Here at Edmunds.com, we've done our share of bashing car salesmen. Yet, we can't escape the fact that we really need car salesmen. Good ones, that is. So here is a column about one of the good ones, a salesman who not only excels at what he does, but does it the right way — by making friends.
I was invited to give a speech at an event in Honolulu attended by car salespeople from all over Hawaii. Martin Buckminster, president of International Resource & Educational Academy of Learning, Inc., who organized the event, had read my series, Confessions of a Car Salesman, and wanted me to speak about being an undercover car salesman. The series of articles had appeared under a pen name, Chandler Phillips, and I was nervous about being identified as the author of a piece that was not going to be popular with those attending the seminar. Still, I felt I had a lot of valuable insights to share (and let's be honest, the fact that it was being held in Hawaii closed the deal).
When I got there, I found I was definitely outranked in the experience department. The other speakers in the event were all superstar car salesmen — the kind of guys I hope I never run into on a car lot. If I did, I'd probably wind up buying a car from them — then regret it later.
But one of the guys there was a Chevy salesman, a guy who had something special. His name was Mark Michalek, and I would definitely buy a car from him. The difference is, I'd probably enjoy buying the car from him. And I'd like him even after I bought the car and paid, maybe, a little more than I would if I'd bought it from another salesperson.
What's his secret? Why is he different from the other high-energy, in-your-face superstar salespeople? In his two-hour speech, packed with information that the audience soaked up like sponges, I found this nugget of wisdom: "I don't think of myself as a car salesman," Michalek said. "I'm out there making friends. My philosophy is this: Make a friend, sell a car, make money."
Under the heading of "Justice in the Universe," you could say that nice guys sometimes do finish first. Michalek is, by some estimates, the number one car salesman in the nation. Last year, he sold an astounding 411 cars at Don Allen Chevrolet in Pittsburgh. A General Motors dealer publication listed his Chevy sales alone as making him the Number 1 salesperson nationwide. (Of course, since the conference was held in Hawaii that would actually make him the "Big Kahuna.")
Naturally, the gathered salespeople wanted to know what separated Michalek from the rest of the pack. Typically, car salespeople will sell between 10 and 15 cars a month. Michalek sells an average of 37 cars each month. On his best day, last June, he sold 13 cars.
Michalek, 36, a broad-shouldered man who used to work as a bouncer, didn't have a quick or easy answer for why he's the best. He said a reporter from a Pittsburgh paper kept asking him for his secret. "Finally, I told her that I had this powder in my desk. I just take out some of this magic dust and sprinkle it on my customer — and they buy the car!"
The real answer to Michalek's remarkable record is organization, hard work and dedication. He started selling cars at Don Allen back in 1990, and he has been there ever since. This means he has a huge list of potential referrals to draw customers from. He stays in touch with the 3,450 customers he has sold cars to. These previous customers steadily send him new customers, and he rewards them with a "bird dog" fee.
"I give out my business card and I tell people, 'These are like Vegas chips,'" he said. "'If you send me a customer, I'll pay you a fee,'" of $100.
At one point during his speech, Michalek took a question from a salesman about how to overcome objections from customers on the car lot. "Come on up here!" Michalek said, inviting the man to role-play with him. "We'll do it right here!" Encouraged by the cheers and whistles of the audience, the car salesman played the role of a reluctant customer while Michalek played, well, himself. The hotel conference room in Hawaii was suddenly transformed into a car lot in Pittsburgh. And Michalek used his best lines and his magnetic personality to take this customer from a tire kicker to a buyer.
The first job Michalek had was as a bouncer in a nightclub called Little Vegas in Oakland, Pa. "I worked there until I got my head split open," he says. Still, he learned skills that he uses in selling. "You got a guy that drank too much, and they have an attitude. Naturally you want to give them an attitude back. But you have to quiet people down. Talk quietly and soothe them. If not, you'll have a madman on your hands."
He uses this principle to deal with people who return to the dealership upset about their car. "Don't run and hide," he told the salespeople in Hawaii. "I go full swing at them and say, 'What's the problem?' Maybe you'll have to get them a different mechanic to work on their car. Maybe you'll have to put them in a rental car while the problem is being solved. But people will never forget you taking the extra step to help them out."
Over the last 10 years, Michalek has seen customers becoming more educated by reading information on Web sites like Edmunds.com.
"I don't have a problem with that," he said. "In my eyes that saves time. Because of my reputation, people call me up and say, 'This is what I want, do you have it?' And I make a deal over the phone."
Another component to Michalek's success is his passion for organization. He said he's actually, "lost relationships" because of his anal, neat-freak habits. Still, it pays off. Each year he sends out Christmas cards to his previous customers. One year, when he wasn't able to do this, he got about 70 phone calls from his old customers asking him if he was still working at Don Allen and if he was OK.
I had to phone Michalek for a few follow-up questions after we had both returned from our Hawaiian trip. He told me that, while in Hawaii, he had achieved another goal: He went skydiving for the first time. But now he was back in Pittsburgh, on the lot, doing what he does best — selling cars. The P.A. system crackled in the background, and I heard voices all around him. It sounded like a busy dealership.
I asked him if he had found a new profession in public speaking. "I was nervous," he admitted. "I was more nervous than when I jumped out of that plane. But I was ecstatic. I really enjoy helping other people."
"So, Mark, how's business?" I had to ask.
"I got four cars (sold) yesterday," he said. "And I've sold two today, and it isn't even noon."
I hung up thinking, it must be nice to make so many new friends every day.
To find a dealership that knows how to treat shoppers right, please visit Edmunds.com's Dealer Ratings and Reviews.