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Dear Dealer

An Open Letter To Dealers In A Declining Market.

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The following is based on an actual letter that I wrote to a dealer after we’d done a four-day dealership assessment. The names have been changed to protect the innocent; however, since writing it, I’ve found that many of the things I wrote about are common issues for many dealers — not just the struggling ones! I thought I’d share this with you in the hopes that you could use it as a bit of a yardstick against which you might measure some of your own challenges.

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Dear Dealer,

I’m pleasantly surprised to have found you so eager and willing to make the journey to become a non-traditional dealer. By non-traditional, I mean that most dealers in this day and age are content to take what the market gives them. If the market is off, then my business is off.

I approached the retired Ford dealer in my hometown for a friend who wanted to open an import dealership the former car facility. The old guy’s answer opened my eyes to the possibility that he wasn’t very far from commonplace. He said, "I’d open a Harley dealership as long as I didn’t have to #&@$ with selling bikes."

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You need a sales manager. Your guy is a good man. I like him, but he is not a sales manager. I see people diligently carving out a place for themselves in companies all the time as a substitute for performance-based job security. He has done so very carefully. Most of why you’ve sold all of the bikes you ever had in stock can be attributed to the OEM … not to your guy.

Sadly enough, he isn’t even a salesperson. To say that he’s an "order taker" — a term you’ve surely heard before — would be only slightly more accurate and speaks just to the symptoms of what’s wrong, not to the problem. It’s as much your sales manager as it is the fact that it’s just been so damned easy to sell these things for the past 15 years that nobody has had to learn any selling skills to be successful.

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And what you call a "sales process" is, at best, merely accommodating people who’ve already decided to buy before walking through the door; people who have already made their buying decision … but that’s not selling. Friendly and accommodating people are easy to buy from if you’re a customer who likes driving the purchasing process, but not if you’re like most people in this world.

Buying a motorcycle carries with it a huge emotional component and therefore things like feeling guilty for buying a $12,000 toy when the grandkids could use Christmas presents enter into the minds of our customers. You have to ask for the sale from the people who want our stuff. Let’s not confuse the people who come in wanting one with the people who come in on a mission to take one home today at any cost. We’re used to getting the people we can’t stop from buying. Heck, it’s kinda hard to screw up with them.

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The ones you’re missing, the ones who are the most satisfied customers when you manage to somehow help them through the maze of guilt they carry, don’t respond to accommodating people. They respond to someone who drives the issue and assertively, proactively helps them achieve their goal of buying a bike. The way most dealers sell product could easily be replicated with a brochure and a giant vending machine. They simply answer the questions that are in the brochure and wait for the customer to ask if they can have the bike.

I’ll finish this painful part of the exercise with a single, direct and not-so-profound summarizing phrase: You’ve probably got a pretty typical sales department.

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Through the fog of unknown factors, I see the potential to sell more units. With constant refinement and support of the sales process eventually allowing a procedurally oriented mindset to be infused into the dealership to the point that it becomes culture, I see potential for really great numbers.

In terms of profitability, I see a tough road ahead for all dealers as the market tips the scale between supply and demand. Without having the luxury of lobster-esque market pricing, dealers will have to increase both volume and efficiency in order to remain profitable.

A friend of mine asked if the bottom would drop out. I replied that I believe for most dealers, it will. But as long as you know how to sell, as opposed to just taking orders, you’ll not only survive any projected tough times, but you’ll flourish at the expense of the other dealers who can’t make enough profit by attempting to exist without a real sales process.

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Dealers tell me that the most difficult thing to do is "find" good salespeople. The good news is that once you have a manageable sales process in place, a good salesperson becomes the easiest thing in the world to duplicate! Once you reach that point, you’ll no longer be a hostage to your sales staff. Bill Cosby used to say that if he or his brother ever tested the patience of their father, Dad would put things in perspective for them by telling them, "Now listen kid … I brought you into this world, and I’ll take you out! It don’t matter to me either, ’cause I’ll make another one that looks just like you!"

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Once you have true ownership of the system, you have the luxury of adding sales staff as needed and removing them if they don’t comply. As a sales manager, I was never held hostage to non-compliant sales staff. I simply made another one that looked just like ’em.

True motorcycle sales training can only "stick" after the dealership recognizes and understands two crucial things: 1) what we’re selling and 2) who’s buying it. This stuff sells itself, but everybody needs help with the decision to buy it. Features, the kind found in product brochures, sell microwave ovens. Emotion sells our stuff.

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We can’t approach anything we do with traditional selling methods because of this fundamental difference. Targeted sales training addresses these two factors. Here is another slightly deeper thought; you’ve gotta have a process in place designed to assertively and proactively help the customer pull the trigger. Doing that, and nothing else, will make you good. To be great however, and in ultimate control of your showroom, you’ve gotta make sure to design the needed tools in to the process to measure, monitor and maintain it.

When all is said and done, the question becomes, what will you do in this next phase of the market? Will you drive and thereby determine the results you get, or will you allow the market to drive and thereby determine your results? Most of the dealers we work with are having success even as the market declines, not because they work with us, but because proactive dealers do something (such as work with someone) to help them make a difference.

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Go into this new market with a purpose and a plan. Tell your manufacturers that you’re going to determine your own order and not necessarily let them dictate it. Get into the used bike business. Join a 20 group. Get training for your team.

Learn to lead your team instead of mandating or controlling them. Marv Levy, the coach of the Buffalo Bills football team that went to four consecutive Superbowls, said "Great leaders don’t get people to follow them; they get people to join them."

Be a great leader. I dare you.

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