Lessons From My Family In The Car Biz

July 7, 2015

The year that I was born, my dad and grandfather opened a car dealership in my hometown in Iowa. Although my grandpa died several years ago, my younger brothers now run Thiel Motors with my dad, and over the years, have grown the business to two locations, added a new showroom for collector cars and expanded sales exponentially online through eBay and other websites.

My dad and grandfather in front of their original car dealership location back in the 1980s.

My dad and grandfather in front of their original car dealership location back in the 1980s.

I did not follow in the family footsteps, or I wouldn’t be here at Fast Horse now, though I did spend some time working as an affiliate-relations manager for Cars.com and a community content manager for Edmunds.com. I think my employers were intrigued by my family history in the car biz, though my work was admittedly more about managing accounts and online content than knowing anything about selling or buying cars.

Recently, in the course of conversation, I learned that two of the Fast Horse colleagues with whom I work pretty closely,Scott Broberg and Joe Rstom, each have car-dealer parents. All of us spent time in small-town dealerships growing up, and I can’t help but think that background contributes at least a little bit to each of us finding ourselves at Fast Horse. Here are few lessons I’ve gleaned:

• Just as every customer on the lot requires a personalized sales strategy (assessing needs and helping him or her find the right vehicle), all of our clients’ customers and audiences require a different sales strategy. Marketing is not a one-size-fits-all proposition if you want to be successful and truly help your clients.

• Your work is only as good as your reputation. If you have a reputation for selling lemons or poor service or bilking the elderly at your dealership, the word will get out. If your agency has a reputation for being egotistical, or incommunicative, or sexist — or bilking the elderly, frankly — the word will get out. It’s a small world. You want people to want to want to work with you because they know it’s going to be a great experience.

• So much of what we do is about communication and relationship management. Although car dealers get a bad rap for being slick and ethically questionable, the good ones will maintain that client service – careful listening, being (mostly) transparent and attentive to your customers and showing empathy and giving smart advice – is often the bottom line. This was particularly crucial to small-town car dealers, because you’re serving a population that literally talks to each other all the time about local business. However, in the age of the Internet, it’s even more true. Social media has created a small-town, grapevine-like network that never stops talking and posting, and you want your feedback to be great. This applies to online car buyers, and it applies to agency clients.

• Finally, there’s a thin line between catchy and cheesy: We write taglines, website copy, client presentations, press releases, mass emails for clients. I’m constantly checking my cheese-o-meter. If I catch myself rhyming or adding superfluous exclamation points, I take a step back.

Of course, sometimes both car dealers and creative marketers need to just lean into the cheese. Thus, I present a clip of Don Draper (whom you might know, in his life before Sterling Cooper, sold used cars) do the selling, with a little cheese and a lot of panache: