We just went through the joyful experience of purchasing a new car for my wife. In the process, we were reminded of some very important lessons about the way to sell — and the things not to do in the selling process.

The most important lesson about which we were reminded is the necessity for a salesperson to listen. I don’t mean act like you’re listening; I mean really listening to the customer to hear what his or her desires and needs are in the purchase.

The Process Begins

Our automobile salesperson was obviously never given that important advice. We were purchasing a minivan. My wife has had four minivans already, so we have a good idea exactly what we want. Most of our needs and desires are met by the standard upgrade package available.

There were only two other specific requests she had for her car. The first was a sunroof — an easily available option. As for the other, she didn’t want one particular brand of tires. She has heard the negative PR, and says she doesn’t want to drive our two grandkids around on tires that may blow out.

Whether the salesperson or I agreed with the rationale or not is insignificant; the fact is, the customer was very clear in her desires. The salesperson responded that the model we were ordering could come with any of three makes of tires, including the wrong one. We said again, “Just make sure it’s one of the other two.” He said, “Yeah, sure, I’ll take care of it.”

This is the key point. He responded, but he didn’t hear that this was a make-or-break situation as far as the customer was concerned. About seven weeks later, when he called to say the car had arrived, my only questions were “Does it have a sunroof?” and “Does it have the right tires?” He replied, “Yes, I checked. It does have a sunroof and — oh, I didn’t check the tires, but I’ll make sure everything’s OK.”

I should have known from that response where this was headed.

We arranged to pick up the car, but immediately we realized it had the wrong tires. The salesperson’s excuse was that he had checked all the vehicles on the lot and they all had the wrong brand of tires, so there was nothing he could do.

I suggested there was a tire store down the street that had a number of other brands that would be acceptable. Since we know the dealership owner and have bought several cars from him, we asked to see him.

The salesperson made another major mistake at this point. He brought out his “sales manager,” who seemed even less cooperative. The sales manager told us it would cost $600 to change the tires, and he expected us to pay. When I said they could keep the car and started to leave, they conferred and the sales manager reluctantly said the dealership would change them.

Lessons Learned

So what are the lessons the salesperson should have learned?

  • Listen, listen, listen.

  • Know what the hot buttons are for your buyer and respect them.

  • When the buyer repeats their desire, as I did by calling, make sure you have heard them.

  • When a mistake happens, step up to the plate, admit it, and agree to correct it quickly.

    What should have happened is this: When the salesperson called to say the car was in, he should have said, “I’m sorry we have no control over the manufacturer and the car has the wrong tires. However, we will get them changed and have the car ready for you tomorrow.”

    Were they really going to be out $600? Of course not. They would simply have been out a little labor to change the tires, and they would have owned a brand new set of tires from their manufacturer.

    Instead, as it ended up, they inconvenienced us, upset my wife, and lost a future customer. What’s worse, I told probably 30 people about our experience.

    So please do as I did when I got back to the office. Tell your salespeople to listen and respect the desires of the customer to help make sure he or she becomes a satisfied buyer.

    Guest columnist Butch Welsch operates Welsch Heating & Cooling in St. Louis. He can be reached by e-mail at Welsch1@primary.net.

    Publication date: 09/01/2003