On a busy, year-end-sales Saturday, I took a brief moment (between a pair of customer TOs) to bask in the glory of a showroom full of customers. This was one of those no-time-for-lunch days that every true car guy (or gal) hopes for. At every desk a salesman, with every salesman a customer. These dream days can make an entire month. As I stood there I thought, “Man, if every day could be like today …”

But every day is not a year-end-sales Saturday. In fact, there are many days when even a passing tumbleweed would be a welcome sight if for no other reason than to prove that time was not actually standing still. We’ve all had those days. Lot traffic is nonexistent and there seems to be no sign of activity anywhere in the dealership. These are the times that try a salesperson’s soul — that is, this downtime that seems to be such a big part of our sales team’s workday.

Our job as managers is to teach our sales teams how to use this time for something productive. A good manager will not just give orders to “Straighten up that line of used cars!” or “Get on the phones and call some people!” The best managers have a plan in place to make this in-between-customer time productive. Here are five steps you can take today to ensure you do:

Step 1: Make a List
The most profitable use of downtime is spent on the phones setting appointments. The old-timers tell me of a time when they would sit and go through page after page of a phonebook making cold-calls. Thankfully, those days are gone.

In this era of big data, our CRM is a treasure trove of information that we collect from our customers at the time of sale. This data can be mined and compiled into specialized lists of potential customers.

For example, create a list of Mustang owners who have had their vehicles for more than three years. It’s time for them to upgrade. So make sure your sales team has a list of current incentives and give them the authority to offer a free tank of gas or something similar if the customer agrees to come in for a test drive. This free offer gives your sales team the ability to offer an actual benefit to the customers they contact.

My favorite list is customers who purchased at least 12 months prior and are paying between 7% to 15% interest. “Mr. Customer, as long as you’ve made on-time payments for the past 12 months, there is a very good chance we can get you approved on a newer vehicle and get you a better interest rate than you are paying now.”

You may even want to sweeten the pot with a $50 spiff for each appointment that shows from the call list? These lists are specific enough that your customers will know that not everyone is getting this call. When the sales message is tailored to the caller, you’ll have a much higher response. Every CRM has the capability to create customized customer lists from collected data. If you don’t know how to do this, contact your CRM rep. He or she can show you how.

You might encounter some initial resistance from your veteran sales staff. But once the old dogs start seeing the traffic the rookies are creating, they’ll quickly get on board. Hey, no experienced salesperson wants to be outsold by the new kid.

Step 2: Work the Service Lane
When it comes to the service drive, I’m as guilty as anyone of overlooking it as a potential source of customers. Why not assign a salesperson to the service lane? He or she can help your service advisors check in and write up customers while starting a conversation about where they are in the trade cycle.

For example: “I see that you’re coming in for an oil change on your 2008 Fusion. Did you know that Ford is actually offering zero percent financing on new Fusion models this month? I’ll be glad to show you some of the changes Ford has made to the Fusion since you bought this one. You’re going to be here for a few minutes anyway, why don’t I pull one around for you?”

If nothing else, this experience will help the sales department understand (and appreciate) some of the difficulties the service department deals with on a daily basis. Don’t be afraid to spiff the salesperson who finds a customer that otherwise wouldn’t have been a customer. A $100 bonus for anyone who converts a service customer into a buyer is a nice incentive, too.

Step 3: Throw a Lot Party
“Lot parties,” the affectionate nickname for times spent rearranging vehicles and tightening up lines, are another great way to make productive use of downtime. For starters, it gets your sales staff out where the customers are. It’s hard to miss a lot “up” when every salesperson is out on the yard. And there’s no better way for your staff to brush up on their inventory knowledge — and compare trim levels — than by being on the lot lining up every model of a particular vehicle side-by-side.

Lot parties are also a good way to make sure that every vehicle will start (don’t forget the jump box) and that your used inventory is not smelly, dirty, dented, or in need of other reconditioning. And, yes, managers, should help out and be involved. This shows the sales staff that no one is above any job at the dealership.

Step 4: Make a Plan
Making profitable use of downtime is not just the responsibility of the sales staff. The management team must also make sure preparations have been made before implementing a comprehensive downtime program.

That means creating call lists ahead of time. They must be targeted, specific, and customer benefit-based. Training sessions also need to be scheduled to cover talking points and word-tracks for each of the call lists created. A list of common objections should also be created for each type of targeted list so the sales team can practice overcoming customer objections.

Training also should focus on how to approach and work service customers. Your sales team’s confidence will be evident to customers if you have adequately prepared them for the conversations you’re asking them to have.

Step 5: Inspect What You Expect
Finally, you must make your downtime expectations clear and provide your sales team with the tools — including lists, training, and word-tracks — to effectively use this time. Once you’ve set the program in motion, you must inspect their work on a regular basis to make sure everyone is performing at an acceptable level. Those who succeed should be praised and those who refuse to work should be disciplined accordingly.

As one of my first managers used to say, “Activity breeds activity.” As long as they were on the clock, he expected every salesperson to be engaged in some kind of action that would lead to their next sale. If you are able to implement some of these changes into your sales team’s daily schedule, you will see results.

You might not turn every day into a year-end-sales Saturday, but who among us couldn’t use a few more sold units on the board and a few less salespeople sitting around waiting for a lot up?

Jordan Coates is a BDC and finance specialist at Deacon Jones Ford-Lincoln in Goldsboro, N.C. Contact him at [email protected].