The First 5 Minutes: Crushing Auto Industry Stereotypes

I’ve spent the past 12 years in the car business. I spent my first year and a half as a salesperson, and the final 10 in various managerial roles, ultimately ending my career as a General Manager and Partner of a Kia dealership in North County San Diego. I learned a ton in this business: how to sell, yes, but more than that, how to connect with people. I had previously spent about 15 years in ministry and that was all about connecting with people as well, but it was a bit more canned, or unnatural, if you will. Meeting with people at a church building or over coffee (because they came to church) always felt a bit contrived.  The car business puts people in front of you that automatically think the worst of you, and you have to connect…fast!

Honestly, one of the things I love most about the car business is the constant influx of new faces and personalities, all coming in with great fear and trepidation in their hearts. I felt it was my job to show them a real and honest person; a person who really wanted to take care of them and their family. Once people understood that, lifelong relationships were built because they wanted to buy a car.

I wasn’t the greatest salesperson in my company – not by a long shot. My friend Jorge, now he’s a salesman!  We would battle every month for salesperson (sales “man” back then) and it always came down to the last day of the month where I would eek out a win. Every month except one (that’s another story) I was salesperson of the month for our company. I’m pretty proud of that, not because I was the best salesperson, but because of how I did it.


I found out pretty quickly that the people coming into the dealership every day were coming in with certain (low) expectations.


Sure they wanted to test drive a car and hopefully find one that they liked, but their biggest expectation was that they were going to have one of the worst experiences of their lives. Studies have shown that buying a vehicle from a salesperson is one of the most dreaded experiences a person can think of doing. The reason for this is because of the kind of people that most people experience when they first drive into the dealership – the vultures.

You know the feeling. You pull into that dealership and there they are – the vultures. The salespeople are all there sitting on the hoods of cars or leaning against the building, and when you pull on the lot they come to life. You can see them vying for position and finally the lead-vulture moves to the front, sunglasses, greasy hair and all, and you’re his. You almost want to just hit the accelerator and just forget the whole thing, but your 190,000 mile Toyota Camry doesn’t have anything more to give. You’re his, and you know it. You pull into the parking place and open the door. Your worst nightmare has begun….

Okay, so maybe not that dramatic. But it’s something like that, right? Once I learned that most people are expecting that kind of salesperson, I leveraged it to my benefit. I naturally am a people person, and I’m an honest guy and a great listener. (My momma raised me right!)  All those qualities are sweet music to a customer pulling into a car dealership.


I knew that if I could just show them who I really was in the first 5 minutes, they would realize that they haven’t met anyone like me in all their car shopping experiences.


Or, if I was their first experience of the day, I knew that they wouldn’t meet anyone like me at any other dealership. Not because I was anything special, but because most dealerships aren’t filled with this kind of person. I learned quickly that people buy because of or in spite of their salesperson. I was going to be the cause.

This approach caused me to have a lot of success not only as a salesperson, but it was what got me promoted to management, and ultimately got me running my own store. Of course there was a lot of knowledge and expertise that was learned over the years as well, but that’s the common denominator everywhere.  

Most dealerships have smart people running their stores. Most have competitive prices. Most have good processes in place to take a customer from a shopper to a buyer. What most places don’t have is people on their front lines who know the value of a great customer experience, or if they do, they don’t know how to implement it.

What I’ve found over the past 12 years is that most dealerships don’t value culture. I know this because of where most dealerships spend their money, and  you spend money on what you value. Sure they may have a great story – “family owned and operated”  or -“hassle free car buying” – but they have no idea how to get that story into the minds and hearts of their frontline people.  

As a GM, I would routinely spend $50,000 – 75,000 per month on advertising. I know dealers that spend almost three times that amount every month, but spend nothing on creating a better culture in their stores. A GM’s biggest fear is not, “what if my advertising doesn’t work?” Their fear is, “what if it does?” The reason they have this fear is because deep down they know that customer is going to have to go through their frontline people in order to do business with them, and you just can’t be sure what those frontline people are saying in those first 5 minutes. Those first 5 minutes are the most critical in any business. In those 5 minutes your customer is deciding whether or not to do business with you. They are judging you. They are judging your people.


How confident are you that your people are telling your company’s story the way you would?


I’ve shared this exact fear in video format on my Facebook page, and I can’t tell you how many people in the car business have reacted to it. It’s like we finally have a face to our fear. It’s not about the money or the method of spending it to get people to do business with you. It’s about the person they encounter when they get there. It’s about the culture that you’ve created days, weeks, months, even years before that customer ever decides to drive in. That’s what makes the difference, and it’s why I’m convinced that more and more dealers are losing customers. It’s not so much about the process. It’s about the experience that customer gets in the first 5 minutes.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m a big believer in advertising and sales and service processes that get the frontline people doing the same thing each and every time. Those are definitely best practices, and the stores with the best practices are the stores that win. But I’m a bigger believer in getting those frontline people saying the same thing every time; telling the same story. With more and more dealers developing great processes, the differentiator is going to be the people and the experience. Sure, the coffee, snacks  and the free wifi are important, but not what’s most important. What’s most important is the common language, the common story being told, the culture that’s experienced. Want to be the dealership that defies the stereotype and creates return customers and endless referrals? Focus on that.

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