At Saturn of Ventura in Ventura, Calif., every day begins the same way for special finance director Carmellina Smith. “In the morning, I need fifteen minutes to just settle, have my coffee and my doughnut and read my horoscope,” she says. “I’ve tried different ways to get started. It didn’t work.”

After that, there’s no telling where the day will take her. As a member of the Leo Bunnin family of General Motors dealerships, Smith is part of a new- and used-car sales force that prides itself on more than just closing deals. General manager Mark R. Berman wants to be sure that each customer receives the respect and fair treatment they deserve. Going the extra mile helped his dealership earn GM’s Standard for Excellence (SFE) distinction.

“Carmen treats each subprime customer like a doctor or a CEO,” Berman says. “They walk away feeling special. She gives the customer something they didn’t think they had coming.”

Making the most of subprime

For her part, Smith says she enjoys working with credit-challenged buyers. “I was doing regular F&I for 22 years,” she says, “and I was so bored! I would sit there, write my deal … I had to get out of there.” When Berman, a longtime associate, asked Smith to help build up special finance sales at Saturn of Ventura, she accepted the challenge. “It feels so good to help people re-establish their credit,” Smith says. “When they first come in, I don’t know if I have a deal. Mark has given me a lot of latitude to get that deal done.”

“We get excited about selling cars,” Berman says. “Right now, nobody’s paying cash. Somebody with an open foreclosure, that’s tough to deal with. But we’re up 70 percent over last year. Why? It’s our location, our new facility, and Carmen.”

“You have to do the interview,” Smith says. “You have to do the work up front. It’s all about completing the application. If they have the down payment, the work history, if they’re saying the right things, maybe we can find a way. If they say they have $500 to put down, I say, ‘When can you get another $500?’”

Sales force

For a high-volume dealership, Saturn of Ventura has preserved the personal touch. Berman’s staff sends the daily sales reports to owner Leo Bunnin by fax. “He still reviews the reports from each location, at home, for three or four hours every day,” Berman says. He attributes the group’s focus on customer and community service to Bunnin’s leadership. “He’s a hands-on guy, a third-generation dealer, and his 600 or so used cars are still his baby.”

Like any other management team, Berman and Smith are constantly on the lookout for new ways to bring in business. “We’re working on our Website,” Smith says. “We’re testing four different lead-generation providers. Mark was willing to spend the money and we’re beginning to see which leads are producing closed deals.”

Matching those leads with the right vehicle helps. That’s partly the responsibility of Smith’s assistant, Ralph Encinas. When a new lead or prospect walks in, Ralph pre-screens them before introducing them to Carmellina. While she and the customer discuss the finer points of their credit history, he and General Sales Manager J.C. Gomez study the inventory, looking for a match. Encinas will then take the customer onto the lot while she prepares their application, and, hopefully, an approval will be waiting when he and the customer return. The tag-team approach works, even when a buyer shows up with a specific car or truck in mind.

“The typical Saturn customer has done their homework,” Smith says. “They’ve educated themselves. They know we offer an excellent product, and they’re willing to spend an hour in the sales department.”

As more and more buyers begin the acquisition process online, the well-informed customer may soon become the standard. No problem, according to Berman.

“Education has not hurt the business,” he says. “We’ll still look at the prior year and try to do better.”