Courtesy of iStockPhoto.

Courtesy of iStockPhoto.

The sales profession is always changing. One constant is that prospects still buy what they want, not what they need. Our job as salespeople is to make them want what we are selling. If it was easy, we would have been replaced with vending machines long ago.

Stationed Overseas

It was 1976 and I was working at my very first automobile sales job since my six-year stint in the Army ended five months earlier. It was a very unique job, certainly not like any other job I would have in the 39 years since. You see, I was special-ordering Chrysler vehicles for servicemen and -women who were stationed on Okinawa Island, south of Japan.

I was one of five representatives of Chrysler Military Sales Corp. stationed in offices around the small island. The concept was that the Big Four domestic manufacturers (remember AMC?) would allow the servicemen stationed at various duty stations overseas to order vehicles at a “no-haggle” military discount and pick them up from a specified dealer as a courtesy delivery when they returned stateside (or “back to the world,” as we called it).

It was a typical rainy afternoon in the tropics. The General Motors guy had already closed his office and gone home. He could make a good living just selling Corvettes to military officers, but there were none in sight that day.

The Ford guy was deep into his paperback. I kept him supplied with books so he would be too busy to actually speak with prospects. The poor AMC guy was stuck trying to sell cars like the Gremlin, which was rumored to have been literally, and appropriately, sketched out on an air sickness bag by its designer.

So that left me, the Chrysler guy, sitting there shooting the nonexistent breeze with my country manager, who never did anything, whether it was raining or not. My 10-foot-by-10-foot, sparsely appointed office was in a portable building outside the largest military post exchange on the island. I earned that coveted location by being the top producer.

My bored manager and I were alternately fantasizing about how we could actually kill our competition without getting caught and discussing the definition of “fine Corinthian leather” when a young Marine sergeant stuck his head in my door. His first words convinced me that he definitely was not from that oxymoronically named department called Military Intelligence.

“Do you carry Mustangs?” he asked.

Since we didn’t have inventory, we had to have a lot of pictures. So my walls were plastered with posters of the latest Chryslers, Dodges, Travco van conversions and, yes, even Plymouth products. So you can imagine my answer.

“Are you looking for a Mustang, Sarge?” I asked. He said he was, so of course I invited him in and offered him a cup of coffee. He shared with me that he had his $500 deposit in his pocket and he was a short-timer, 88 days and a wakeup until he returned home to North Carolina.

I asked him what it was about the Mustang that most intrigued him. He said it was the sporty styling. Armed with that information and the answers to a few more open-ended questions, I projected him 90 days into the future. “Sarge,” I said, “I bet you can just picture you and your best girl coming out of the house the first morning you’re back in the world and seeing the car of your dreams waiting for you in the driveway.” I swear he was salivating.

So as I pulled out a brochure and order form for the 1977 Dodge Aspen R/T and said, “Let me show you something.” There on the cover was a shot of the most beautiful pre-Daimler, black-with-red-stripes R/T you could imagine.

“It doesn’t look like a Mustang,” the sarge said. 

“I can certainly understand why you’d say that,” I replied. “Would you like to keep the white interior you see in the picture? After all, it gets pretty warm in North Carolina, and a darker color wouldn’t reflect the heat as well.” He said he liked the white interior (for which an untold number of Naugas had to give up their hides) and the paint job. We moved onto the transmission and he selected the sporty three-on-the-floor version.

As the 88 days had passed, I anxiously watched my delivery list. Like most of my future jobs, I was only paid a commission after the vehicle was delivered. The servicemen could always refuse delivery — right up to last day — and get their deposit back. But, sure enough, the sergeant picked up his dream car as scheduled.

Adapt and Survive

There are at least three sales morals to this little tale that are still very true today. First, many times customers think they are a shopping for a particular item with specific features. However, just like the sarge, what they are really searching for are the benefits they think those features will provide. The dominant benefit that he was searching for was the sporty styling that would impress his girl and his buddies back home.

I was able to uncover what he really wanted by asking open-ended questions. That’s the second point. As a salesperson, you can’t learn anything when you are talking. Asking questions gets the customer talking. But you still have to listen to the answers.

Pictured here is the brochure for the 1977 Dodge Aspen R/T, the same vehicle the author sold to a young Marine sergeant 40 years ago while serving as a sales representative for Chrysler Military Sales Corp. on Okinawa Island, south of Japan.

Pictured here is the brochure for the 1977 Dodge Aspen R/T, the same vehicle the author sold to a young Marine sergeant 40 years ago while serving as a sales representative for Chrysler Military Sales Corp. on Okinawa Island, south of Japan.

Many salespeople ask questions, then patiently wait for the noise to stop coming out of the prospect’s mouth. That’s their cue to start talking again, not having heard a word the customer said.

The third moral is this: Anytime you can project your prospect into the future, enjoying the benefits of your product or service, you are on your way to a sale.

Since I didn’t sell Mustangs, I had to show the sarge how the product I had would fulfill his dreams. This feat had to be accomplished while keeping my integrity intact. I never told him it was a Mustang, and I didn’t make the future, or the dream, too specific. I didn’t say “Your gorgeous blonde girlfriend” or “Your chromium yellow Mustang.” Although it is difficult to fathom, either of those statements may have turned him off and brought him out of the ether. He filled in the details in the theatre of his mind. All that was left for me to do was insert the Aspen R/T into his dream.

I’m sure he left my office on cloud nine and that night showed the brochure to all his buddies in the barracks. In fact, I seem to remember some of his Marine buddies stopping by, sticking their head in my door and asking, “Do you sell Aspen R/Ts?” Of course, by now, you know my answer. “Are you looking for an Aspen R/T?”

George Spatt is the owner of GEMS, an F&I agency, and a 40-year automotive industry veteran. Contact him at [email protected].