Mr. Hurtado-Jordan, who now works for another dealership, Ourisman Fairfax Toyota in Fairfax, VA.

The future of selling any products in America may be found in an On-line Certified Financial Planner Biz magazine article aptly entitled "Dynamic Demographics: Ignore These Data and Free-Market Economic Forces Will Crush You."

It notes that "Latinos and Asians will represent more than half of the U.S. population growth every year for the next 50 years" and that "the population of non-Latino whites, presently 75% of all Americans, will shrink to a bare majority by 2050."

Asian-American buying power, it notes, is approaching $100 billion per year.

"Hispanics and Asians have a higher tendency to be loyal to a dealer," says Art Spinella, vice president and general manager of CNW Marketing/Research in Bandon, OR.

He says more than 60% of Asians who are new-car buyers profess loyalty to a specific dealership, compared to only 33% for Caucasians.

"Culturally, once you find someone whom you trust, you stay there," he says.

Brigitte Nguyen (no relation to Qui Nguyen), a pediatrician in private practice in Silver Spring, MD, is part of this emerging demographic sector.

"I am a physician, I don't have time to waste, I only have time to test drive the car," she says of the car buying experience.

Her family bought three cars in six years from Page Toyota, with her first car bought by her father who negotiated the price in Vietnamese with Qui Nguyen.

The Tran, a Washington, DC printer, along with his family and friends, bought 12 cars from Qui Nguyen since the men first met in 1978.

To Mr. Tran, who left Saigon 22 years ago for America, owning a car "means you are a success." When he first went looking for a car, he remembers salesmen who "pushed me too hard and gave me a hard time" because he did not speak English well at that time.

Finally, he made his way to Bill Page Toyota in Falls Church, VA, where he met a young salesman named Qui Nguyen.

"I love Qui, because of the way he manages to deal with people," says Mr. Tran, who speaks to Nguyen in both English and Vietnamese.

"He tells me his price and I go around to other dealers to compare," says Mr. Tran, "and I find he's sincere, so I feel comfortable to deal with him."

This comment brings a smile to Mr. Nguyen, not just because it validates his "relationship selling" philosophy on the sales floor, but also because he knows what it is like to be a stranger in a strange land.

When he was 16, Mr. Nguyen, his mother and three brothers, left Saigon hours before it fell to the North Vietnamese in 1975. The family traveled 17,000 miles, first by ship from Vietnam to Subick Bay in the Philippines, and then by airplane to the U.S., arriving at a military refugee camp in Lebanon, PA.

Speaking mostly French and very little English, the Nguyen family (which now included their uncle and other relatives), were sponsored by and lived in the basement of the home of Adm. Elmo Zumwalt, who knew Mr. Nguyen's uncle, the chief naval officer for South Vietnam.

Mr. Nguyen's family took low-paying jobs to make ends meet. His mother worked as a retail assistant, placing pricing tags on merchandise at Garfinkel's department store, while Qui attended high school, and held down a part-time job washing dishes at a bakery shop.

Mr. Nguyen first attended Northern Virginia Community College ("to get my grades up," he says), in 1978 and then transferred to George Washington University, where he graduated in 1981 with a bachelor's degree in business administration, with finance as a concentration.

Schooling at times was a struggle because of the language and cultural barriers, he says, "but I was proud, because even if I got a C or a B in a subject, it was equivalent to an A for someone born here."

Mr. Nguyen lived in Falls Church in 1981, when he applied for and got a job as a junior salesman at Bill Page Toyota.

He made $26,000 that first year, all on commission, a somewhat remarkable feat given that at the time, interest rates were so high that people were discouraged from buying autos. A succession of promotions and a stint at another dealership in upstate New York followed, along with a wife and four children.

To further his dealership ownership goal, Mr. Nguyen had left Page Toyota to take a job with an Acura dealership in Herndon.

But the desire to get ahead in life provided an even stronger pull. He recently left the auto industry entirely to become vice President of Capital Management in Reston, VA.

TAGS: Dealers Retail
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