2020 Auto News Auto Sales USA automobiles

No handshakes. A bad economy. These car salesmen shifted tactics — and succeeded.

GLEN MILLS, Pa. — Mike McVeigh had been selling cars for 16 years — honing skills that he feared were already a lost art — when the virus hit. He was 46 and out of a job. His boss at David Dodge furloughed the sales staff after all nonessential businesses in Pennsylvania closed in late March. McVeigh left the dealership that night, stopping at a Wawa to collect his thoughts and call another salesman, Brad Ross.

“We talked about what we could do just to keep our heads above water,” McVeigh said. “Between us we got eight kids, families to support.”

A month later, he was called back to work. But everything had changed. A once-booming economy was in tatters. Everyone wore masks. The showroom was closed to customers. Test drives were solo affairs. Deals needed to be done mostly online. No one wanted to get too close to anyone.

“If I can’t connect with you, if I can’t do my showmanship, if I can’t see you,” McVeigh said, “I thought I was done.”

The covid-19 pandemic forced tens of millions of people to lose jobs and thousands of businesses to close, including, initially, almost a quarter of all people working for auto dealers. But the workers and companies that survived often discovered it was not back to business as usual.

And that included selling cars — perhaps the ultimate handshake deal in a suddenly socially distanced world.

McVeigh returned to a dealership that had reinvented on the fly, abandoning a formula relied on for decades to lure potential buyers into the showroom and allow the sales staff to work their magic. The pandemic meant even motivated car buyers hesitated to visit the dealership. Zero-percent financing and thousands of dollars in rebates did little to change that. U.S. auto sales fell an estimated 35 percent in the second quarter that ended in June, with a steep decline in the number of people looking to buy, according to Cox Automotive.

Just to survive, car salesmen had to try something new. The dealership started to emphasize online sales and delivering automobiles to customers. That helped find new potential customers and ease some concerns about the pandemic. But the deals still needed to be closed, the paperwork and keys secured in a yellow folder that signified a pending sale. And that’s where McVeigh came in, an old-school salesman with reading glasses trying new ways of making it work wearing a face mask.

“I didn’t know this was even possible,” he said. “But I’m never going back to the old way.”

Now, McVeigh sat at his desk in the center of the showroom on the last day of July. It was crunchtime. The last day of the month was still vital for car sales. Factory rebates usually changed with the calendar. Automakers pegged lucrative sales goals to monthly totals, although some manufacturers, such as Fiat Chrysler — supplier of David Dodge’s vehicles — suspended their incentive programs once the pandemic began and sales started to plummet. Still, every salesman judged his or her success by the month.

“Everyone is on edge,” McVeigh said.

That morning, the dealership’s owner, David Kelleher — known for starring in his own local TV ads — told his managers on a Zoom call to stop worrying about the number of people walking into the showroom. Foot traffic was down since the lockdown — and Pennsylvania’s shutdown of auto dealers had been among the strictest and longest in the nation. Yet sales at David Dodge were up. The days of salesmen living off the front door, as it’s known, were gone.

“It’s not that world anymore,” Kelleher said. “And we’re not going back.”

In the new world, McVeigh sold zero cars in April. But he sold 58 in May — his best month ever — working deals over Zoom and text messages. He used FaceTime to join customers on test drives, since no one wanted to ride in a car with him, even with a mask.

The dealership thrived, too, selling 216 new and used vehicles in May. Sales were even better in June: 253 vehicles.

It was a stunning turnaround from March and April, when state coronavirus restrictions resulted in a $750,000 loss for the dealership. Kelleher furloughed most of his staff, but he kept paying their medical insurance and using a $1.4 million federal Paycheck Protection Program loan to pay them something.

Now, with a salesman’s ingrained optimism, Kelleher hoped to sell 300 vehicles in July — an audacious goal anytime, but especially now. With one day to go, a total of 264 vehicles had been sold.

“Jimmy,” he had said to his longtime sales director, “you don’t have 36 cars in your back pocket today, do you?”

“I don’t know,” replied Jimmy Atkins, “but don’t count me out just yet.”

McVeigh was the dealership’s top salesman. He’d sold 47 vehicles so far in July — despite a 10-day vacation. His goal was to hit 50. Three more to go on the final day. He wrote the names of potential leads on a white legal pad and got to work.

McVeigh believed salesmanship required a certain finesse and ability to instantly connect with people. He liked to pepper potential buyers with questions to keep them engaged. He hunted for common ground. He had a strong “book of business” — contacts throughout the Philadelphia suburbs, mostly blue-collar workers, police and firemen. He’s active on Facebook. He constantly texted on his phone. He made sure that people knew what he did for a living and that he could help them.

“Everyone has that guy,” he said. A car guy. A tire guy. A go-to person for buying something. “I want to be their guy.”

He mentored other salesmen. Three years ago he persuaded Ross — then a police detective who got hurt on the job — to join him. He took Ross under his wing, telling him, “If you can get someone to confess to murder, you can get them to buy a car.”

Ross was sold. Now, McVeigh and Ross, 45, often worked as a team — together they sometimes accounted for a quarter of all vehicles sold at David Dodge.

That morning, Ross had delivered a new $44,000 Jeep Grand Cherokee to a customer, with McVeigh following behind to give him a ride back to the dealership, nearly missing out on a deal of his own.

“I was doing Brad’s dirty work,” McVeigh joked. “He’d do it for me.”

But not every salesman was finding success. McVeigh, from his desk in the center, could sense it — part of the “kill or be killed” nature of commission sales. He saw salesmen who failed to adjust to a new way of selling cars that discouraged face-to-face contact, relied on relationships established before the pandemic and where most of the work was done online.

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