Honest Abe ... a Car Guy?

Editor's Note: This column is running in recognition of Presidents Day that was commemorated this past Monday. David Walsh will be a featured workshop leader at the upcoming Used Car Manager Conference in April, at which he will focus on overcoming objections and closing sales with confidence. 

We recently paid tribute to two of our great former presidents. Every year on Presidents Day, our nation honors George Washington and Abraham Lincoln for the significant contributions they made to this great country. 

Abraham Lincoln has always fascinated me. Ever wonder what might have become of this country if it were not for his leadership? Ever wonder what he might have done if he had not chosen a career in public service and politics? With the way many people feel about politics, if Lincoln were alive today, I think that he would have chosen a different profession ... I think he would have chosen a career in the automobile industry! Seriously, who wouldn't want to buy a car from "Honest Abe"?

I recently read the book "Lincoln on Leadership," and I am even more convinced that Lincoln's philosophies would have served him well in our industry. In fact, because of his tendency to help those less fortunate, I am almost certain that he would have found a home in the subprime business!

As I continued reading the book, I found myself applying the material to the automotive industry. One of Lincoln's philosophies that I believe is perfect for our industry, whether you're in sales, collections or management is:

"Force is all-conquering, but its victories are short-lived."

Let us begin by first applying this philosophy to sales. When I initially began my career in automotive sales, I was instructed to "control the customer." Somehow, this concept seemed like an unreasonable approach, one that could perhaps produce some victories,  but it was my belief that those victories would be short-lived. 

Since the most successful individuals in our industry have built their success on repeat business and referrals, "controlling the customer" must not - and simply cannot be the goal. It's been my experience that success in sales does not hinge upon controlling the customer. Success in sales is all about controlling the process, and the best way to control the process is by asking high-quality questions. 

With the subprime customer, these questions should include:

—What made you decide to come visit us today?

—How did you finance your last vehicle?

—It's been my experience that customers have three or four things that they need from a vehicle. What might be three or four things that you need from this vehicle?

Selling is not about "conquering" or "controlling" the customer. Selling is about controlling the process through questions; questions that allow us to identify the customer's specific needs so that we can work together to achieve our mutual goals.

In the buy-here, pay-here business, what the customer typically needs is a quality, reliable car that he can drive while we work together to repair his credit. That does make sense, doesn't it?

Now, let us see if Lincoln's philosophy has a place in the collections business. As I was gaining experience in collections, a mentor of mine told me that the skills required of an effective collector were strikingly similar to those of a sales professional. Face it, in the subprime business, a salesperson may have delivered the customer a car, but collectors resell him on that car each time the payment is past due! 

My approach has always been that most customers want to pay, and pay on time; they just need our help to do it. If Lincoln were your collections manager, he would remind you that "force is all-conquering, but its victories are short-lived." It is our job as leaders to teach our collectors what to say and how to respond to stalls and objections. 

The focus of a collections call should be on:

—Urgency.

—Getting the account up-to-date.

—Our desire to work with the customer to find a solution.

Finally, let's apply Lincoln's philosophy to our role as leaders. In the final analysis, leadership is simply motivating people to achieve a common goal. What common goal have you asked your team to achieve?

It has been my experience that too often "managers" rely on intimidation while "leaders" focus on motivation. A cohesive, high-performance team succeeds under the direction of a motivational leader. The best leaders have found that they have gained respect by giving it. All too often, organizations that experience high turnover and low customer loyalty are managed by intimidation and not led by motivation - force is all-conquering, but victories are short-lived.

Lincoln once said, "When the conduct of a man is meant to be influenced, persuasion, kind unassuming persuasion, should ever be adopted." This is another strategy that would have worked in sales, collections and leadership. Lincoln should have been a car guy!  And if he had been, I am convinced that he would have been in the subprime business. 

At CenterOne Financial Services, we leverage more than two decades of experience in the automotive industry. Providing a wealth of knowledge and expertise to our clients through our numerous servicing solutions, we are aware that in today's competitive environment, training in sales, leadership and customer service is crucial to the success of any company. That is why at CenterOne, we focus on influencing the customer's conduct by teaching the "art" of selling and tailoring our training workshops to coach participants on how to gain confidence, overcome objections and define goals - all while enhancing their sales strengths.

CenterOne is a part of JM Family Enterprises Inc., a $9.4 billion diversified automotive company ranked on the Fortune magazine "100 Best Companies to Work For" list for nine consecutive years, and is in the top 10 of InformationWeek 500's list of leading technology innovators, having made the list five years running. 

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